In the first of a series of pieces chronicling the history of Derry Credit Union through the decades, this article recounts the story of the founding of Derry Credit Union in the words of the people who were there. Sadly, many of these individuals are no longer with us. The excerpts in this article were extracted from memoirs published in Derry Credit Union’s 21st anniversary and 50th anniversary books, as well as transcripts of interviews recorded as part of a living history project conducted in 2003.
The natural starting point for recounting the story of Derry Credit Union and reflecting on its impact is the decade before it was founded.
The social, economic and political realities of life for the ordinary man and woman in 1950s Derry were the fertile ground for the growth and development of a financial cooperative more wildly successful than its founding and early members could have imagined.
In his Bert Mullen Inaugural Lecture entitled ‘Credit Union, an International Model of Social Inclusion,’ Derry Credit Union founder member John Hume wrote: “There was massive financial, social and political exclusion in the Derry that I grew up in.
Unemployment, particularly among males, was the highest in Europe.
“Wages were low because of the market situation. A chronic shortage of housing exacerbated the social problems. Many young families waited up to 10 years and more to obtain local authority housing. Working people depended on credit to purchase household goods and clothing on hire purchase, credit stores and the pawnshop and, in the worst situations, local moneylenders.
“Economic gurus would not have chosen it as a centre to launch a financial, social enterprise.”
To say that the ordinary person in Derry struggled financially would be an understatement.
Fr Anthony Mulvey, who introduced the credit union concept to the city through a series of meetings he organised in the spring and summer of 1960, explained: “Finance was always the major difficulty, and many people saved through the Post Office or thrift clubs set up for specific purposes.”
Indeed, compared to the dreaded money-lender, hire purchase and thrift clubs were considered the lesser of two evils; but they were far from ideal. Former Derry Credit Union manager Sean Drummond recounted: “Up until the credit union, people joined clothes clubs, took out Provident vouchers or paid up for their groceries. But sometimes these multiple debts accumulated.
“For some, their debt problems spiralled because the clubs and Provident didn’t lend you cash. Instead, those vouchers could be used only in specific shops. This didn’t help if you owed the coal man £5 or £10. It became common for someone who urgently needed £5 in cash to take out a £20 Provident voucher (which would cost significantly more to repay once interest was added to it) and sell it for £5 because they needed the cash.”
Founder member Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty related a personal experience when he described: “The humiliation of having a legitimate cheque returned to me across a bank counter because I hadn’t two pence to buy a stamp to make it payable; and I swore under my breath at the clerk who had dismissed me with a curt, ‘When you get two pence I’ll cash your cheque.’ Oh! For a bank with heart!”
A ‘bank with a heart’ is exactly what Paddy Bogside and the other founder members established.
Paddy’s wife Eileen remembered: “I was involved from the very start … how could I have missed it, when my husband woke me one night to tell me of this great idea to help people … a bank where people could pool their savings, and give a loan to those in need, and pay back at a small interest.
“This would do away with the loan sharks in the town and give people a lift instead of going with cap in hand to beg, then pay back an enormous rate of interest.”
Eileen continued: “Eventually (Derry Credit Union) was launched in our sitting room at 10 Westland Street, with Paddy, John Hume, Paddy Joe Doherty, Seamus Bonner, George Coyle and I. We had a whip round, and I think it was £8 12sd we gathered.”
The date was Sunday, October 16, 1960. Derry Credit Union was formally established at that meeting. It was the third credit union on the island of Ireland and the first credit union in the North.
In a few short years, it would grow to become one of the great success stories of the international credit union movement.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing! The first president of Derry Credit Union, Dr Jim Cosgrove, recalled the early days.
“Problems abounded. Finding meeting places, thrashing out general principles, then details of a constitution and rules, visits to various towns for guidance and information, speaking to other groups and organis- ations in the city to explain and promote the aims and objects of the credit union. These were some of the necessary preliminaries.
“I have no doubt that in a very large measure, Derry Credit Union’s success was due to the dedication and perseverance of those early men and women; to their wisdom in realising that a business-like approach was needed to complement their enthusiasm, and thus their insistence from the start that proper rules be drawn up and rigorously observed.
“Their minds were young and keen and receptive, and they mused over the simple kernel of the concept, i.e. organising people who had a common bond, to gather their savings together, thus creating a source of loans for others in the group.”
Paddy Bogside put an additional spin on it: “We take the credit union for granted now, but when it was first introduced, it was regarded as a radical movement.
“It (the credit union) defied government. It broke the Friendly Society Act, the Companies Act, the Banking Act and God knows how many others. It ignored the divisions in the community and established a common bond of the people of Derry. It carried a promise of a bright new city created by the people with their own money, their own efforts and their own bootstraps.”
Early member Mick McGeady, a local painter and decorator, fondly remembered those early days. Member number 56, he joined the credit union in early February, 1961, and was encouraged to take out the very first Derry Credit Union loan by Paddy Bogside who explained: “Everyone is paying in and no one is applying for a loan.”
While the credit union model relies on savers and borrowers, Paddy under- stood that no one wanted to be the first to apply for a loan – even though, as he chuckled later, that first loan was guaranteed to be approved!
After two or three weeks of Paddy’s urging, Mick finally relented and applied for a £50.00 loan on 31st March, to repay at £1 a week.
Like so many others, Mick contributed to the growth and development of Derry Credit Union in those early years. “We used to meet every month, about twenty of us, and have a talk on thrift.
“We had no money for stamps, so we delivered all letters for the meetings by hand and the craic was really good. Every month, one would have thought we had won the pools, when we heard about the number of new members who had joined from the previous meeting. I remember our first annual meeting in the Lourdes Hall. It was a memorable night. The Ladies’ Committee made a great job and provided home baked cakes.”
Indeed, the Ladies’ Committee was one key element in the development of the credit union. Today, the concept is an anachronism, but in early 1960’s society, the Ladies’ Committee provided a genuine avenue for women to play a role in the credit union. While they and their contribution tended to be less recognised, they were indisputably the strength that underpinned the early days.
The Ladies’ Committee was also the launching point for our first women members of the Board and Supervisory Committee. In a wider context, the credit union directly helped women become financially emancipated.
Eileen Doherty remembered: “I became the first woman member of a credit union in Northern Ireland, a title of which I am very proud, as I could see what the credit union was going to do for women’s independence. In those days, a woman was unable to get hire purchase, or have an account without the written consent of her husband. But the credit union treated a woman as a person in her own right, with her own individual account book.”
Another key support group was the dockers. John Hume wrote: “In the early days, we attracted support from groups of workers, including the dockers. As casual workers, they frequently experienced hardship on a regular basis. They gave us the use of the middle floor of their social centre, the Rossville Hall, as a collection centre.”
The Rossville Hall served as Derry Credit Union’s office until the first purpose-built premises opened on Abbey Street in 1968.
The credit union had the use of the middle floor free of charge but it had its drawbacks.
Former member of staff, Margaret Logue, recalls: “When I started work in the credit union office in 1966, I went up two flights of stairs into one of the dingiest rooms in town.”
Mick McGeady concurred.
He remembered: “The room we used was quite a large one and it had not been used for some time. It needed to be painted and decorated, so once again members of our small committee came forward and helped me do the work.
“When I asked John Hume for money for paint, I will never forget the expression his face! Where was the money coming from?”
He also remembered painting the counter in the hall on a Saturday morning.
“That counter got three of the quickest drying stains and a coating of knotting that ever I put on in my lifetime. Thank God none of the members’ books stuck to it!”
Despite its lack of ambience, Margaret Logue said: “It was in the Rossville Hall that the credit union got its first burst of enthusiasm and spirit that sent it on its way.”
But as Derry Credit Union grew in membership and became more professional, it needed more space and new premises.
Discussions about locations took place, with some arguing a city centre location was needed.
In his wisdom, Paddy Bogside argued strongly that the credit union should be sited in the heart of the community it served.
Mick McGeady recounted when Paddy took him to Abbey Street, where the credit union resides to this day, and enthused “about the new houses that were to be built there, plus the layout. I said it would be very central and ideal. He asked me to put a figure on it so I did. He told me that I had put nearly twice the amount he had put to the committee and they very nearly threw him out! But we thought it was worth it as premises were hard to get.’”
The first purpose-built office opened with great fanfare in 1968.
The original copper friezes that adorned the exterior of the building, iconic pieces of art that became pockmarked by bullets during the 70’s, are today displayed in Derry Credit Union’s current building.
The Rossville Hall burned to the ground on 13th July 1969 during rioting in the city.
The tremendous growth in membership was aided by a commitment to education.
Early director John Patton, who defined a credit union as “a democratic entity (whose) full capabilities may only be attained through constant promotion and education,” recalled.
“We were always conscious that a credit union is not a mere financial institution, taking in and lending out money. The promotion of thrift and wise use of money were primary objectives of a genuine credit union. Our job in the education committee was to inculcate these ideas in the membership.” Sean Drummond added, “Paddy Doherty and John Hume ran the New Members meetings that included a comprehensive background of the credit union movement and ethos.”
The popularity of the credit union in the city grew so quickly that Derry Credit Union’s membership reached the level permitted by the middle of the decade.
To meet demand, two more credit unions were then established, so that by 1967, there were three separate credit unions in Derry: Derry Credit Union, Pennyburn Credit Union and Waterside Credit Union.
The three worked cooperatively to produce several editions of ‘Prosper,’ a magazine for credit union members with John Patton as editor. Guest writers included Brian Friel, and An Taoiseach Jack Lynch.
As the credit union grew in membership, volunteer efforts were not enough.
John Hume explained: “Our committed team of volunteers gave selflessly of their time and expertise to make Derry Credit Union work and it did. Within the first three years of operation, membership and volume of work grew so rapidly that we had to appoint staff to ensure the quality of service that our members deserved.”
Mick McGeady recalled, “I think it was at our second Annual Meeting that we appointed our first manager, the late Jack McDaid. I remember Fr Mulvey saying to me after the meeting, he did not think we could afford to pay a manager, but thank God we could, and never looked back.”
In 1966, Jack McDaid retired and was replaced by Sean Drummond, who held the position of Manager until his retirement in 1999. Under his leadership, Derry Credit Union transitioned from a fledgling financial cooperative into the highly successful operation it is today.
In 2003, Sean reminisced about his early years with the credit union.
“I took up post in January, 1966. Back then was small in scale. I had just two staff and provided all the training myself. Staff had to hand-write everything in long columns on ledger cards and they had to perform quite complicated calculations in their heads. Speed and accuracy were very important.
“Directors would often come in at the weekends to help out on the counters.
Never stood still
“We never stood still. We tried to keep our services and premises up to date. When we moved from Rossville Hall to Abbey Street and subsequently refurbished our offices, our membership surged. We also updated our procedures, although switching from manual procedures to computerised ones was not a smooth transition!”
While the tangible benefits of those early years are evident, John Hume considered the impact to be much greater.
He wrote, “Much more important has been the effect on the confidence and psyche of our people. It has raised their self-esteem and belief to levels where now they recognise that change can be affected because they have control over their affairs.”
The growth and development of Derry Credit Union in the 1960’s is attributable to more than just the individuals quoted here.
In their interviews, they themselves paid tribute to other leading lights, such as Phil O’Doherty, John Bradley, Pat Hume, John Dunnion, and George Doherty, to name just a few.
These were often the quiet people behind the scenes who gave generously of their time to build Derry Credit Union.Over the course of 2020, Derry Credit Union will endeavour to recognise all the men and women who, in succeeding decades, contributed to its strength and development.
As such, the principal players who lead and managed Derry Credit Union in the 1970’s will be acknowledged next.
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