The idea of sending special cards to mark Ireland’s saint’s day goes back to the nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century there were many commercial firms involved in their production, both in Britain and Ireland and in the United States. Much of the now traditional imagery associated with Ireland and the Irish dates from that time.
Happy Christmas and “respectful compliments” from all at the An Post Museum & Archive.
Delighted to be co-operating with the wonderful North Mayo Heritage Centre on this exhibition which was opened on Saturday last. A great collection of fascinating artifacts on display, wonderful stories to explore and a lovely café for coffee and a bite to eat!
For well over a hundred years, there has been in the public mind a particularly close association between the Post Office and Christmas time. Christmas cards, letters from abroad, turkeys, geese and parcels of every description are happily linked with the image of a heavily-laden but cheerful postman. Despite great changes in technology in recent years, the link between Christmas and the Post Office survives and Santa Claus himself still depends on An Post to bring him the many thousands of letters written by children throughout the country.
How did all this begin though? The connection with the Post Office goes back at least to the invention of Christmas cards and to Henry Cole who is credited with introducing them. Cole had worked with the postal reformer, Rowland Hill, on the introduction of universal penny postage and the famous Penny Black stamp. In 1843 he arranged for the design and printing of one thousand hand –coloured cards which he sold at the high price of 6d – about 3 cents in today’s currency but a lot of money at the time and well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Slowly, however, the idea of sending a special greeting card at Christmas caught the imagination and by 1881 the Post Office thought it wise to issue its first “Post early for Christmas” message in order to cope with the additional mail volumes. Some more recent examples from An Post’s Museum & Archive collections are on display here.
Early Christmas cards generally show Santa dressed in green in anticipation of the spring-time that would put an end to winter’s grip. His red costume originated later in the United States and spread back to Europe. Scenes of festivity and traditional Biblical motifs formed the most popular themes on cards but, with the increasing importance of the Post Office at Christmas time, card manufacturers would sometimes incorporate a postal image – a snow-covered pillar box for instance or children awaiting the arrival of the postman.
In days when letters were still the main form of communication between people, it was expected that postal staff would provide normal services on Christmas day. Occasionally, there was generosity on the part of the Post Office as an employer: eighty-odd years ago the Postmaster General conceded that an “official Christmas breakfast” might be funded out of official funds for staff engaged on the 4am duties on Christmas day. This concession, however, was experimental and was not repeated the following year! It was normal for local delivery staff to remain on duty until the final incoming mails had been received, even if they were late, and staff might not get home to their families until the evening. Pressure from staff eventually brought change and, for the first time, there was no Christmas day delivery in 1937.
As mail volumes grew, it became necessary to take on extra staff at Christmas and, in difficult economic times, applications for those Post Office jobs far exceeded the number of positions available. An Post still takes on extra staff at Christmas in order to cope with the nearly 100 million additional items that pass through the postal system over the Christmas period.
It is hard to be quite sure which country came up with the idea of issuing a special Christmas stamp: Canada issued a stamp in 1898 bearing the words Xmas 1898 but the wording was incidental to the main theme. British forces in Egypt used a special Christmas label in the mid 1930s and the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp for use on Christmas mail in 1937. Here in Ireland, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs issued our first Christmas stamp in 1971 and the practice has continued ever since. Designs have generally been based on traditional nativity scenes as portrayed in famous paintings, manuscripts and similar works of art but other aspects of Christmas also feature. In selecting designs, the Post Office has cast its net wide with modern artists like Richard King and P. J. Lynch rubbing shoulders with young children and classical masters like Giorgione and Bellini. As a collecting theme, Christmas stamps offer scope for an attractive and interesting display.
Today, Christmas remains the busiest time of the year for An Post. Modern automated equipment now does most of the sorting work and trucks and vans have long replaced the horse and cart but delivery still depends on the commitment and dedication of Post Office staff throughout the land. While e-mail, text and social media are an integral part of contemporary life, for warmth and the cosy glow of an authentic Christmas, there’s nothing quite like the post!
An Post Museum & Archive
The 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.
For stamps, letter boxes, postcards and even 500 years of the Reformation, visit the Irish national stamp show at Griffith College this weekend!
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.
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.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift and various events have been planned both at home and abroad to commemorate the life and achievements of one of Ireland’s greatest writers. As an illustration, I’ve selected from our archive one of the stamps issued by the Post Office in 1967 on the 300th anniversary of his birth.
Born in Dublin, he was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College and was ordained a clergyman. He found his life in rural parishes in Ireland dull and hoped for more advantageous appointments in England where his abilities were put to use by both the Whig and Tory politicians of the time. His appointment as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin was not what he had in mind but when he began to advance the cause of Ireland through his writings, he established himself as a popular local patriot. His work on debasement of Irish money (Drapier’s Letters) and the grievances of the exploited poor (A Modest Proposal) earned him a reputation as a daring and effective critic of Government policy.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is the book everyone knows about, largely because it has long been sold, in a shortened and censored form, as a children’s book. The story of Gulliver in the lands of giants and little people has obvious appeal to children but the book is really an adult one, a witty if rather bleak commentary on human nature. Swift’s own nature was a complex one and mystery still surrounds his own personal relationships, especially his love life. Did he ever marry and what was the nature of his association with “Vanessa”, that is Esther Vanhomrigh, and “Stella”, Esther Johnson, the woman he first met when she was just eight years old and beside whom he was buried in St. Patrick’s? Whose was the lock of hair found carefully wrapped in his desk and bearing the words “Only a woman’s hair”?
Swift’s later years were sad. He is believed to have suffered from Ménière’s disease, which caused dizziness and nausea, and added to this were loss of memory, a stroke and senility which led to his being seen as mad. His friends, for his own protection, had him declared “of unsound mind and memory”. He had long had a horror of losing his wits and an appreciation of the terrible indignities suffered by those who endured mental illness. In his will, he left the bulk of his money for the establishment of a mental hospital, St. Patrick’s, which continues to help people to this day.
Priest, politician and patriot, a man whose character blended personal ambition and practical humanity, Jonathan Swift’s insight and style make him one of the greatest of all satiric writers.
It’s strange the things which evoke a special response: take this green letter box, for instance, on loan to Dublin airport from the An Post Museum & Archive. Is it the green colour, the sight of a familiar object on an urban streetscape, its function as a means of communication or just plain old nostalgia? Whatever the reason, lots of people like to linger beside it as they make their way through the airport.