Hail the Mail

Rossbrin wall box

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.

Penfold Skibb

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.

A commemorative sheet of stamps which are going on sale to mark 200 years since the birth of Anthony Trollope (Royal Mail/PA)

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.

Trollope Book Cover

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!

Penfold Acanthus Leaf

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.

BenQ Digital Camera

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.

Penfold Skibb closer

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.

Cork Post box

Ferguson post box book

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.

Skibb wall box

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.

Skibb post box

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.

Bantry Wall Box

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.

Bantry Wall Box closer

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.

Post box near Barleycove

Driving or walking around rural Ireland, look out for ‘lamp’ boxes. Here’s one from the road near Barley Cove.

Pole Box near Barley Cove

Post_Box_P_T_SE_Washington_Street__Cork.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.

Most scenic postbox

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.

Cape Clear post box closer

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.

Rossbring Wall box 3

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.

Post box birds nest

Food Glorious Food

Taste of West Cork

There’s yet another festival on at the moment, and this one is a yummy one: A Taste of West Cork Food Festival. It will culminate next Sunday in a giant market that will take over the main street of Skibbereen, but in the meantime every day brings something new – a farm tour, cooking and fish-smoking demonstrations, walking and boating tours, tasting menus, and special dinners.

Finola and Regina

Finola and Regina

Today we attended a lecture by Regina Sexton, a brilliant writer, broadcaster and food historian. Under the title “Teaching the Poor to Cook in 1847,” Regina led us through the contents of what might have been one of the earliest ever Irish recipe books. Published by a member of the Northern Irish gentry, it instructed the Irish ‘Peasantry’ on how to cook the foods available at the time as substitutes for the potato, then in catastrophic failure due to blight. Revealing as a document of the social and political philosophy of its time, it was eerily poignant given the death toll occurring all around at the height of the Great Famine. I was keenly aware of our surroundings at Liss Ard House, once a mansion where people enjoyed a fine standard of living, while the town of Skibbereen, down the road, had been an epicentre of starvation.

Everything locally grown!

Everything locally grown!

I have written before about West Cork Food (here and here): this really is Foodie Heaven, with fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, homemade preserves and relishes, breads of every description and a wide variety of seafood and organic meats all readily available not only in the weekend markets but in local shops and supermarkets. To add to this, my friend and neighbour Hildegard has been generous with her garden and we have been enjoying fresh beans, zucchini and lettuce and flavouring dishes with her wonderful basil and savoury.

Robert and I love to eat breakfast out as a treat. On one recent foray I ordered boiled eggs and it brought me back to my childhood and time-honoured rituals. Lift the top off the egg with a spoon, drop in butter and salt and put the top back on. Cut your toast into fingers to dip into the buttery yolk. When you have finished your egg, turn it upside-down in the egg cup and present it to an unsuspecting sibling.

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Breakfast in Skibbereen



Nead an Iolair

We have returned to West Cork, to the house we bought overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and this time it’s for keeps. Our first month has been a whirlwind of unpacking, sorting, making the house our own, meeting neighbours and friends from our winter stay, and taking in everything West Cork has to offer in the summer. Within a few days of arriving we had been to markets, a play, and several concerts; spent a day at an agricultural fair and another on a beach; attended gallery openings and a classic boat gathering; participated once again in the Friday night music sessions in Ballydehob; hosted dinner parties and been hosted in return; in short – settled back into the marvellous rhythm of West Cork life, but this time as permanent residents.

 Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

We will be writing in Roaringwater Journal about aspects of life and why we love it here. An enormous part of it all, of course, is the people we meet – their open welcome and friendly acceptance has made us feel at home. But it’s more than that: people here are still close to the land, fiercely proud of this area, keepers of the lore and the history and uniquely expressive. Everyone loves to talk, so you’d better not be in a hurry. Today, for example…

After a late night at the session (made exceptional by the addition of a group of French musicians) we had slept in a bit and decided to head into Skibbereen to breakfast and the market. But even though it’s Saturday here comes Ger, the electrician, with the replacement bathroom fan. Abandoning the plan, we made breakfast for all of us and Ger, having installed the fan, regaled us with stories of the townland he comes from, a mile down the road. We told him we had tramped up and down the roads there, the other day, looking for a piece of rock art, a large boulder with cupmarks on the top, and couldn’t find it. He grinned, “’Tis in my yard,” he said. “The legend is that Finn McCool threw it down from Mount Gabriel.” We made a date to go next week to record it and moved on to discussing the theatre. Ger is an actor and knowledgeable dramatist and, over the eggs and toast, he gave us an insightful review of the recent “Fit Up Theatre” productions (excellent!) we had been going to.

West Cork Arts Centre

West Cork Arts Centre

Then it was off to Skibb, to see if Richard, the cable guy, could come back and finish installing the wireless network in the house. In the store, the manager, who turned out to be Richard’s father, explained to us that Richard was on a hurling team that had just won the County finals for their division and needed to celebrate. With a twinkle in his eye, he suggested that we not look out for him before Wednesday. And while we were waiting, he added, why didn’t we take in this great presentation on Tuesday night, for which he would be delighted to sell us tickets. Half an hour later, we left the store, having been brought up to date on the plans for a new Arts Centre and been told the history of his name, family and business.

First Visitors

First Visitors

And so go our days. The summer is winding down and the villages will soon lose the tourist-mecca bustle. Already many of the houses in our little cove have the blinds down as their owners return to the city. There’s a slight hint of autumn in the evenings. Our walks are slowed by the temptations offered by the blackberry brambles, our mornings enlivened by visits from Ferdia, our friendly fox.

From Canada and from England, from cities, from careers and responsibilities, from vastly different lives, we have come together to this extraordinary place.

And now here we are – at home in West Cork.

Living in Colour

Main Street, Ballydehob

Main Street, Ballydehob

I remember greyness. Grey stone, grey plaster, grey slate, grey concrete, rain-washed grey windows. In 1965 my parents painted our house navy blue, with white trim. In the middle of a terrace of grey houses it caused a minor scandal.

Kilmore Quay Thatched CottageWhile the traditional Irish cottage of the postcards was whitewashed and thatched, with perhaps a daring red half-door, there were always isolated farmhouses in lurid colours in the deep countryside. Inexplicably painted bright purple or tangerine or electric green, they hinted at the farmer wanting something he could find in the middle of the night coming home on the bicycle after a long evening in the pub. But the general change came gradually with the popularity of the Tidy Towns competition, where villagers were encouraged to spruce up their houses, trim their lawns and keep the village neat and clean. I left Ireland in 1974 and a constant delight of visits home since then has been the discovery of Ireland of the Colourful Houses.

2012-05-08 10.51.272012-12-16 12.15.29Towns and villages are a riot of multi-coloured shop fronts and dwellings. In some, the decorous and tastefully pastel abound. The streets that provide most eye candy, though, are those that have kissed goodbye to any sense of discretion in favour of in-your-face vivid and clashing shades. The rainbow streetscapes, whether quietly elegant or flamboyant, work delightfully, buoying the spirits and infusing every shopping trip or sightseeing expedition with a sense of play and exuberance.

2012-05-08 10.45.342012-05-08 11.46.20This is our last post for 2012. HAPPY NEW YEAR to all our dear family and friends, wherever you are. May 2013 bring all good things your way.

Oh, and by the way, the place names competition is still open for entries. Prizes still to be won!

The Sober Streets of Skibbereen

The Sober Streets of Skibbereen

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

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This week revolved around two trips, to Baltimore and Cork City, and observing the Irish spirit of Christmas.

Stolen VillageBaltimore – wha..? No – we didn’t take a quick trip to the States: Baltimore, the original one, is a small town in West Cork. It’s where you catch the ferries to Sherkin and Cape Clear Islands, and right now it’s hosting whale-watching tours because the humpbacks are in town. We walked out to the Beacon, an iconic landmark that in earlier times provided guidance into the harbour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humpbacks. Although there were no whales to be seen, it was another ‘pet day’ and we were more than adequately compensated by the views over Sherkin and the Harbour, glowing in the low afternoon sun. A friend has loaned us her copy of The Stolen Village by Des Ekin – a riveting account of the Sack of Baltimore, in 1631, when Barbary Pirates laid waste to the town and bore away almost all the villagers into a life of slavery.

I lived in Cork City for seven years in the late 60’s and early 70, finishing secondary school and completing two degrees. Then, it was an undistinguished provincial town, with its own culture, sense of place and humour, and an uninspiring Victorian architecture. Nowadays it’s a lively city with a huge variety of stores and a European vibe. Many of the narrow streets have been pedestrianised, leading to a downtown core made for strolling and gawking, and on every street corner were carol singers, brass bands, or entertainers. We stayed in a wonderful place, the River Lee Hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, great food and friendly and accommodating staff. While the main purpose of our trip was to attend a rock art meeting at UCC, we whiled away several happy hours on Christmas shopping.

2012-12-08 12.18.072012-12-08 12.15.19Back in West Cork, we took in one of the local Christmas events in Skibbereen – a Live Crib. Our entry ticket came with a carrot for the donkey. The animals were live, but Mary, Joseph and the baby were mannequins. It was explained to us that “t’would be nice, like, to have them played by real people, but sure ‘twas freezing for them, and the last girl who played Mary was most of the time on her mobile.”

We rounded off the week by erecting our Christmas tree. It’s surprising what you can do with  a tree branch, some holly and berries, and five ornaments.

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To Market, To Market

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…becomes this

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Lunch at Ard Glas

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West Cork Pies

We are fortunate to have two excellent farmers’ markets on our doorstep: the Bantry Market on Fridays and the Skibbereen Market on Saturdays. We go, just to wander, not really needing anything – but we always emerge with a bag full. We love to buy carrots and parsnips covered in this morning’s earth, and scrub them up under the outside tap back at Ard Glas. The fish stall ladies will fillet a whole fish for you in a trice, and give you hints on the best way to cook it. The numerous homemade bread and cake stalls have started to load up their tables with mince pies and Christmas puddings. A new stall, West Cork Pies, sells the world’s yummiest Steak in Murphy’s Pie (Murphy’s is the Cork Guinness), Chicken and Leek Pie, and a variety of pasties. I am putting in an order for Christmas, to take up to Dublin. Our lunch often consists of cheese from the Bantry cheese stall, with Courgette and Ginger Chutney picked up in Skibb, and (I know I shouldn’t) a slice of chocolate biscuit cake from one of the baking stalls.

2012-10-20 11.06.45I love to chat to the stall owners and ask about their produce. Trouble is, it’s hard to walk away without buying something, so now I have two packets of nutritious seaweed from the charming seaweed man, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them. Fortunately, Robert rescued me after a long conversation with the wood carver before I felt I had to buy a headboard.

At Bantry there’s even a Fight for Irish Freedom stall, selling books and images and with rebel music blaring out from speakers. I stop here to wonder what all the English people who call West Cork home make of it all. We move on to the chickens, the colourful kilims, oh…and there’s the guy with the lovely French soap!

kilimsFreedom Stall