The Post Office in Ireland: An Illustrated History
by Stephen Ferguson (Irish Academic Press, €26.99)
At this time of the year over Christmas and the New Year we come to appreciate the post, which brings messages of love and peace and presents from relatives and friends all over the world, some not seen in person for decades.
But this inestimable service, which we too easily take for granted over the rest of the year, is under severe pressure, threatening many towns and villages, and indeed parts of the capital, with reduced service and post offices closures.
So this lovely book on the history of the post office in Ireland is published very appositely. It is richly illustrated in colour and monochrome with a viral gallery of all kinds and types of Irish people engaged all of them on important work. But it is also filled with fascinating side lights and far more on Irish history and social life.
Stephen Ferguson is Assistant Secretary of An Post, curator of its Museum and Archive, and author of Business as Usual: GPO Staff in 1916 (2012) and other publications on the history of the GPO and Irish postal history.
Let us hope that this new book of his finds as many readers as possible, for it is filled with the stuff of human life in Ireland over three centuries.
This began back in the 16th Century with the very first efforts to establish a postal communications system in a realm almost without roads and means of transport. These early days depended on the carrying of letters often not to individuals’ homes, but to inns and public houses.
In the course of this we moved from post boys to mail coaches – the mail coach of De Quincey’s musings and Dickens’ imagination – and here in Ireland the enterprise of Charles Bianconi. But the author also describes how the mail was carried elsewhere by post barque and by packet steamer across the Atlantic, and effectively around the world.
It was the railway that came to Ireland in the 1830s that really altered the system. Readers may recall the celebrated film with Auden’s poetic commentary and Benjamin Brittan’s music, The Night Mail. In Ireland the system was, as Ferguson describes in detail, just as integrated. The increasing speed of communication by letter, by telegram and later by telephone, all of which came under the same state aegis, had profound consequences for the political developments. With the development of speedy communication it became harder to hide things (a phenomenon we have seen repeated with the mobile phone and the internet).
Of course the postal service served also to a greater integration with the UK, and then to break it, thanks in part to the pioneering work of the novelist Anthony Trollope In Ireland he found not only a wife and began his family, but became very much his own man, and became a writer.
The Post Office through its employment of many to carry the mail did the same for thousands. The postman became an essential character in communities in all across the country.
Ferguson does not fail to deal with the technical developments of the telegraph and then the telephone, but alas neither in the event provided the “bond of perpetual peace and friendship” the pioneers hoped for. Technical developments rarely do – as we know too well in this age of atomic power.
But the chapters dealing with the employees of the post office are also enlightening. The development of the system, or rather its decline in the eyes of many, is dealt with in the last 50 pages.
But local historians will find information and inspiration in the appendices which deal with the base of the whole affair, the local postmasters (and mistresses) bringing to mind for readers old enough the celebrated ‘Battle of Baltinglass’ recounted by the American Lawrence Earl, in which present day readers will find echoes of the shenanigans of politicians relating to local affairs that will awake present day echoes.
Are we entering into the last days of a great Victorian institution? Many concerned for the social foundations of rural and inner city Ireland will hope not.
The post office over the more recent part of our history described by the author became an essential component of the rural, indeed parish scene. Just as the Garda represented the security guaranteed by the State at the local level, so the branch of the post office represented the social reach of the government into the parish.
The post office that flourished in the last century was where the pension (introduced in 1911) was collected, where government warnings about noxious weeds could be read with care, the money orders from Boston, Massachusetts, cashed, and where forms of all kinds including dog and gun licences were to be obtained. If the parish churches were the soul of the district, the post office was its heart.
If parishes want to preserve their post offices they must act now, in the city and the countryside. The internet has drained away much of that government business; so surely it is time that every village had in its post office a computer terminal dedicated to the needs of those who are not internet savvy. This is a very necessary social subsidy, and to hell with cost efficiencies.
The post office in the last three centuries moved with technology for the benefit of the people, as Stephen Ferguson describes in these altogether splendid pages. It must continue to do so.