(George IV passing the GPO)
For 200 years now Dublin’s General Post Office has been at the heart of events in the city. For many the building is famous simply as the headquarters of the men and women of 1916 but its role as the communications centre of Ireland – for letters, telegraphs and telephones – as well as its place in banking, welfare and pensions gives it a claim to be seen as one of the most quietly influential buildings in the whole of Ireland.
Constructed between 1814 and 1818 under the supervision of the distinguished Armagh-born architect, Francis Johnston, the GPO is one of the oldest working chief post offices in the world. Severely classical in style, its fine façade and portico are all that remain of the original building which was much smaller than the GPO which re-emerged after the destruction of 1916. Indeed, the building underwent several modifications before then as it coped with the development of new business during the 19th century and the accommodation provided for certain staff gave way to working space.
The main public entrance was originally via a door where Cuchulain now stands and people entered a room which had sorting offices to left and right and which led to the mail coach yard at the rear of the building. Before the coming of the railways, the daily departure of the mail coaches was a splendid event which drew visitors to the GPO. There were kitchens in the basement, an armoury at the back, a nursery upstairs and generous accommodation for the boss of the time, Sir Edward Lees, and his family. Railings remained at the front of the building until the close of the nineteenth century and you can still see the base of the cast-iron lamp stands outside today.
By the start of the twentieth century, the GPO had become extremely cramped and the purchase of Ball’s Bank in Henry Street in 1903 was the start of a long expansion and renovation programme carried out by Robert Cochrane and Howard Pentland of the Board of Works. This was completed just a few weeks before rebels entered the building on Easter Monday 1916. GPO staff and unarmed soldiers on duty in the telegraph office resisted the attack and refused to leave until shots were fired into their office. The fires that consumed the building at the end of Easter Week destroyed much invaluable historical information as well as current operational records but these were reconstructed and, just three days after the end of hostilities, GPO staff were back on delivery working from temporary premises behind the Rotunda hospital.
Writing in the New Statesman on 6th May 1916 Bernard Shaw did not shed many tears for the GPO, seeing it as rather dull architecture: “Its destruction” he said, “does not matter” nor did he grieve much for the city centre. His main regret was that Dublin’s infamous slums had not been cleared: “How I wish”, he remarked, “I had been in command of the British artillery on that fatal field! How I should have improved my native city”! Post Office management and city planners paid no heed to Shaw and plans for the rebuilding of the GPO were soon drawn up. The ongoing political unrest and further violence in Ireland, however, added to financial constraints meant that GPO staff did not move in again until 1928. The building was formally reopened in 1929 but only completed in 1933. T J Byrne of the OPW was responsible for the creation of a greatly enlarged building which included radio broadcasting studios but no longer mail sorting. His design of the GPO’s Public Office retained elements of Francis Johnston’s original work but was strikingly modern in its incorporation of art deco features. We might almost imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap-dancing their way to the counter to post a letter!
A building of great historical significance and architectural distinction, the GPO is above all a monument to the millions of ordinary Irish men and women who have entered its halls and entrusted their daily business, their aspirations and regrets, their dreams and their sadness to the grand old lady of O’Connell Street – Dublin’s GPO.
Assistant Secretary, GPO
For stamps, letter boxes, postcards and even 500 years of the Reformation, visit the Irish national stamp show at Griffith College this weekend!
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.
The Celtic Cross motif used here later, of course, became better known as part of Ireland’s first definitive issue.
A great new exhibition, A Message in Time, has just opened in Tipperay County Museum in Clonmel and there’s a chance to see there several items on loan from the An Post Museum & Archive. The exhibition takes as its starting point Tipperary County Museum’s rich post card collection and uses that to draw out local stories through multi-media, textile and traditional displays.
The exhibition opened earlier this week and a special post card, which uses a 1983 Robert Ballagh stamp design, can be posted in an old letter box on display.
Fascinating Newstalk documentary about Ireland’s pivotal role in connecting the world by the Atlantic Telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century.
In the days before electricity, working lives in institutions like the Post Office were governed by daylight to a much greater extent than today. This candlestick (formerly on display in our museum and now back in the National Museum’s collection) from the old GPO in College Green Dublin is a reminder of those times. When the new GPO in Sackville Street (today’s O’Connell Street) was built, there was still a reliance on candles, of course, but gas light was also introduced not too long after the building was completed. Early gas was rather noxious stuff, however, and staff complained of feeling ill. The light might have been stronger but at least candle light was pure.
Issued by La Poste and kindly sent to me by a Breton friend, this stamp marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany (Anna Vreizh), a wealthy and much pursued heiress who was twice queen consort of France. As the summer starts, many Irish people will take the boat to Cherbourg or Roscoff to enjoy their holidays in Brittany and sample the particular delights, history and traditions of that lovely part of France.
The annual Festival Interceltique, which takes place in Lorient in August, draws together some 700,000 people who wish to share the music, languages and customs of a heritage that unites the celtic peoples of western Europe. They might spare a thought for Anne of Brittany who, in choosing amongst her various political suitors, sought to preserve the independence of her native Brittany.
Finland marks this year the centenary of its independence, an event that has a strong resonance with Ireland’s 1916 commemoration last year. Finlandia, 2017, an international philatelic exhibition, has just taken place in the city of Tampere and this very well-organized occasion naturally focused on Finland’s history and philatelic treasures but there was a great deal of interest too to be found in the many high-class exhibits from around the world that examined so many different areas of philately and postal history. Congratulations to those whose exhibits were marked with particular success, not least the Irish contingent who did so well!
The Finnish postal museum, one of several very interesting museums housed in an old industrial building, had on show treasures from its own collection, including the 1856 5 and 10 kopek stamps, and also material on loan from Queen Elizabeth’s collection, including the Kirkcudbright Penny Black multiple cover. The opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest stamp rarities was relished by the many visitors who came to Tampere. The ride from the exhibition centre to the postal museum in an old Finnish postal bus was a nice treat for everyone too!
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.