The first act of the Irish Free State after independence was to paint all the post boxes throughout the country green. It was a brilliant stroke – royal red replaced by emerald green in one of the most visible and ubiquitous symbols of national administration.
The Penfold post box in Skibbereen, one of only a handful left in Ireland
Ironically, the post boxes themselves did not change, so the royal insignias were simply over-painted by the new colour. The result was a charming mixture of tradition and adaptation that serves as an ongoing reminder of the history of Ireland and its institutions.
Special stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2015 to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Anthony Trollope
The first post boxes were introduced to Ireland in the 1850s by the novelist Anthony Trollope, then a Surveyor for the Post Office. Trollope was happy in Ireland and wrote several novels and stories set here, although they are not the works for which he is most remembered.
We don’t usually think of Anthony Trollope as an Irish novelist but he lived here for almost 20 years, spent working for the Post Office and writing
One of the earliest models for a free-standing post box came to be known as the Penfold, after its designer, J W Penfold. They were manufactured and deployed from 1866 to 1879 and very few have survived in Ireland to this day – only six are known and of these only three are still in operation. Skibbereen has one of those, and very fine it is: one hundred and fifty years old and still in daily use!
The hexagonal Penfold designed was apparently inspired by the Temple of the Winds in Athens (although the Temple is octagonal), with the addition of an acanthus leaf on the cap and a smart bud-shaped finial and beading.
Photograph of the Temple of the Winds from Wikipedia
Our Skibbereen Penfold is in excellent condition: note the royal insignia and the entwined VR for Victoria Regina.
The Penfolds were replaced by round pillar boxes because there were too many complaints that the hexagonal design caused letters to stick. These cylindrical boxes can be seen everywhere in Ireland still, although mostly in towns and cities. The one below is on Grand Parade in Cork.
In his book The Irish Post Box, which I gratefully acknowledge as the source of much of the information in this blog post, Stephen Ferguson describes the three main types of post boxes that have been developed for use in Ireland: pillar, wall and lamp. In rural areas, such as West Cork, wall and lamp boxes are the most common forms I have encountered.
Here’s a representative wall box in Skibbereen. Interestingly, it’s part of a mini-complex of historical markers including the plaque to the Clerke sisters (see my posts From Skibbereen to the Moon Part 1 and Part 2 for more about these remarkable women and their family) and signs for the Skibbereen heritage walking trail, all mounted together on the wall of what was the main bank in Skibbereen during the Famine period.
The box was manufactured by W T Allen and Co of London and bears the ornately scrolled insignia and crown of Edward the VII, which places it between 1901 to 1910.
Here’s another nice one in Bantry, a Victorian one, although this time the VR lettering is simpler than on the Penfold. This one has been painted so often that the embossed POST OFFICE on the protective hood has almost disappeared under the layers.
Lamp boxes were designed for remote areas where a suitable wall might not be readily available. Ferguson explains:
Lamp post boxes, based on a design used by the United States Postal Service, were first introduced in 1896 in London as a response to calls for more post boxes throughout the city. Affixed to a street lamp, the boxes were used at locations where the expense of a pillar or wall box could not be justified. In Ireland, however, they were often deployed in rural areas where, attached to a telegraph or specially erected pole by metal clips, they were very useful in extending postal collections to remote and sparsely populated regions. Tucked under hedges or used sometimes as a smaller version of a wall box, these post boxes were relatively cheap to make and easy to install and they symbolise…the extraordinary influence and reach of the Post Office as an institution at the height of its powers.
Driving or walking around rural Ireland, look out for ‘lamp’ boxes. Here’s one from the road near Barley Cove.
A closer inspection reveals this one bears the P & T logo that was in use between 1939 and 1984, before it was replaced by the brand ‘An Post’. Sometimes the old royal initials were ground off the boxes, or sometimes the doors were replaced with new ones bearing the P&T lettering, but it seems that considerations of cost (always paramount with the careful Post Office) allowed many to simply remain in place as they were. In the early years of the new state, some were embossed with the Saorstát Éireann logo (even sharing the door with a VR insignia) but that practice was relatively short lived and I have found no examples to it yet in West Cork. The website Irish Postal History has this example from Washington Street in Cork.
On Cape Clear – the most scenic post box in Ireland?
If no lamp post or suitable pole existed, a simple stake was erected to which a box could be attached. Cape Clear Island didn’t get electricity until the 1970s, so this post box (above and below) must predate the advent of poles. The logo, however, is that of An Post, which was established as the new brand in 1984. Perhaps the poles were only erected island-wide after the submarine cable was laid in the 1990s.
Not all mail boxes have been retained for active use – so what happens to them? Many simply remain in situ, as a picturesque reminder of times when we actually wrote to each other instead of texting or emailing. The one below at Rossbrin, near Ballydehob, was once attached to the wall outside the old schoolhouse. The first photograph at the start of today’s post shows its location.
And this one, at Ahakista, has been repurposed as a wayside shrine.
But even if it’s still in use, sometimes a mail boxes can’t be used for its real purpose, but has more important work to do! I don’t know where this last photograph was taken or whose work this is – it was widely circulated on the internet – but I would be happy to credit the photographer if I knew who it was. Delighted to have this also as an example of a post box from the reign of George V, 1910 to 1936.
Many thanks for this lovely piece. My uncle was a postman for about 45 years. He collected post from a small village postbox. Attached to the keys of this postbox was a small brass disc stamped with the words, “Reward 2/6 apply garda station” and on the reverse it was stamped with the number “71” which identifed the postbox to the postal authorities but would be no help to anyone else. I presume the reward was subsequently deducted from the postmans wages.
That’s a great comment – the flavour of the job comes across.
Very entertaining post, Finola! Your research and fieldwork is second to none!
Thanks Finola, it’s great to learn interesting things about Ireland.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you – what a kind comment.
Brilliant Finola, and I have a number of photos of postboxes around here myself taken over the years. Something re-assuring about them. Bit vague about the start-up history of the postal service in Britain and why they chose red – which was surely not a “royal” colour as such but the chosen colour of the Royal Mail. Anyway long live all postal services everywhere – very handy when the email isn’t working or coffee gets spilt on the laptop !
LikeLiked by 1 person
I know you’re still a letter-writer at heart, Julian!
Thank you for helping us see and appreciate the history in our midst where before we only saw green.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Glad you liked this one, Patti! It was fun to research.
Oops – correction made. Thanks! Innumerate, me.
I love the connection with Trollope. One of my favourite authors.
The Penfold is a magnificent thing and how interesting to know about its connection with the Temple of the Wind – he was obviously a man of vision! I make them only 150 years old?? Amazing how many shapes and sizes and ages post boxes come in, and I’m delighted to see the Ahakista one there too.
Comments are closed.