The story of the Post Office in Ireland is so much more than just the GPO in 1916. It’s the story of Ireland and its people, writes Stephen Ferguson.
Last year marked the anniversary of the 1916 Rising and, for many Irish people at home and abroad, the letters ‘GPO’ immediately call to mind the role of the General Post Office as the headquarters of the leaders of the rebellion. Very few people, however, know that this was not the first time a Post Office had been taken over in the cause of Irish liberty.
No, that distinction belongs to a little office on the Donegal island of Inismacadurn where Napper Tandy and a band of French soldiers raised the flag of ‘Érin go Bragh’ in September 1798. Finding scant interest in revolution, the French general, before sailing away, took a gold ring from his finger and gallantly presented it as a token of fraternité to Mrs Foster, the postmaster’s wife!
This is just one of the many engaging stories that come to light when you begin to delve into the history of the Post Office in Ireland. What at first seems to be a rather dry and dusty organisation emerges as an institution that has quietly but profoundly touched the daily lives of Irishmen and women in a unique way – the urgent telegram brought by the messenger boy in the days before telephones, the birthday postal order for a favourite nephew or the welcome chat at the Post Office on pension day.
The story of the Post Office is the story of Ireland and its people and the tale of how a modest little Government office in Dublin was transformed into a great service business employing over 30,000 people.
It began four centuries ago when regular communication between London and Dublin was needed for English rule. Ireland’s island status made the connection a vital one, and transport an essential part of postal infrastructure.
When Patrick Tirrell of Howth was contracted to provide a boat service for the post back in 1561, he had to find a boat, convey the mail and evade the pirates of the Irish Sea. On land, the railway would become intimately bound to Post Office development with specially designed carriages, Travelling Post Offices, able to collect and dispatch mail bags without the train having to slow down or stop at stations.
The men who worked on them were a special breed who had to be happy with unsocial hours, cramped conditions and the pressures of a railway schedule that allowed no scope for delays. It was rewarding work, however, where strong friendships were made and their geographical knowledge and sorting speed earned them a special respect within the Post Office.
No one now, I hope, would think of posting a letter without a stamp, but before the introduction of the famous ‘Penny Black’ in 1840, there were no stamps and it was actually normal for the recipient, rather than the sender, to pay the postage on a letter. It was very expensive; a single page letter from Dublin to Belfast was charged 10 old pence in 1814 and double that if you had a lot to say and wrote two pages.