Reformation reflections – an Irish philatelic perspective

Martin Luther statue Erfurt 

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a movement for church reform which began when Martin Luther, a priest and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, posted on the door of the local church his Ninety-five Theses against aspects of contemporary church practice. That action, on the 31st October 1517, had profound consequences with much of modern history influenced by the division of Christianity into Roman Catholic and Protestant allegiance. On a recent visit to a Berlin museum, indeed, I was struck by how Luther himself has been treated by history with the Nazis appropriating him as a figure of German nationalism and many German church leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, sacrificing Christian principles to nationalist ideology.

Our own country, renowned as the island of saints and scholars, has not escaped the effects of religious division with persecution and war all too common over the centuries since St. Patrick first brought Christianity to its shores. One of the earliest of Irish letters, indeed, was that written by St. Patrick to a Welsh chieftain complaining of the capture and murder of Irish people whom he had recently converted to Christianity. When, centuries later, the Reformation began, it introduced a religious element to the English conquest and colonisation of Ireland: England accepted the principles of the reformed church whereas Ireland retained its adherence to the traditional religion.

Catholicism, for an English government facing the might of Spain in the sixteenth century, became associated with disloyalty and Ireland, especially in Ulster, was “planted” with Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. Penal laws subjugated Irish Catholics in the eighteenth century and government, administration and commerce became concentrated in the hands of Protestants. Tension, distrust and rebellion were never too far from the surface of Irish life and, while there were notable Protestants involved in rebellion from 1798 to 1916, political convictions were generally determined by religious ones.

Swift 1s 5d


In more recent times, the legacy of the Reformation in Ireland has been seen most clearly in the division of society in Northern Ireland. While the sectarian murder and violence that dominated the news there for three decades has largely disappeared and religious belief is declining throughout the country, the Reformation continues to cast a shadow in terms of education, language, culture and social attitudes. Debate on complex ethical and moral questions, in particular, often continues to reflect religious views. As Ireland, north and south, becomes a much more multi-cultural society, it will be interesting to see how the traditional religious divide, accommodates itself to changed circumstances.

Over the years, the Post Office has issued several stamps marking religious events and people who have had particular religious influence. Many of these, given the religious make-up of Ireland, reflect the Roman Catholic strand of Christian thought but Luther’s influence has not been neglected and, to mark the Reformation, I have selected a few stamps that commemorate Ireland’s Protestant religious heritage.





Travelling Post Office carriage

37452353660_6eec4331be_oThe Travelling Post Office or TPO, as it was known within the Post Office, was a vital part of postal infrastructure in Ireland from 1855 until the last ones were taken out of service in 1994. Clerks would sort letters en route so that they would be ready, close to delivery order, by the time the train arrived at its destination. Bags of mail, moreover, would be taken on and offloaded by means of a special net and pole apparatus at points on the journey without the train having to stop. The system was remarkably efficient and the men who worked on the TPOs were experts in their knowledge of the postal system and Irish geography.

Having been in storage for many years, the last of our TPO carriages was moved last weekend to Downpatrick’s railway museum where it will be on loan from the Post Office to form, in due course, part of a display in the Downpatrick & County Down Railway’s exhibition. The ties between the Post Office and the railways in Ireland have been very strong over the last 150 years or so and it is nice to find an appreciative and fitting home for the last of these purpose-built Post Office carriages.



RMS Leinster

It is 99 years ago today since the mail boat, RMS Leinster, was sunk in the Irish Sea just a couple of weeks before the end of the Great War. More than 500 people lost their lives that day including 21 of the 22 Post Office staff on board making it one of the worst of Irish maritime disasters. The German U Boat which sank the ship was itself lost when it struck a mine on its way home and so further lives were lost.

Events in Ireland, as it moved towards independence, and a reluctance at official levels to dwell too much on the disaster after the end of the war meant that it was overlooked for many years but in recent times the tragedy has been remembered and the lives of those who died commemorated.


Leinster church

Urban art

The latest stamp issue from the Irish Post Office shows it is doing its best to be edgy and contemporary in its approach. The new booklet and associated stamps are striking and the booklet provides an interesting insight into the development of street art over the last twenty years or so from an expression of political protect to an art form in its own right. Admirers of the genre will be pleased to see this new addition to some of the excellent art stamps issued by the Post Office since its first foray into contemporary art  back in 1969 – remember the large format Evie Hone Eton Chapel window?

Urban street art booklet

National Ploughing Championships

Ploughing 1973All eyes are on Tullamore for the ploughing at present but back in 1973 the focus was on Wellington Bridge in county Wexford for world event. The stamp by Patrick Scott captures the essence of earth against a blue sky with the horizontal lines paying tribute to the ploughman’s straight lines.


Finnish independence – 2017

We attended the very well organised Finlandia stamp exhibition in Tampere earlier in the year which focused particularly on the centenary of Finnish independence. Sinn Fein’s propaganda labels, used here in the years before the 1916 rebellion, probably drew inspiration from a similar scheme drawn up by the Finns to highlight the desire for independence from Russia.

Sinn Fein celtic cross label

The Celtic Cross motif used here later, of course, became better known as part of Ireland’s first definitive issue.