Ever wonder why so many different postage stamps are issued each year? Fifty years ago one-design sets of stamps of different denominations were all we needed, and a special issue, like that created for An Tostal, caused a real stir. Myles McWeeney reports.
Each year anywhere between 42 and 45 postage stamps of totally different design reach Post Offices all over the country. Indeed, since January this year a flood of new stamps has come on the market, including Barry Castle's wonderfully whimsical greeting stamps based on mythical creatures like the Frog Prince, the unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon and Pegasus, the flying horse. In February the Love stamps for St Valentine's Day came out, and, a little later, the stamps commemorating the Jeannie Johnston, the 19th Century emigrant ship. These were issued to coincide with the launch in Kerry of the Millennium Committee-funded replica in May.
Other issues also gracing our envelopes this year are a special Millennium set marking great scientific achievements, which includes stamps depicting the Birr telescope, Nicholas Callan, Galileo, Marie Curie and Einstein. The most recent issue has been the Oscar Wilde commemorative series. This was issued on May 22 to recognise the centenary of Wilde's death in 1900, and still to come are a series celebrating the forthcoming Sydney Olympics, a series recognising European cultural achievements and the Hurling Team of the Millennium, which will be released in August.
The answer to why so many is simple. Cash flow.
Stamps are now big business, and An Post makes somewhere between £2.5 and £3 million each year from selling stamps and a whole range of supplementary philatelic product to stamp collectors all over the world. The company now has a database of over 60,000 philatelists, or stamp collectors, two-thirds of them overseas, many of who express interest in some or all of each issue of our stamps.
According to Pat Carolan, the Head of An Post's Philatelic Division, Irish postage stamps have a high reputation abroad for their quality and design. ``Being a national post office our aim is primarily to reflect Irish subjects and Irish themes on our postage stamps,'' Mr Carolan says. ``But when we are designing the programme of issues we try to see where there are areas that might interest specialist collectors who need not necessarily be Irish. Stamps portraying ships, for instance, are very popular world-wide, as are ones with bird or animal illustrations on them.'' Our current definitive series, for instance, is a delightful set of 30 different illustration of our native Irish birds designed by celebrated ornithological illustrator Killian Mullarney.
Over the years many well known Irish artists have created stamps. Perhaps the most prominent is Louis le Brocquy, who became the most expensive living Irish artist a few weeks ago when one of his paintings was sold at Sothebys for £1.15 million. Back in 1984 le Brocquy created three stamps commemorating our then Irish Olympic Gold Medallists, hammer thrower Pat O'Callaghan, hurdler Bob Tisdall and 1500 metres hero Ronnie Delaney.
The most prolific artist of all for An Post has been Robert Ballagh, who has more than 50 different stamp designs under his belt to date. His most recent designs were those issued for the bi-Centenary of the 1798 rebellion.
Not far behind him is Michael Craig, who has drawn two definitive series for An Post, one on our architectural heritage and the other on our Celtic treasures. Michael is unique amongst those who design our stamps in that he draws each one to actual size, using an incredibly fine nib and a magnifying glass.
The most successful issue ever has been this year's Gaelic Football Team of the Millennium, which came about through collaboration between An Post, the GAA and the Irish Independent. Over a million of these special stamps, in sheets with portraits of the 15 individual players selected, greats such as Mick O'Connell, Pat Spillane, and Kevin Heffernan, were printed. They are already collectors items, and were drawn by Finbar O'Connor, who also did a series published in 1999 on extinct Irish mammals like the Mammoth, bear and great deer.
Pat Carolan and his team work at least two years in advance. ``We start by canvassing all the major institutions in Ireland, the churches, museums, libraries and so on, and ask them if there are any significant anniversaries in that particular year,'' he says. Three years ago, when we were planning the stamps for 2000, we had a list of more than 160 events and people to consider.''
The considering is done by An Post's Philatelic Advisory Committee, which is chaired by retired banker Dermot Egan, who is also Chairman of the National Concert Hall. Among the members of the Advisory Committee are Pat Wallace of the National Museum, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Raymond Keaveney, Martin Manseragh, and Jean Varga, a French philatelic expert and highly respected stamp dealer in Paris.
The Committee recommendations are then included in the programme of issues for the year, which is sent to the Department of Enterprise. After the programme is ratified by the Government, which has the final say as to which stamps will be issued, it is passed to a second committee, the Stamp Design Advisory Committee. Among its members are artist Tom Ryan RHA, Ciaran Macgonigle, Director of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and the former Director of the National Library, Dr Patricia Donlan.
This committee's task is to select artists and designers to create the stamps that will come into circulation in the future and to approve the artwork submitted. It would be fair to say that no artist is going to retire to the South of France on the proceeds of his or her work for An Post. There is a set fee of £600 per design, and in case you are working out that Finbar O'Connor made £9,000 for his 15 portraits for the Millennium GAA stamps you'd be dead wrong. ``In the case of multiple designs we negotiate an overall fee,'' Pat Carolan says.
Once a stamp has been printed and the pre-determined print run completed, no further examples will ever be printed again. The reason for this is that collectors get very irritated if the rarity value of their stamps is diluted. In the old days flaws sometimes appeared on stamps, greatly enhancing their value to collectors. For instance, Declan O'Kelly of Cathedral Stamps in Dublin says that the most valuable Irish stamp is an unused 1922 1 Penny three line overprint Sáor Stat Eireann. If the accent on the `a' in Stat is missing the unused stamp is worth £15,000. The same stamp with the accent in place is worth just 10p.
Today all stamps are printed by the lithographic method from negatives, so there is little chance of errors creeping in during the process and stamp collectors are reduced to looking for minor variations in the paper they are printed on.