Tuesday 21 November 2017

Eircode: right idea, wrong direction

New postcodes are supposed to make it easier to find addresses, but some believe the Government took a wrong turn with its €27m scheme. Greg Harkin and Ralph Riegel take to the highways and byways to find out

Iris and Ronald Boggs from Malin Town, Co. Donegal who have an new Eircode for the family butchers in the town, but their home, which is right next door does not exist, according the new Eircodes. Photo: Cristeph/Brian McDaid
Iris and Ronald Boggs from Malin Town, Co. Donegal who have an new Eircode for the family butchers in the town, but their home, which is right next door does not exist, according the new Eircodes. Photo: Cristeph/Brian McDaid
Colm O'Connell and Bosco Creed of O'Connell Group, Glanmire, Co Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Les Mahon, IT consultant in Glanworth, Co. Cork.

The ever-increasing number of visitors travelling the Wild Atlantic Way into north Inishowen often stop in Malin. Just a few kilometres from Carndonagh, you cross a bridge over the Ballyboe River and enter a village so gobsmackingly beautiful you would be a fool not to take a break here.

But tourists pull over not to admire the pristine village green or the array of hanging-baskets. "Is this Malin?" is the never-ending question.

It is, of course, Malin. It's Malin Town. But it's not what the tourists are looking for. Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, is another 16km up the road.

Or "10 miles" as Rosemary Kilfeather, who runs Lily's café in Malin puts it.

The pink clock on the wall at Lily's is stuck permanently on 11.26am. The décor - loved by all who come here - is 1950s with china cups to match. Eircodes are a million miles away. And there isn't an Eircode for the café, just one for the bar in the room next door.

For decades, tourists have been left scratching their heads at the Byzantine nature of some Irish postal addresses and directions, but now Irish households the length and breadth of the country are bracing themselves for similar confusion as the long-awaited but much-derided Eircode postcode system is rolled out.

Ireland had been one of the few developed countries without an empirical means of identifying a postal address and the seven character alpha-numeric code sent to 2.2 million homes and businesses over the next few weeks is set to change all that.

"This is a part of Ireland where everyone knows everyone so for me it's a waste of €27m," Rosemary says. "I'd be afraid townland names would disappear altogether if we start using a series of numbers on addresses. We get the odd request for directions and there's never any bother when someone is looking for someone else.

"A lot could have been done with that money and put to a lot better use."

McGonagle's Bar, part of the premises, is listed on Eircode with an address ending with the name of the county town of Lifford, an hour's drive away. It's a throwback to when the mail trains brought all of the county's post to the county capital. The last train to run in Donegal was in 1959.

Across the pristine village green - Malin is more like a large village than a town - Ronald Boggs is the latest member of the family to run the butcher shop there. He and his wife, Iris, are part of a local community group which fought for years to retain the old Telefón box on the square.

They have been given an Eircode for the butcher's shop, but not one for their house next door. "I could maybe understand a postal-code system for big cities like Dublin and Cork but there's absolutely no need for one in rural Ireland, especially if it doesn't even work on Google," father-of-four Ronald says. "I'd be very worried about it replacing local knowledge and local names.

"There's a system in rural Inishowen here, and it's the same in many areas, where people with the same surname get nicknames too. It would be a shame to see that tradition disappear because of a code."

Iris agrees: "Isn't it a shame that we were fighting here to save the phone box from being taken away and having to really fight for it and they're spending money on a stupid postcode. Sums up where we're at really."

A 20-minute drive takes you to the other Malin - Malin Head. There's not a cloud in the sky and people from more than a dozen countries are enjoying the heat and Americanos from Banba's Coffee Shop, a mobile van serving everything from Tayto crisps to lemon drizzle cake.

Local woman Martina Quirke is selling locally produced crafts from her Wild Atlantic Gifts van close by. She's not sure if a postcode will help anyone around here."It might help. I live on top of a hill over there," she says pointing, "there's just us and another family."

A German tourist stops me to ask about the island in the distance. I tell her it's Tory Island, and sits off Gaoth Dobhair, and that locals call it 'Dead Elvis' because Tory on the horizon looks like the king of rock in his coffin, the east of the island looking like the quiff of Presley's hair.

There's little need for a postcode there. Nor, it seems, in Gaoth Dobhair. Set in west Donegal, this Irish-speaking region - population 5,000 - is the most densely populated rural area of western Europe.

Eircode hasn't yet figured out how to deal with the natives of the Gaeltacht or their townland names. And why would you want to give a serial number to a townland with the wonderful name Ard na gCeapairi ('Height of the Sandwiches')? It wasn't named after some supersize snack, but because it's where shepherds used to meet for lunch.

Local historian, writer, actor and secondary school principal Noel Ó Gallchóir reckons Eircode is bureaucracy gone mad. A native of Gaoth Dobhair, now living in Gort a' Choirce, like everyone with a popular surname, he also has a few more names to avoid any confusion. Unofficially, at least, he's Noel Johnny Sheán O'Gallchóir. Johnny was his dad. Seán was his granddad. His wife isn't just Mary - she's Mary Pheadair Bhíg. Her dad was Wee Peadar.

Conradh na Gaeilge activists are far from happy that the native language and its place names have, so far, not made the Eircode system, Noel isn't so sure that's a bad thing. "If we lose our townlands because of it, we'll lose our history," he says.

"A lot of families have extra names to identify them from those with the same surnames. It would be a shame to see that tradition disappear. Some townlands have introduced door numbers for the first time and that's grand but I've yet to find a local postman lost looking for one of us."

Almost 700km south lies another extremity of Ireland with fiercely proud locals. The Mizen Peninsula, in west Cork, is a region that takes enormous pride in the fact an Inch can sometimes be a mile away. Or that the fastest way to your destination can often be in the opposite direction to the town listed on the postal address. Or even that the postman not only personally knows the dozen or so families living on the Crookhaven-Dough Road, but also the names of their pet dogs.

In Munster, where there are at least six different places called 'Inch', the potential for havoc is particularly high. Major hauliers, courier firms and even the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association (IFESA) have warned about the perceived shortcomings of the controversial new system.

In Crookhaven, publican Dermot O'Sullivan says views on Eircode are mixed. "I personally think it is a great idea. But they seem to have gone about it entirely the wrong way. The proof will be in the pudding but I just don't know how many people will actually use it."

Others have far greater concerns. "I think the whole thing beggars belief," says rural post office campaigner John Arnold.

"Of all the things listed as economic or development priorities in Ireland, I have never, ever heard anyone say we needed a postcode system or that the lack of one was holding the economy back. But we seem to have found €27m to spend on introducing the system.

"I find it baffling because there doesn't seem to have been much money available for the rural post office system which has been absolutely decimated over the past decades."

John points out that in 1990, Ireland had 2,400 rural post offices where postmasters and mistresses knew everybody in their district. "That number is now down to around 1,100. It tells its own story. I don't know much about the politics of it but it seems to me Eircode was brought in just because we didn't have a postcode system and everyone else in Europe did, but Ireland already had a next-day postal delivery rate of up to 95pc - it doesn't get much better than that."

IT engineer Les Mahon who operates his firm, GingerTech, from his home in north Cork knows at first hand the idiosyncrasies of the existing postal system. As Les lives outside Glanworth, his mail is delivered from Castletownroche but his postal address is Mallow, a town some 23km away. And yet, Fermoy is just 10km up the road. Despite this, his postal deliveries have been impressively on time.

He views Eircode as a missed opportunity from an IT perspective. "Many European countries have in recent years been adopting a concept called open data," he says. "This is where public bodies release large amounts of the data they gather on the internet for researchers, private companies and interested citizens to do with what they want."

He says this can be an invaluable source of data, as long as no private information is released. "After all, the taxpayers have paid to gather the data, and if private companies can use that data to better serve consumers, why not make it available?

"Contrast that with Eircode which is a deliberately non-intuitive coding system for every building in the State. This system has been purposely designed so that it is not possible to convert real-world coordinates to a postcode without paying for access to the data. This means that it is not possible to assign 'postcodes' to points of interest [such as historic sites or tourist attractions]. It also means that each new building will need to be 'manually' assigned a postcode."

Les argues that Eircode's most short-sighted element is its inability to allow for intelligent systems to be developed to make use of the State's investment in generating the postcode data.

"If the system was truly location based, then it would be possible to automatically identify the number of dwellings in a particular area of a map - information that would be useful if you were, for example, looking to sight a new mobile phone tower or wireless broadband service, or were considering where to expand your home delivery service."

Despite such criticisms, the advocates of Eircode insist it will work. West Cork, for instance, has 44pc of postal premises sharing an address with one or more other properties.

"This causes all sorts of problems for postal services, businesses and ambulances when they are trying to locate local addresses," says the Dunmanway-based TD, Michael McCarthy.

"Eircode rectifies this problem by allocating every premises with their own unique code, removing the potential for any error. In short, it will make life a little easier for people in west Cork."

And yet, key transportation officials aren't convinced. Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association has warned that the system could prove "catastrophic" in emergency situations while some of Ireland's major haulage and courier firms, including FedEx and DHL, say they will not use Eircode.

Even more damningly, leading satnav manufacturers such as TomTom and Garmin say they have no plans, as yet, to adopt the system, which is not even compatible with Google Maps.

Cork-based haulage firm O'Connell Group insists that it does not see itself relying on the new system.

"Postcodes are welcome but in its current format it is simply not a workable solution," a spokesperson said.

"You would also have to question if it is good value for Irish taxpayers' money."

Meanwhile, in Donegal, Noel O Gallchóir retires from Pobalscoil Gaoth Dobhair next month and will keep himself busy with his writings and helping to run Irish language courses in the area.

For the record, anyone wanting to reach him can do so by writing to: Noel Johnny Sheán O'Gallchóir, Gort a' Choirce, Co Donegal.

No Eircode required.

Additional reporting by John Meagher

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