The Post Office in Ireland

Themes to explore:  

  • The role of the Post Office - past and present.
  • Changes in communications and technology.
  • Social history, the pace of life, local communities.

Today we take communications technology pretty much for granted. There are so many ways to keep in contact and the speed of e-mail, Skype, instant messaging and texting mean that the traditional letter has been largely overtaken as an everyday means of communication. It’ still there, of course, for occasions – happy and sometimes sad – where we want to show that our message and the words we use are special and chosen with particular care. It’s also true that everyone loves getting letters – taking the time to write them is what people find hard.

What we take for granted is really very new – think back a few years to days before computers, for instance, and think about Ireland, a small, poor country on the very edge of Europe with a tradition of people moving abroad to find work. The Post Office has helped keep Irish people in contact with their families at home and abroad for many generations. The Great Famine of the 1840s and economic troubles since have forced millions of Irish people to emigrate from Ireland in search of work. For many Irish people having a postal service in their local village meant that the “American Wake”, as it was called, was not the last contact people would have together. Letters would travel thousands of miles across the world allowing families and friends to stay in touch. This helped to reduce the feeling of loss and suffering for wives, children and parents left behind. Letters allowed the millions of Irish emigrants to Britain, America, Canada and Australia to send money, parcels and photographs home to their families.

At home, think of how the Post Office helped small isolated communities like the people who lived on remote islands off the West coast, for example, where life was tough and contact with the mainland depended on the mood of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Letters, parcels and supplies of every kind were often carried across the sea to the islands by the local mail boat and outgoing letters taken on board by the ship’s captain.

Of course, the Post Office didn’t just deliver letters. As it grew in importance it took on a great variety of other work too and was itself involved in some of the great technological developments of the past. Morse code, for instance, the clever system that allowed electrical dots and dashes to represent letters of the alphabet, gave rise to telegrams which were the equivalent of our e-mail. Their creation in the mid 19th century brought about a revolution in communications between towns, countries and continents. Wires were laid across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean enabling a person in Galway to communicate with someone in Boston via the Post Office’s telegraph system.

A little later the telephone was invented and, once again, the system was run by the Post Office. At first most people didn’t have telephones in their own houses so they would go to their local post office to make a telephone call. For those who could afford to install their own telephone, an operator in the post office would be in charge of making sure the right lines and wires were connected for you to speak to the person you wanted. With nearly everyone having a mobile phone today, it is hard to believe that in the early days a village might have only three or four private telephones –  the local doctor, the priest or clergyman and perhaps the main businessman or landlord. Sixty years ago Father Varley, the priest of the Aran island of  Inis Mór off Galway, was telephone No. 4 and he had a double need of it as he was also a contact for the lifeboat on the island! 

Since 1861, the Post Office has run the Post Office Savings Bank for the State. It was set up to provide banking facilities for the majority of people who would not have had bank accounts. It still works today, 150 years later, but now the Post Office offers various other savings and banking options for people as well. Paying bills, getting your pension, buying foreign currency for your holidays – all these things can be done in person at your local post office or sometimes indeed on-line via the internet. So the Post Office today continues to help people do lots of things besides buying stamps and posting a letter!


PDF for Download                 The Post Office in Ireland