Special Report (Rural Ireland): Galway spirit shines through

In the second of a five-part series, we visit Cappataggle, Co Galway, where the closure of the post office led one retired schoolteacher to go on hunger strike in protest

It is one of those summer days that defies you to believe it’s not November.

Grey sky, damp earth, rain that only takes a break to allow the drizzle a chance to catch up, cloud so low it’s like a sodden hat.

But on the community sportsfield in Cappataggle, a group of children are creating their own microclimate of colour.

Some 73 of them are gathered there for the GAA Cúl Camp, decked out in helmets in reds, blues, yellows, and greens; boots in luminous orange, lemon, and lime; shirts in every shade of local club and county team.

Lionel Messi even makes an appearance on one small fan, possibly the first time the famous blue and red of Barcelona has gone into battle in the hurling stronghold of East Galway.

The shrieks of the whistles, the roars of the coaches, the clash of the ash, and the breathless shouts and laughs of the children make for a scene awash with vibrancy, energy, and enthusiasm.

Those are qualities that abound in Cappataggle, a village that lies between Ballinasloe and Loughrea, and a community of fewer than 300 households that stretches perhaps to 400 when outlying townlands are included.

Despite its size, it has not only provided and maintained its own sports field, comprising full-size pitch, juvenile pitch, and dressing rooms, but has also added an astroturf, a hurling wall, a playground and a walking circuit, with more amenities planned.

And that’s only the sporting side to the community. In the old schoolhouse that now serves as venue for meetings and social and cultural events and which also houses a small gym, there is rarely a slot in the day or a night in the week when some part of it is not in use.

Dance, drama, Comhaltas, the local heritage group, the senior citizens, parish council, the school, Seachtain na Gaeilge, the GAA, and many others all use it as a base.

The community have had a little help from their local Leader group, Galway Rural Development; a bit from Galway County Council, and a modest amount from the National Lottery, though nothing from that source since 2004. Nonetheless, the facilities in Cappataggle are overwhelmingly a testimony to local, voluntary graft, and imagination.

It is hard to reconcile this version of the community with the Cappataggle deemed unworthy of retaining what was, apart from the national school, its only externally provided amenity, its post office.

On New Year’s Eve, the post office that served the village and surrounding townlands for more than 150 years, shut for the last time.

Its well-known and much-loved postmistress, Christina Dooley, had died suddenly the previous May and within days An Post informed her daughter and willing successor, Caroline Delaney, that the contract was being reviewed.

Children from Cappataggle, Co Galway, and surrounding areas let off steam at the GAA Cúl Camp at the communitybuilt sportsfield, which sometimes even plays host to the county’s senior hurlers.

In October, the closure decision was finalised and despite a concerted local campaign, protest meetings and rallies, and even a brief hunger strike by retired local schoolteacher Michael Kilgannon, a longtime outspoken advocate for rural Ireland, the post office ceased business on December 31.

An integral part of the village’s only shop and pub, which have been in the Dooley family for three generations, its loss threatens their viability too.

Not surprisingly, the move remains a sore point in Cappataggle, which can’t help but feel the powers that be wouldn’t know they existed but for the fact that their name is given to the N6 toll plaza that skirts the village boundary.

“A lot of policy is Dublincentric, or at least city-centric,” says Tomás Finn, secretary of Cappataggle Commuity Association for Recreation and Sport (CARS).

“The closing of the post office would drive me insane. It’s just so shortsighted. It’s driven by corporate policy to basically eliminate 50% of the post offices in Ireland.”

Tomás accepts corporate policy has its place but he says it can’t be the overriding concern with post offices, which should be enshrined in social policy.

Tomás Finn, secretary of CARS, comes from a family steeped in the tradition of community activism. His mother helped found the local ICA and his father set up local marts. Picture: Hany Marzouk

He takes the thumb-tack from a leaflet pinned to the notice board in the old schoolhouse, detailing a voluntary project aimed at providing supports to the depressed and suicidal in East Galway. It looks to have been well read.

“The post office gets people out, meeting other people, having a chat,” he says. “Rural isolation is a real problem but you go out in the morning and chat to other people and it can be as beneficial to you as Prozac. That mightn’t make sense in a corporate view of the world but it makes sense for the country.”

Making sense is something Cappataggle does well. Probably the biggest development in the village’s history came as a result of the local monsignor’s need to escape his “Fr Ted house” and the locals’ hankering after 12 acres of prime parish land on which they envisaged developing a range of community amenities.

Monsignor Edward Stankard, or Ned as he is known, sits in his bright, cosy bungalow, casts an eye out on the old two-storey house he used to call home and chuckles.

“There was dampness in it and it was cold and miserable,” he says. “But you get used to things and I was getting on in years and I would never have thought about building a house myself.”

And then one day he got a knock at the door and Micheal Finn (no relation to Tomás), who would also become a founding member of CARS, and two other neighbours made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“What he needed was a house and what we needed was land so we told him we’d build him a house in return for the land,” says Micheal.

Fr Stankard was immediately keen. “The land was set for grazing so even though it belonged to the parish, the parish as an institution wasn’t using it,” he recalls.

“And strictly speaking, if someone isn’t using their own land, they shouldn’t have it. So I said yes, they said yes and off we went.”

That was in September 2008 and the following July Fr Stankard moved into a house built entirely from local voluntary effort.

“We did it all ourselves. We had the blocklayers, roofers, carpenters, electricians all available locally and all were willing to help,” says Micheal.

“Even down to the people that came with breakfast rolls and sandwiches, it was all voluntary and everyone found something they could do.”

Some people unavoidably had spare time on their hands. The recession was just beginning to bite and the construction industry was grinding to a halt.

The change in fortunes was reflected in the sale of the Fr Ted house, which went on the market in 2008 and only sold in the past year.

It was bought by a woman with strong Irish roots who has relocated from England, a move the community happily accepts as a vote of confidence in the area.

“It’s transformed, by the way,” says Fr Stankard. “I was in there and I didn’t recognise it, the job she’s done on it.”

Others gave their time after their day’s work and set aside their weekends and bank holidays to get the job done. And that, arguably, was the easy part.

Before a foundation could be dug or block laid, a legal entity had to be established, a development plan for the donated land drawn up and, most importantly, funding secured.

A local organisation had been in place since 1994 when they spearheaded the purchase of the community sports field, mainly to host GAA activities and avoid the weekly search for an available field.

But the plans for the 12 acres were far more ambitious and the new organisation, CARS, was formed. Representatives of 18 local voluntary and sporting groups came on board — an indication of the richness of community life in the area.

A 10-year plan was drawn up with the aim of starting work on the astroturf and hurling wall first, followed by new dressing rooms and indoor ball court; a new car park serving all facilities; a playground; and a second full-size playing pitch with a walking track around the perimeter.

The plan was put on paper and delivered to every household, along with a proposal that each commit to contributing €5 per week for three years — a total of €750 each — or whatever amount they could afford.

“We took in over €100,000. This was 2008 remember — not the best of times to go looking for money,” Micheal says. “We also had people who’d gone out of the area but whose parents were still living here signing up. People gave unbelievably.”

They also gave their opinions and said they wanted the playground moved up the priority list and the dressing rooms and car park moved down. CARS was happy to oblige and since the playground opened last year it has proved an extraordinary success.

“I have young kids myself and they used to go into Loughrea to the playground 15 miles away,” says Michael. “Now a lot of kids cycle up there.

“And it’s not just kids from the area. There’s grandkids dropped off at granny and grandad to be minded and they’re brought to the playground and it’s great because it gets everyone out.”

Plans for the walking track also changed and it was developed with some help from the Tus community employment scheme, around the perimeter of the existing full-size pitch.

A€ 5,000 donation from N6 Concession Ltd, the corporate neighbours who operate the toll plaza and maintain the 60km of road between Galway and Ballinasloe, allowed them start putting up lighting around the track so that it can be used at any time, not just when the pitch lights are on, and it’s proving very popular.

“Ironically, for a rural area where it looks like there’s nothing but space, there was nowhere to walk, or at least nowhere safe,” says Micheal.

With two laps of the pitch equating to roughly a kilometre, it’s a good exercise route and gives parents something to do while their children are at training. “Sometimes the solutions are simple,” Micheal says.

Simple doesn’t always mean easy, though.

Despite the generous household contributions, CARS had to take out a loan of €180,000 and run various other fundraisers.

They’ve managed to get the outstanding amount down to €75,000 but need to bring in at least €25,000 a year to make repayments and to pay for insurance, electricity and maintenance.

The astroturf — open and free to all when not booked — provides a regular income, in use for five-a- side soccer for groups coming from Ballinasloe, Loughrea, Athenry, Portumna, and beyond, and the facility is also block-booked for training sessions by various hurling and camogie clubs, even the Galway senior hurlers.

The grass pitches also bring in some revenue but the hurling wall and playground are open to all, so they generate costs without the corresponding income.

And while the efforts in bringing these facilities to Cappataggle are all voluntary, the procedures followed must all be of professional standards.

“Tax clearance, charitable status, bank accounts, land titles, trustees — there’s a very long list of things you have to do before you get to do the things you want to do,” says Tomás.

Even to get the small sums of money available from the likes of Leader and the local authority, the hurdles to clear are exceptionally high.

“You can’t just write a letter saying, we’re nice people — please give us money. The paperwork would drive you insane,” he says.

“I understand where they’re coming from. They’ll say, we’ll have an EU audit and we have to show that absolutely everything is above board, but I think sometimes they forget that we’re volunteers. It’s exhausting and it’s off-putting.”

He had an idea for planting trees and installing benches on the spare land beside the playground but discovered that to apply for a grant, he’d need to produce specially prepared maps, and advice from a professional forester.

“We’d still hope to do it but you could have a few thousand euro gone before a tree was planted,” he says.

The National Lottery-supported Sports Capital Programme, run by the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport, has rejected the last two CARS funding applications.

It makes them wonder about their chances when they go looking for help for the next phase of their plans — the new full-size pitch.

“It makes you think that maybe it’s not a good idea to be too good at doing things for yourself because then you might get no help,” says Micheal.

But is Cappataggle exceptionally good at providing for itself? Fr Stankard, who came here 20 years ago, thinks there is something special about the place.

“There is extraordinary leadership in the place — not just now but over the years,” he says. “No matter what occasion arose, there were people there to take on the challenge and you see, others will follow if they have good leadership.”

It bothers him that places such as Cappataggle are not treated with the respect he believes they deserve.

“When you see the effort people put in, it’s very disheartening,” he says. “But I think people in rural Ireland have become so used to it that they’re going to plough on alone.”

It’s nothing new, he says, pointing out that neighbouring Kilrickle is still on well water 25 years after the village was told it would be connected to a mains supply.

He also recalls his own battle to get an extension to the national school.

“An engineer came down and a department official and they measured the ground and drew the plans,” he says. “That was the year after I came and it took 16 years to come to fruition, with child- ren in prefabs all that time.

“It was as if, if it’s let go long enough, enrolments will fall and we won’t need to build it. It’s as if they were waiting for us to disappear. ”

There is no fear of that at the moment. Cappataggle is lucky in being close to Galway city, where there are reasonable employment opportunities and most residents of working age commute there daily.

“I have 2,022 baptisms in the year — more than the 1415 deaths and about six marriages too,” Fr Stankard says with pride.

“I baptised a baby a few weeks ago and the mother is from Mayo and the father is from Dublin and one’s working in Loughrea and the other in Athlone. That’s the modern family. This place suits them for their work and that’s good for us and we’re very happy to have them.”

Cappataggle may be a modern village but its ethos has deep roots in the past.

Tomás Finn points to a framed photograph in the schoolhouse of his late mother and her fellow founders of the local ICA.

His father was also a community activist before the term was coined, helping found the marts in Ballina-sloe in Loughrea.

Micheal Finn and Monsignor Edward Stankard, the parish priest of Cappataggle, Co Galway. Picture: Hany Marzouk

“I grew up with the whole notion of the cooperative — working together for the common good,” he says.

“And you do it because you’re proud of where you come from and because, why shouldn’t we have facilities as good as anyone else in country?

“Just because you’re rural east Galway doesn’t mean your children aren’t entitled to the same opportunity as any child in Dublin 4.

“You get a great kick out of seeing all the kids running around the pitch, playing out in the astroturf, mixing in the playground, and a great feeling of satisfaction that you could do it. But all we’re doing is following on from what went before.”

Post office closure left community poorer

Caroline O’Doherty

At the centre of Cappataggle, Co Galway, on the closest thing the village has to a main street, Caroline Delaney and her husband Eamon continue to open their shop and what was the post office each day, trying to stock a bit of everything and not too much of anything.

Caroline Dooley , three generations of her family managed the Cappataggle post office, Co Galway, until it was closed permanently. Picture: Hany Marzouk

They got a PostPoint service installed when the post office closed to allow customers pay bills, top up their mobile phone, or buy from a limited range of stamps.

However, it’s a long way from the services that were available at the post office, which was in Caroline’s family from her grandparents’ time and which she still finds hard to believe is gone for good.

“There were little red flags but we thought we’d be okay,” she says of the concerns in recent years about widespread post office closures.

“It was out of the blue, a total shock. Sadly all they’re waiting for is somebody to retire or pass on and in our case that’s what happened.”

Caroline is critical of An Post for not giving her more notice of the closure. She had hoped for at least a year to give her a chance to build up the business and make an economic argument for the post office’s retention, even though she says post offices should never be evaluated on finances alone.

“You’re giving a service that can’t be measured in profit and loss. We had pensioners coming in for 25 years and if Joe Bloggs didn’t turn up for his pension on Friday, you’d contact him or maybe ring a neighbour or go and see are they okay,” she says.

“Bigger post offices won’t have that relationship with their customers and, for people living on their own, they’ve lost that little outlet and that bit of security as well.

“It’s costing them money to get a taxi to town too now to pick up their pension. You feel sorry for them because they always supported their local post office. It’s like one big family you know everybody.”

Cappataggle Post Office, Co Galway closed on December 31. Picture: Hany Marzouk

Claire Jennings is one such pensioner who’s had to make new arrangements to pick up her pension but it isn’t with the luxury of a taxi.

“You couldn’t pay that every week when your pension is all you have,” she says. “It’d be €15 at least and a charge for waiting — probably €20 in total gone before you have any money in your hand.”

Claire’s pension was initially transferred to the post office in New Inn, 8km away, and for the first week she cycled there, braving the January cold, a busy stretch of carriageway with its hurtling traffic, and the long winding local road beyond.

It took her nearly two hours and, facing into the return journey with her arthritis playing up, she realised it couldn’t be a weekly undertaking.

“I got home and I said never again,” she says.

She now relies on the rural transport scheme which runs a bus from Ballinasloe to Kilconnell — another village about 7km away, where her pension has since transferred.

via Cappataggle and back every Friday.

It’s just one bus, once a week, and it goes from Cappataggle at 9.30am in the morning but its very existence and the flexibility of the driver are invaluable.

“He lets me off in Kilconnell and myself and two other ladies walk up the road to the post office while he goes to collect another lady a good bit further down and by the time he comes back with her, we’ve the pensions collected and he brings us all to Ballinasloe,” she says.

Ballinasloe is all of 15km away, a mere 15 minute drive by car, but the rural transport bus only gets her there at about 11am, an hour and a half after she steps on board.

“We kind of go around the country,” says Claire. “It doesn’t leave much time in town, just enough to get into Costcutters or Tesco and get the shopping because he leaves again at 1.45pm.

“It’s handy like but you’re all go. You can’t do your own thing. If I need something for the house that I can’t get in the supermarket, I hardly have time.

“Still, we’re very lucky to have the bus so I hope they don’t stop it. They were talking about that a while ago. Only for it, we’d be lost. We’d be able to go nowhere.”

It does seem ironic that older people and others without their own transport could be effectively stranded given the proximity of the fine stretch of N6 on their doorstep.

Even more frustrating is the fact that Bus Éireann travels between Dublin and Galway 10 times a day, passing the village without stopping.

The nearest stop is in Aughrim or Kilrickle, both 8km in opposite directions, and efforts to restore a previously scheduled stop in Cappataggle — or at least create a request stop — have failed.

“It would be very handy because I can’t get out during the day to go anywhere,” says Claire.

“It’d be lovely to into Galway now and again but you’ve to go to Aughrim to get a bus stop and you’d have to pay a taxi to get there and pay him again to come and collect you.

“We’ll hardly get the post office back in Cappy I suppose but you’d miss it. I’d be worried the shop would go too. There isn’t really much out in the country, only people.”

For Caroline, though, people are the outstanding feature of the place where she was born and raised and where she and Eamon have brought up their three teenage sons.

“The support that people gave us when we were told the post office was closing was fantastic,” she says.

“They just wanted to do as much as they could and they held meetings and protests and ran a Facebook campaign.

“They tried, even that last day. It was an emotional day for everybody, not just us as a family but for the people around us as well. It meant a lot to them.

“Friday now is a very kind of quiet, lonely day. People that you’d see from one week to another, chatting about turf, hay, silage, whatever was going on at that particular time you’d miss all that banter on and I’m sure they miss it as well.” “Anything we try to do to help our area, we do it ourselves. We’ve never really asked for anything and why they couldn’t just let us keep that service going in the community, I don’t know.

“The way it’s going, there will be nothing left in rural Ireland. Only cities and towns will have services unless there is some sort of change. Everywhere else there’ll just be more closed up shops and pubs.

“An Post took everything when the post office closed. They took the sign down, they took the computer, the security TV, the cameras, the safe. There’s no trace that there was anything there except the little open-out window.

“That’s all sadly is left. That and memories.”

DAY 1: 
 Special Report (Rural Ireland): Community makes sure area stays safe despite the lack of a Garda presence

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘We would love to be employers, to employ locally and to invest locally’

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘Don’t pigeonhole rural communities as a burden’

Special Report (Rural Ireland): ‘We’ll get it up and running again’

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