(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