Dublin’s General Post Office
Themes to explore:
The history of Dublin.
- Buildings and architecture.
- Life and work.
- Changes in technology and business.
Dublin’s GPO has always been the headquarters of the Post Office in Ireland but it has not always been located in O’Connell Street. The first recorded Post Office in Dublin was located near Dublin Castle, where the Government was, but as the postal service grew the main office in Dublin moved premises a number of times ending up for several years in College Green, opposite the Bank of Ireland. That building became too small and the Post Office decided to build a new GPO in Sackville Street which was the old name for O’Connell Street.
The New GPO
Building work began in 1814 and Francis Johnston, a well-known Irish architect, who had designed some fine private houses like Townley Hall in county Meath and also done work on public buildings like the Bank of Ireland and St. George’s Church in Dublin, was asked to design the new GPO in Sackville Street.
The GPO was designed as a purpose-built General Post Office which would cater for the postal business and its customers. It was also to be a fine, distinguished building that would add to Dublin’s architectural beauty and emphasise the important role of the Post Office in Irish life. Johnston’s design managed to do all these things. There was a fine public office for business at the front of the building, a courtyard for the mail coaches at the back and an imposing façade complete with classical columns and statues on the roof. The columns were of Portland stone and the rest of the stonework was granite from county Wicklow. There was also some accommodation for staff in the GPO in those days. The man in charge of the Post Office, Sir Edward Lees, had a spacious set of apartments for himself, his family and servants and his own entrance door off Sackville Street. Ordinary staff, however, had to make do with rather more cramped rooms, some of them without a fireplace or window!
The whole building was built in less than 4 years at a cost of about £50,000 or €65,000 in today’s currency which doesn’t sound too much for such a large and grand building. However, in those days, people earned much less money and one of the postmen who worked in the GPO would have been paid about £40 or just €50 for his whole year’s work. When it was completed Dubliners were very proud of their new post office which was one of the finest buildings in the city.
Since then, the lay-out of the building has been changed many times and everything except the front of the GPO was destroyed in 1916, of course. There is no longer an area at the back for mail coaches or stables for horses. The living quarters are long gone and there is no letter sorting office in the GPO any more. The telegraph and telephone work that was important for a long time is gone too. Indeed, the area which once housed the public telephone kiosks is now home to the An Post Museum. However, some things are still the same – you can buy stamps and post letters, receive your pension and save your money in the Post Office Savings Bank – and there are always new things to do too, like buying a mobile phone or changing your money into pounds or dollars before a holiday.
Working in the GPO
As times change, conditions change for staff as well. Before electricity people had to rely on natural light in daytime and candles and oil lamps once it grew dark. What heat there was would have come from coal fires with much heavy and dirty work to be done lighting and cleaning grates. Sorting mail was done at tall tables with pigeon holes for filing letters and clerical work at high desks would have been the norm for very many years in the GPO. Some mechanical aids, like lifts and a conveyor belt for moving mail bags, were put installed shortly before 1916 and calculating machines helped staff in the accounting departments. Until relatively recently, most of the Post Office’s business was recorded in huge ledgers, neatly completed with hand-written entries in ink. Files were opened on every aspect of postal business with correspondence and business decisions recorded on paper in those files. As everywhere, computers, e-mail and the internet have made a huge difference to how people work in the GPO today.
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