'Have you no news?': The Banshees of Inisherin - set in 1923 - featured a scene in which the postmistress was painting over a postbox with a British crown cipher. Banshees of Inisherin/Twitter
ciphers of the past

The strange history of Ireland's British Empire-era postboxes

An Post archivist Stephen Ferguson tells The Journal about the quirks and surprises of these everyday objects.

THERE ARE A surprising amount of them still around. And these days the biggest threats to their existence tend to be rogue lorries and, surprisingly, a thriving blackmarket for stolen postboxes.

Ireland’s British Empire-era postboxes are, however, surprisingly resistant to World War Two bombs, as An Post archivist Stephen Ferguson explained to The Journal.

There are a total of 5,000 or so postboxes across the country – some well over a century old and others far more modern. People are often caught off-guard noticing the number of postboxes bearing the royal seal of Britain’s monarchs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, he said.

Until the War of Independence began, every postbox around the country had the seal of whatever monarch was on the British throne when it was installed and while most have been replaced, there are a surprising amount dotted around the country.

“Up until up until a relatively recent time there would occasionally be a letter that would come in to us at An Post from somebody not happy that there was still a royal seal – a cipher is the term we use – on one of our boxes,” Ferguson explained.

Shortly after the formation of the Freestate and the Department of Posts and Telegrams, postal workers began grinding the seal of Britain’s Victoria, George and Edward off postboxes although they left several hundred intact.

“There was partly a financial angle as to why not all of them were replaced, maybe just a more mature attitude once we finally had independence. But mostly it wasn’t really the best use of time and resources for the postal service to be going around chasing these up,” Ferguson said.

While the effort of removing all royal ciphers was too difficult, slapping on a fresh coat of paint onto postboxes was a quicker and more noticeable solution for the Irish postal service of the early 1920s.

In recent months, eagle-eyed cinema-goers may have noted a scene in the Banshees of Inisherin that features the local postmistress taking a tin of green paint to a red wall-mounted postbox.

Under British rule, postboxes in Ireland were the same shade of famous ‘pillarbox red’ as postboxes in the UK are to this day, but this was replaced by the current ‘Saorstát green’ shade as it was called.

“It’s ironic really because the very first postboxes on both islands going back to the 1850s were green before the British red colour was adopted in the 1870s. So we went green – red – green. On older boxes that have chipping paint you can see the red underneath from 100 years ago.”

The Blackmarket

As time passes older postboxes often need to be retired to museums or put into storage due to their age, which is understandable seeing as they’ve been around decades longer than the country they’re located in.

“The oldest postbox still in use is from approximately 1858 and in Cork’s Kent Station. In the foyer we have our little postbox which is small and quiet, tucked in at the wall,” Ferguson said.

It’s important to move vintage boxes to safer location to prevent them being damaged.

Traffic, particularly lorries, are prone to hitting postboxes near roads and they can often be put out of service temporarily by people trying to fit big parcels into postboxes built for the smaller letters of the past.

More dramatically, there is a thriving blackmarket for people who want smaller mounted postboxes – known as lampboxes – for their garden or living room and decide that a replica just isn’t good enough.

“Unfortunately, there are cases of theft, that’s particularly the case in relation to the little lampboxes that are mounted on poles. People come along and cut down the pole to steal them and there is quite a market for them.”

“Some of the boxes are worth a considerable amount of money, I’m afraid. You find boxes on eBay or similar sites being offered for sale. There have been cases where we’ve had to get our investigation people involved with particular sellers.”

A Victorian-era postbox was stolen from rural Donegal last year, while two vanished from Co Limerick.

Although it’s quite easy for a lorry to take out a pillarbox (the tall cylindrical boxes that are what typically come to mind when a postbox is mentioned), bombs actually have a harder time of it.

The North Strand area of Dublin was bombed by Nazi airplanes in May 1941, resulting in the deaths of 28 people, over 90 injuries and the destruction of 300 houses. 

“The local post office was destroyed, but the the letterbox outside survived. I think the  cylindrical construction of some of these things mean that they’re very hard to destroy with a general blast like that. If you drive a truck into it, yes, it’ll shatter. But quite a lot of times they survive destruction that’s going on around them in terms of explosions or fire.”

belfastbox A 'Belfast box' with extremely narrow slits An Post An Post

From surviving explosions to preventing them, the postal system on this island has had to face the challenge of keeping the world going as normal at the height of the Troubles.

“If you wanted to put a bomb somewhere, the large apertures on postboxes were perfect. People would sometimes put lit cigarettes or something in there as a prank. But when something is lethal, action has to be taken.

“The Belfast box, as it was called, was designed out of necessity with an extra narrow slit, so that you could only fit through an ordinary letter, there’s no possibility of putting in a letter bomb that will either go off inside or go off later on in the sorting office.

Postboxes are an easy target for vandalism, terrorism or making a political point, he said, because they are a symbol of state authority that can be found almost everywhere.

Belfast boxes went into use in Northern Ireland and England but were phased out.

Cultural Exchange

Although the number of British-era postboxes is likely to decline slightly as time passes, in many cases “there’s no reason why they can’t go on being used with a reasonable amount of regular maintenance and care,” Ferguson pointed out.

qe2 National Inventory of Architectural Heritage National Inventory of Architectural Heritage

Letter-writing continues to fall out of fashion and older postboxes are occasionally put into museums (or stolen), but there’s one box with the cipher of a British monarch that won’t need retiring anytime soon because its surprisingly new.

A Queen Elizabeth II wall-box was erected in the the village of Shanagarry, east Cork in 1987 and the reason surrounding it remains mysterious, even to Ferguson.

A postbox dedicated to someone who wasn’t even born when her family ceased to rule the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ is a bit peculiar.

“I remember I looked into it with local management eight or nine years ago but got no clear information. Maybe it should just remain an intriguing secret!” he joked.

He added that there is also a French postbox in Kilrush, Co Clare, although for a more obvious reason than the QE2 box.

“Occasionally, I’ve been approached by foreign postal administrations to do a swap of a box with them. We may take a French box, and I send them an Irish box. Sometimes it’s for a museum, but there are a couple of places in this country where you will find a French box in service within our postal system.”

P1020224 Stephen Ferguson Stephen Ferguson

The town on the Atlantic coast is also twinned with the French town of Plouzané in Brittany, and there may well be Irish postbox somewhere in France, Ferguson added.

“It’s worthwhile people opening their eyes to take take a look at these little items of street furniture across the country, because you can learn a lot from them.”

He added, with a smile: “And hopefully people will post a letter or two as well to keep us in business a little while longer.”

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