The GPO – Two Hundred Years
Dublin’s GPO is indelibly associated with the 1916 Rising and the events that led to the creation of an independent Irish state. The stern grandeur of its façade, Irish flag flying proudly aloft, is an image that evokes a justifiable sense of heroism and nationhood. In the course of its long history, the GPO has witnessed much more than the events of Easter Week. The foundation stone was laid by Lord Whitworth on the 12th August 1814 with £60 spent on entertainment for the occasion. The architect was Francis Johnston whose considerable abilities place him in the first rank of Irish architects. In its GPO Dublin gained a building that was, in the words of one contemporary, “commodious, well arranged… and highly ornamental to the city.”
The novelist, Anthony Trollope, who arrived at the GPO’s doors in 1841, had more on his mind than the building’s architectural features. Branded “worthless” by Post Office officials in London, he was sent to Ireland where Hibernia, standing on the GPO pediment, obviously took a liking to him for he quickly built a reputation as a highly capable employee! As the century progressed, the GPO presided over an organisation that – through mail, financial services, telegraphs and telephones – touched the lives of countless people every day. It became the centre of communications in Ireland and, for a few people, an unacceptable manifestation of British influence in the country. Its occupation on Easter Monday 1916, therefore, had both a practical and symbolic purpose.
Reconstruction and extension of the building after it was destroyed was undertaken by an OPW team led by TJ Byrne who introduced the GPO Arcade, studios for Radio Éireann on the Henry Street wing and the Central Telegraph Office in the Prince’s Street block. The enlarged Public Office, formally reopened by W.T. Cosgrave in 1929, retained elements of Johnston’s design whilst also introducing some attractive art deco features. The grandeur and airy spaciousness of the office, combined with some fine craftsmanship, produced what remains an impressive and rather beautiful interior.
The postal business throughout the world has undergone great change and buildings which were once the pride of their cities have been sold and turned to other purposes. The General Post Office is remarkable not just for the special place it holds in Irish history and for its handsome architecture but for the fact that – after two centuries – it continues successfully to fulfil its original purpose as the headquarters of the Irish Post Office. A place of business and public service, of remembrance, protest and pageantry, the GPO deserves the unique place it holds in the affections of Irish people everywhere.
The story of the GPO is told in The GPO - 200 Years of History, available from the Museum shop in the GPO or online at www.irishstamps.ie and a temporary exhibition on the GPO is currently running at the Irish Architectural Archive in Merrion Square Dublin.