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.
(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 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.
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.
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?
All 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.
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.
We couldn’t le the 16th June go by without a nod to James Joyce. Here he is on a 2004 Irish post office stamp. Did you know that a first edition of Ulysses, sent from Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin, was impounded by the British Post Office under censorship laws? Curiously, the book wasn’t banned at that stage in Ireland!
Ireland has produced many notable literary men and women over the centuries but fewer scientists. In recent years, there has however been an increasing awareness that there have been remarkable talents too in science, engineering and mathematics and one of the greatest was undoubtedly Hamilton whose work in mechanics and optics continues to have relevance today.
The excellent, A word a day, website recently featured the German Carl Friedrich Gauss and showed a stamp that had been issued for him by the German Post Office. That prompted me to find some Irish stamps featuring scientific men and since Hamilton has actually been commemorated twice by the Irish Post Office, once in 1943 and again – as shown here – in 2005 I thought he should take pride of place.