Shortly after Ireland became a republic in 1949, an attempt was made to scrape the royal insignia off our postboxes. The boxes had been painted green after the establishment of the Free State in 1922 but the monograms of British monarchs — Victoria, Edward VII and George V — remained beneath the national colour.
Senator David Norris once recalled how upset his relations in the midlands were at the proposal. They were Irish Protestants of the Southern unionist tradition. Although they fully accepted an independent Irish state, they felt distressed that an elemental, if symbolic, part of their history should be erased.
In the event, there was a compromise. The insignia was removed from some postboxes, but many more were left alone. There seemed to be more important things to worry about in the 1950s.
To this day, there are numerous postboxes bearing those royal monograms, although every now and then someone calls for them to be removed. The most recent was Sinn Féin councillor John Costelloe in Limerick.
“We are no longer under British rule,” he told a council meeting. “Why do we have British insignia along our main thoroughfare? We can grind the insignia off. Let’s put An Post insignia on it, not the royal coat of arms. We are an independent country.”
I doubt that younger Irish Protestants today in the Republic — the North is another matter — would have the same reactions as Norris’s family 70 years ago. The Southern unionist tradition has faded into history. Some might even agree with Costelloe.
But many other people would oppose his proposition on the same grounds as Labour party councillor Conor Sheehan: that it would destroy the truth of historical narrative. “Essentially what he’s proposing is taking a grinder to a protected structure,” he said.
“It would be like... going to King John’s Castle with a sledgehammer and knocking off part of it.” That historic Limerick monument is also a relic of an English king, albeit an Anglo-Norman one.
There is an awful lot of this legacy stuff scattered throughout this country, from Leinster House, built by the Earl of Kildare in 1745, to the Taoiseach’s Office in Merrion Street, whose first brick was laid by Edward VII for a college of science. Consider the Royal Dublin Society, in which edifice Sinn Féin has been content to hold its ardfheiseanna.
Look closely and you may spot an old image of the British lion and unicorn over a courthouse. Should they be done away with too?
There was a sense of this spirit in the destruction of many Georgian buildings in the 1960s.
The feeling that they represented a remnant of imperialism could be heard in the local government minister Kevin Boland’s dismissal of objectors as “belted earls”. (That said, the motive for the new buildings was as likely to be architects’ ambition to erect their own creations or developers’ desire to build apartments as it was a rebuff to George IV).
Much of Georgian Dublin was saved by the public protests of a remarkably ecumenical alliance — the Communist Party’s Mick O’Riordan sharing a platform with Fr Michael Sweetman.
Yet Costelloe is not without some support. There are voices calling for the moniker ‘Royal’ to be dropped from all Irish institutions. Why do we still have a Royal Irish Academy? There have been questions, too, in the recent past as to why there continue to be so many British names in Irish streets.
Why shouldn’t Ailesbury Road be renamed Seán McDermott Avenue? I’d be all for it. He was a wonderful person, but you’d need to ask the Ailesbury Road residents. Similarly, the Royal Irish Academy (like the RDS) probably cherishes its brand and the high scholarly reputation that it enjoys just as it is.
It often happens that a new broom seeks to remove everything associated with the ancien régime. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries, and the French Revolution tried to erase every royal association. But with the passage of time, a more reflective approach usually occurs, and the past becomes integrated into the diverse narrative of a nation.
There’s also a question of telling history’s truth. The postal service was launched by the British in the 1840s: the novelist Anthony Trollope pioneered it in Ireland on behalf of the Royal Mail. In the short reign of Edward VII (1901-1910) more letterboxes were provided in Ireland than in any other period.
The insignia tells that story, while the overpainting of An Post’s green rightly shows that Ireland has now integrated and absorbed the postal tradition.
Being able to integrate diverse parts of the past is a sign of confidence and maturity. Constantly wanting to erase the past is a sign of insecurity and chippiness — and a lack of confidence in a living Irish identity.
Moreover, if we hope to move forward with a “shared Ireland” to be inclusive of the North, then surely accepting the mingling of all traditions is a necessary element of the project.
And there’s another constructive alternative: put up more letterboxes bearing the An Post insignia. We still need them.