Friday 20 September 2019

Mary Kenny: You'll have mail!

It's great to see a boom in An Post - and the promise of more post offices

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I love post offices. I love standing in a queue in a local post office. I love the neighbourliness of the people, and I love exchanging chat with the post office staff, about the weather, the state of the neighbourhood, and, if it's Linda, whether we're succeeding in our current diet and fighting the flab. (There was a power cut when I was in a post office queue last week, and everyone started joking about the Russians starting on cyberwarfare.)

Post offices aren't just places where you mail letters and parcels and attend to other administrative duties: like libraries, churches and the local pub, they're places of community exchange. When my Dublin abode changed from Kildare Street - with a lovely little post office in nearby Merrion Row - to Donnybrook, I was crestfallen to discover that Donnybrook has nearly every convenience except a post office. There used to one - 'co-located' in An Post's jargon - at the back of a shop, but it was taken away as part of one of those 'rationalising' (cost- cutting) measures.

Well, now that An Post has announced an uplifting increase in profits - €8.4 million in 2017 - maybe they'll restore a Donnybrook 'co-located' post office. Or maybe they won't. There is a commitment to having a post office available within every 15 kilometres of more than 500 people, and there are post offices within this ambit of Dublin 4. And maybe it's more important to focus on more rural areas, where it's desperately important to keep post offices going - and open new ones.

The 20 new post offices which the chief executive of An Post, David McRedmond, has promised will be a vital addition to rural services, and the €50 million investment plan is part of a 'reinvention' of the post office.

It's been taken for granted in recent years that postal services were just old technology. When did you last hear of a young person writing letters and buying stamps? Postal services were brought to Ireland by that fine novelist Anthony Trollope in the 1840s - while resident in Leitrim - along with the invention of the letterbox, but by the 21st century things had moved on.

No longer were Irish emigrants sending remittances back home by postal order: money transfers were now being done through internet banking. You didn't even do motor insurance or pensions or children's allowances at the PO any more - it was all done electronically and, increasingly, online. Online commerce has been affecting all trade but, paradoxically, the postal services have now begun to benefit from this. Because when you order a book, a dress or a gadget online, someone has to deliver it. Amazon (and others) sometimes send stuff to me by FedEx, but the most reliable way of getting your online deliveries, in my experience, is by the traditional postal service. David McRedmond candidly attributes the boom in An Post's business to the burgeoning phenomenon of e-commerce. He seems to be full of energetic ideas for expanding the post offices into financial services, more links with other European postal services, retail opportunities, collection and return services for online purchases - and all post offices to be open over the lunch hour, in alignment with modern working practices. Great!

The restoration of the Saturday delivery for parcels has substantially contributed to An Post's reinvigoration. It's probably too much to hope for a restoration of a Saturday letters delivery, but it's worth pointing out that one of the advantages of the Royal Mail, in the North and in Britain, is the regular Saturday service. It means that longer public holidays aren't just a three- or four-day stretch without the postie calling.

Bringing An Post into profit has been an achievement (and settling a deal with the Irish Postmasters' Union too) but the postal service is more than about business. It plays a real part in social cohesion in any society. The tradition of the village postmistress enhanced employment opportunities for women, and it was an early sign that Germany was going wrong in the 1930s when they began to sack the postmistresses, to make more jobs for men. The traditional postmistress - she was, at one time, also in charge of long-distance telephone connections - knew everything that was happening in a local community.

I heard it said, in times gone by, that the postmistress was such an observant person that she knew when a woman was pregnant before the woman knew herself - just by observing body language, gait, complexion. True, they sometimes had the reputation of being nosy parkers, but a degree of nosiness isn't always a bad thing, when it comes to crime or suspicious behaviour. 'Surveillance' is the new arm against international terrorism: post- mistresses of old knew all about it.

Though they wouldn't be monitoring private life these days, there's still a role for a degree of watchfulness. A postie on his (or her) beat gets to know a lot about local situations. If loneliness is said to be a scourge of modern life, the postie may well discern those who do feel a bit isolated.

The General Post Office in Dublin's O'Connell Street has played an iconic role in Irish history: and even while Patrick Pearse was reading out the 1916 Declaration, some people inside the building - according to Brendan Behan - were still asking where they could buy a stamp!


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