For anyone near the Turlough Park Country Life division of the National Museum tomorrow, you might be interested in an illustrated talk on the history of the Post Office in Ireland, Serving Society, at 2pm in the museum.
The Post Office’s letter sorting office was once in the GPO but when the building was destroyed in the 1916 rebellion and later reconstructed, the sorting office was not reinstated. Instead sorting was done in a building in Pearse Street. When that building was deemed unsuitable, a new office was built in Sheriff Street and many Dublin postal staff will remember working in that building. Students too, who maybe got a job at Christmas, will remember its cavernous interiors, the mail sorting divisions, the machinery that sometimes worked and the loading platforms where the vans and lorries drew up.
Sheriff Street is greatly changed now and the IFSC has taken over from the Post office as the dominant employer in the locality but memories of the sorting office remain in the minds of the many staff – postmen, drivers, sorters, clerks etc. – who worked there from the late 1960s till it closed in the 1990s.
In 1947 the Irish old age pension was just ten shillings in old money: that’s about 60 cents in today’s euros although we would have to adjust for inflation and purchasing power of course. It was payable, as it still is, through the Post Office and this order bears the postmark of the Grand Parade post office in Cork city although it is the Irish language version that is used on the date-stamp, Sráid a’ Chapaill Bhuidhe, the Street of the Yellow Horse. There’s a puzzle for denizens of the real capital now – what’s the origin of that?
This seventy year old pension order has more of social history lore to offer. It bears an addition little stamp signifying that an extra five shillings should be added to the order. This was thanks to the liberality of the reforming first Inter-Party Government which replaced de Valera in 1948 and in particular to William Norton, Tánaiste and Labour Party leader, who introduced the measure… and Norton, of course, had started life as a Post Office employee and became secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union!
So much to be learned from one little item in our Museum & Archive collection.
The “social” used to be a great thing for many firms and organisations. It might take the form of a sports day, an excursion or a dinner dance. Like many other big businesses, the Post Office catered for a wide range of staff interests and football, drama and golf societies were run by active members of staff who devoted a lot of time and commitment to them.
The dinner dance was a particularly popular occasion, a chance to get to know colleagues outside the day job and enjoy a meal and entertainment together. This photograph shows a Post Office dinner dance from 1963 and is from the collection of the photographer John Walsh who catalogued much of the daily life of the Liberties half a century ago. His grand-daughter has been sharing many lovely photographs on facebook. That’s where I saw this one and it’s certainly worth taking a look at her page. Copyright remains with the family.
This letter was penned in 1712, over three hundred years ago, and still looks very fresh! There were no stamps in those days of course but there is a wax seal, used to hold the paper in place where it was folded over (envelopes were a nineteenth century innovation) and a postmark (known as a Bishop mark), the oval shaped black mark with a dividing line across it. This letter was to be carried free of postage charges and, what I like best about it, just “left at the post house in Dublin”: no need for post codes of any kind!
An Post’s recent price increases for its mail services were designed to allow it a little time to draw up plans to cope with rapidly declining letter volumes. When the Company was established as a semi-state venture in 1984, the Board at the time drew attention to the declining letter traffic of previous years and sharp price increases in 1982 which enabled it to return – briefly – to profit.
The message at the time was summed up in the words “We must get new business – and we must handle it well without increasing our costs”. The photograph shows the Chairman of the time, Fergal Quinn, of the supermarket chain leading by example and getting ready to deliver some letters.
This year marks the ninetieth anniversary since a radio station started broadcasting in Cork. Broadcasting had begun from a small studio in Dublin’s Little Denmark Street in 1926 and would subsequently move into the GPO when the building re-opened after its destruction in 1916. On the 26th April 1927, the Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, J J Walsh, a Cork man, extended the service to Cork when he inaugurated the station, 6CK, with his opening words. The station was located in the city’s former female gaol, a rather gloomy environment perhaps but one favoured by the Post Office engineers for its position on high ground. Conditions were rather primitive and called for plenty of innovation and ingenuity by the station’s staff.
Though it cost very little to run, money was tight and the staff in Dublin considered some of the programming over ambitious so it was closed in September 1930. Cork had to wait until 1958 before new studios were opened at Union Quay.
This week marks the 101st anniversary of the Easter rebellion in Dublin. The 1916 rebels had a strong appreciation of the importance of communications in warfare and this is one reason why the GPO became their headquarters, not because it was the country’s principal letter sorting office but because it housed the Central Telegraph Office. Control of the telegraph system would, they reasoned, be vital in their plans to disrupt Government communications and would increase the chances of the Rising’s being successful.
When they attacked the GPO on Easter Monday 1916, the telegraph room on the second floor was barricaded by staff and bravely defended by the unarmed military guard. One soldier was shot in the attack and when the room was occupied by the rebels and the Post Office staff instructed to leave, one woman, Miss Gordon who was the female supervisor, refused to leave until the wounded soldier had been attended to. This presented a delicate situation for the officer in charge of the rebel attack but he and Miss Gordon came to an agreement that the soldier might be brought to Jervis Street hospital provided he returned to become a prisoner. Unlikely though it seems, this is precisely what happened. The redoubtable Miss Gordon brought the man to hospital and a few hours later brought him back to the GPO to become a prisoner of the new republic!
This weekend is the actual anniversary of the Dublin rebellion which has had such an impact on the course of Irish history. Easter Monday was the 24th April in 1916 and that was the day a small group of rebels, determined to seek Irish independence through violent means, entered the General Post Office and made it their headquarters. The rebellion was deeply unpopular with most Irish people and it saw the deaths of close to 500 people and the destruction of the city centre. It has come to be seen, however, in a very different light and a good way of trying to understand something of what motivated the men and women who were involved in the Rising is to read the document they produced to explain and justify their actions.
A full-size facsimile of the actual copy on display in the GPO is available from the philatelic shop in the Post Office or online via
We often use the word “milestone” in our everyday conversations to mean a significant occasion or important event of some sort and forget that the word has its origins in the markers that were once placed at the side of roads to show how far a traveller was from the nearest town.
In Ireland some milestones were erected by the Post Office since it was involved in the making or improvement of post roads in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mail coaches needed good roads and, while some attractive milestones from this period survive, many have been lost or removed in the course of more recent road widening.
This stone, a reminder of the time when Irish mail was sent to Britain from Howth, has been set into the wall and should be safe for many years yet.