STAFF at Donegal’s last remaining Ulster Bank are preparing to closed its doors for the final time today.
Behind the drawn blind at the teller’s desk is a shelf filled with cards from customers, sharing their sincerest of sympathy and good wishes.
One card reads, “You are more than just a building on the corner”.
The Letterkenny based branch was serving up to 24,000 customers before the bank’s withdrawal from the Irish market was announced almost two years ago.
Most of those customers had banked there all of their lives – from when they first opened their account to save their communion money, buying their first car, planning their wedding or building their first home.
From the major milestones to the more difficult times, when a customer lost their job or grieved the passing of a loved one, the “building on the corner” was there through it all.
Most of the staff have worked there all of their lives too. The newest member of staff is Bernard Doherty, the Branch Manager – he started at Letterkenny Ulster Bank twelve years ago. His colleague Cathy Gillespie has been there for over 30 years.
The staff described themselves as a family, the low rate of turnover and decade long tenures are a testament to that.
But tomorrow Bernard and the other twelve remaining members of staff will lose their jobs.
Tara McDaid is a local Letterkenny woman. She is the Ulster Bank Area Manager.
Before the closures were announced she was looking after 14 branches stretching all the way from Donegal to Mayo.
“We never thought we would see this happen,” she said.
Tara pointed to the ATM machines that are no longer in use. She explained how they had only been installed five years prior.
“Little did we think when we were putting them in that in five years’ time we would be shutting the whole business,” she said.
Tara’s mother who is 85 years old is one of the many customers who have banked in the Letterkenny branch all of their lives. She has now transitioned to a new provider.
The majority of the customers needed to move banks, this was a big challenge, Bernard explained.
“The general feeling with customers is that this is an awful upheaval for them, it was difficult to try and get an appointment to get an account opened.
“Most people that were coming in the door were used to getting everything done for them on a one-to-one basis, so it was very difficult then to go on to an online system.
“They felt that they needed to go into a branch and for a good year there was a backlog to get an account open in another bank,” he said.
Dramatic changes in branch banking over the last decade, and a shift toward automation lead to the decline of the “personal touch”, Bernard added. This was difficult for staff.
When he started Bernard had a team of 20 staff working in personal banking, dealing with customers face-to-face. In recent years this number was “whittled down” with redundancies.
In its heyday the bank was a hive of activity, with customers regularly coming in for a catch-up and a chat. The staff reminisced on the many ‘regulars’ they saw come and go through the branch doors.
One that stood out was a farmer who came in every week in his wellingtons.
He would hand the staff a hundred euro and ask how many bales of hay it was worth, they would then draw him up a draft for nine or ten bales, whatever the going rate was on a given week.
They fondly remembered one lady would queue and wait until Nuala Lenehan, who has since retired, was free. She refused to deal with anyone else, she was adamant the young ones would make mistakes in her books.
“We really did have some great days in here,” Nuala laughed.
“It was a social thing for a lot of customers in rural areas, even in Letterkenny the big busy town that it is, for many people they queued just to get speaking to the Nuala’s.
“It will be a big change not having this place open in the town,” one staff member said.
“It has been sad saying goodbye to everyone and it will be sad losing all of our customers,” added Tara.
Ulster Bank branches in Ballybofey, Killybegs, Donegal Town and Buncrana have all been rebranded at Permanent TSB, because there is a Permanent TSB in the town, the Letterkenny Branch building will be sold.
Saying goodbye to the building in the Market Square will be particularly emotional for Bernard.
It was recently announced that once regenerated the square will be named after his father, the late Barney Doherty, who was a hugely influential local figure.
“So I am a bit sad that I am not going to be here,” said Bernard.
All of the staff agreed that it would be a shame to see the building waste into dereliction. They speculated the many potential possibilities. Maybe a restaurant called the Old Bank, one suggested.
Many of the staff are planning to move into other sectors, away from banking and retail, in the search of something new and exciting. They have been receiving offers “thick and fast,” Tara said.
As for Bernard, he plans to take some time out to recalibrate once they close the doors.
“I wouldn’t mind doing something completely different because I have only worked in financial services for 30 years,” he added.