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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 07:54 GMT
Rural Ireland 'dying' as post offices close
By Shane Harrison
BBC Dublin correspondent

More than 400 post offices in mainly rural areas of the Irish Republic have closed over the last four years.

Many believe this is proof that rural Ireland is dying.

In County Cork, one small community is fighting to keep its post office.

Lombardstown, a one-street village divided by a rail-track and hugging the overflowing river Blackwater, is about seven miles from Mallow, the biggest town in north Cork.

Irish post office
Campaigners have fought to save rural post offices

It has a local post office that doubles as a shop.

Catherine Healy-Byrne, the postmistress, says she needs both jobs to make a living as she works five and a half days a week for less than 11,000 from An Post, the Irish postal service.

It's not a very large amount of money and, out of that, she has to pay her tax, her social insurance, her rent , her electricity and fuel, her insurance and occasional staff costs.

But, for Catherine, her job is a labour of love which is why she is so upset about talk of rural post office closures.

"The elderly are so dependent on it because they would come once a week to collect their pensions or give a phone call to get their messages collected," she said.

"And we'd keep an eye on them. If they didn't come on a Friday, we'd get someone to check up on them."

Kate Welsh is one of those dependent on the local post office. A widow, she can't drive. So, making the journey to and from Mallow would prove difficult.

For the small community of Lombardstown, their battle is as much about the future of rural Ireland as it is about their postal service

Besides, she loves meeting up with her neighbours and catching up with the local news as she gets her groceries and collects her pension.

The closure of Lombardstown post office, she said, "would be a terrible loss. It would be like a ghost-town."

Back in Dublin, Richard Ryan, a spokesman for An Post, says rural post offices only close when no-one is prepared to take on the contract.

He argues that the company has to prepare for the liberalisation of postal services in 2009 and has to think commercially rather than socially.

"There isn't any government subsidy. So, An Post cannot be seen as a company that simply provides a service, primarily because of the social function. We have to look at the business side of it."

Computer age

The people of Lombardstown believe their post office would have a definite long-term future if it was computerised, allowing for more extensive banking facilities.

But An Post replies that more than 1,000 of its 1,300 outlets are already computerised and there is no evidence that automation, by itself, generates enough business to keep post offices open.

Local people are not convinced by that. They have seen a flight from the land as the number of farmers continues to fall.

And they wonder why An Post is centralising its operation at a time when the Irish government is talking of decentralising its civil servants from Dublin.

For the small community of Lombardstown their battle is as much about the future of rural Ireland as it is about their postal service.

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