By Barry Lally
To survive personally or in business for a hundred years is no mean achievement. Centenaries, however, are not just occasions for self-congratulation. They prompt us to reflect on the past and how it has moulded us into what we have become. This is particularly evident in the current spate of national centenary commemorations which has given impetus to much scholarly work on the events leading up to the foundation of the state and the turbulent years that followed.
We can only speculate on the specific reasons that induced the directors of the Munster and Leinster Bank to establish a branch at what is now Topman Barbers in Society Street at the foot of Church Hill in 1919. Obviously they calculated that the venture would prove successful, a judgement call that time has validated by the fact that on a November morning in 2019 the contemporary staff and a selection of customers were gathered together at Finnegan’s Corner to celebrate a century of profitable trading both in Society Street and in the purpose-built premises to which the bank transferred its services in 1928. Subsequently the bank emerged in a new incarnation as Allied Irish Banks in 1966 following amalgamation with the Provincial Bank of Ireland and the Royal Bank of Ireland.
Although Ballinasloe was the major transport centre for the province of Connacht in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as the westernmost terminus of the Grand Canal since 1828, there were no permanent banking facilities in the town before 1835. In that year both the Bank of Ireland and the National Bank of Ireland set up branches here. Prior to that the Galway City banks operated temporary offices on fair days. This was an arrangement that apparently continued to some extent well into the last century. According to Michael McCullagh, the Hibernian Bank had a pop-up branch at his mother’s Society Street home up to the 1930s.The Bank of Ireland conducted its business from a succession of premises in Main Street before finding its present home in the former townhouse of the Earl of Clancarty in 1870, while the National Bank was located in what is now Gibbons’s public house. In the 1840s it moved to a building opposite the Emerald Bar.
Known at “The Irish House” because of its policy of stocking only clothing of Irish manufacture, Finnegan’s drapery store occupied a site at the junction of Dunlo Street and Society Street. I can lay claim to a tenuous connection with the business inasmuch as an aunt of mine had a short-lived career as a trainee assistant in its millinery department. She proved too honest to be an effective saleswoman since she refused to assure prospective lady customers that the hats they selected suited them when she sincerely believed they didn’t. Finnegan’s ceased trading in the 1920s and the premises were demolished to make way for the present building. Nonetheless, the name Finnegan’s Corner survived and still has a place in the colloquial vocabulary of some the town’s older residents. The Corner, specifically the Dunlo Street side, had long been the favoured rendezvous of the unemployed and unemployable, who continued to frequent it under its new owners. Schoolmasters were wont to predict a grim future “propping up the wall at Finnegan’s Corner” for pupils whose application to their studies left much to be desired. However, not everyone there was a corner boy: it was also a meeting place for disabled war veterans who spent their days reminiscing and watching the world go by. In the words of Oliver Goldsmith, many an old soldier “Wept o’er his wounds and tales of sorrow done, / Shouldered his crutch and showed how fields were won.” In the recently-identified aerial photograph of the town dating from 1955 two solitary figures of one-legged men on crutches can be picked out. They are standing in front of a long dark line on the stonework of the bank that had been polished over the years by innumerable trouser-seats. Time inevitably took its toll of old soldiers such as these, and even the corner boys have deserted the spot since the erection of kerb-side railings some while back.
Fr. John Heenan was probably the only Ballinasloe-born priest to later serve as a member of the parochial clergy in his native town. Following a brilliant academic career, in the 1890s he was appointed President of St. Michael’s Seminary, a boys’ secondary school in Bridge Street and a forerunner of Garbally College. However, a difference with Bishop Healy over his avowed political views resulted in his demotion as curate to a series of rural parishes, leading ultimately to his return to Ballinasloe in 1915 but without a restoration of status. Noted for his ready wit and scatological sense of humour, his health suffered a decline as rheumatoid arthritis gradually impaired the use of his limbs.
Local author Eugene Watters referred to him in an Irish-language newspaper article from 1975 entitled “Béaloideas na Galltachta”. I make bold to translate the relevant passage: “The See of Clonfert became vacant in 1923 when the incumbent, Bishop O’Doherty, was moved to Galway. Everyone was speculating – who would be the next bishop? One evening a group of men, Willie Rourke the baker, John Smith of the shoe shop, and Nicholas O’Carroll the editor of the ‘Democrat’, were chatting at Finnegan’s Corner when who should come hobbling down the street towards them, bent over his stick, but Fr. John!
"We were just talking, Father,’ said Smith, winking at his companions, ‘about the new bishop. And do you know what I said? Damn it, I said, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Pope made Father John a bishop!’
“John cast a rheumy eye on the company over the arthritic hand clutching the shawl beneath his chin. ‘Smith’, said he, ‘Rourke, O’Carroll, listen to me. If it should ever happen that the Holy Father in his wisdom were to elevate your humble servant to the bishopric of Clonfert, Amen, Amen, I say unto you, it’s not my episcopal ring I’d present to ye fellas to kiss!"
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