Tuesday 27 September 2016

Royal Mail letter boxes provide a truly inclusive history lesson on our doorstep

Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30

Closeup on a woman's hand as she is posting a letter
Closeup on a woman's hand as she is posting a letter

When I was growing up in Dublin, one of the big political and environmental questions was the demolition of Georgian Dublin. Some of the old houses built under the reigns of the Hanoverian kings George II and George III - both extremely unsympathetic to Ireland - between 1730 and 1800 were in dire straits. Gardiner Street, the setting for Sean O'Casey's Dublin plays, was a slum, and so was much of North Dublin.

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Architects and builders wanted all this old stuff destroyed, and so did many Irish nationalists. Georgian Dublin was denounced as "a relic of British imperialism", erected at a time when Ireland was seriously neglected, in a century which ended with the abhorred Act of Union. Yet there were many protests against the destruction of this architectural inheritance and eventually, much was saved.

The old Georgian houses of Dublin are now a matter of pride, and of "heritage", too. We hear no more about the "British Imperialism" which they represent: on the contrary, it's underlined that Irish artists and artisans (and Italian ones too) embellished them, and in any case, heritage is now regarded as something inclusive. Would we pull down Trinity College Dublin because Elizabeth I intended it to be a means to Anglicise the Irish?

It's a lesser cause, but there are, similarly, some advocates today who would choose to remove the monograms of British monarchs which still remain on some of our post-boxes. Sinn Féin has made the point on several occasions that the letters which stand for "Victoria Regina", "Edward Rex" or "George Rex" on older letter boxes would be removed under a Sinn Féin administration. A letter writer to the Irish Independent last week, said these "VR", "ER" and "GR" initials filled him with disgust - why should the initials of a British monarch remain in a modern republic?

Not all letter boxes do carry these monograms: many have the logo of An Post, and any which have been erected since independence would not, of course, bear the imprint of the crown. But those that do are, surely, historical artefacts in a similar way to Georgian architecture: that's to say, they were put in place by the royal mail under the reigns of these three monarchs - Victoria, Edward VII and George V - and it would be historically dishonest to pretend that it was otherwise.

Moreover, many Irish people were grateful to the Englishman who brought the royal mail to Ireland: the novelist Anthony Trollope, who, as an unhappy post office official was sent to Ireland in 1841. Ireland was good to Trollope - he really discovered himself in the Irish countryside, met his wife (in Cork), and most important for a writer, discovered his literary "voice" when lodging in the townland of Drumsna, Co Leitrim. He wrote his first two novels there - 'The Macdermots of Ballycloran' and 'The Kellys and the O'Kellys' - by rising at 4am and writing a thousand words before breakfast.

As his day job, he worked hard to bring the services of the British post office, and the letter box, to Ireland - an object which he virtually invented. He lived in this country until 1859.

Those letter boxes symbolise the establishment of a safe and reliable postal service, launched under Trollope's stewardship. The reliability of the mail service was crucial: Irish emigrants abroad knew they could send money and postal orders with complete assurance of its safe arrival. That was a big factor in sustaining families, particularly in the west of Ireland, over the needy times. The legacy of the British postal service endured over the decades, and the prestige of its reputation was seamlessly transferred to An Post. The postmaster - and often, postmistress - remained an important figure in Irish local life.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were four postal deliveries per day in the Dublin suburbs. My grandmother would write to my mother from Co Galway, putting the letter in the box by 11.30am (always ending her correspondence with "in haste for the post"), and the letter would reach Sandymount by the 4 o'clock delivery.

As it happens, Trollope's centenary - he was born on April 24 1815 is coming up - and Drumsna still honours his memory. (Nearby Banagher, on the Shannon, was also a significant location for Trollope, as was Mallow, in Co Cork.)

So the traditional letter box - yes, with its monarchical monograms - is part of our history. To remove the insignia would be like saying "this never occurred". Younger people today may communicate electronically, but there is still a place for the personal letter and the greetings card, and those old monograms left on a letter box, now appropriately painted green, teach a history lesson.

They could teach a lesson of "inclusiveness", too. After Eire officially became a Republic, at Easter 1949, some of the crown monograms were removed from Irish letter boxes. Senator David Norris remembered his Protestant relations in the Irish midlands being terribly upset about this - it was as if they, too, were being airbrushed out of Irish heritage and location. Their families had served the crown in the past, and they felt that historical attachment.

But as with Dublin's Georgian buildings, there is a greater emphasis today - and rightly so - on integrating our history, of acknowledging that it is multi-faceted and complex, and that there are many different threads which make up a nation's story. And it is only the historical truth to say that the letter box promulgated by Anthony Trollope and brought to us by the royal mail has been an artefact of great use and benefit. Put up more, by all means, but don't fake the past by removing the insignia of history.


Irish Independent

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