The people, places and things that make Dublin special.
On one count at least, the GPO is a disappointment to its visitors. ‘People come in looking for a big green post box. it’s a bit of let-down when I tell them there isn’t one’, says security guard David, who’s from Peckham but has Irish roots.
In place of the single green box you might have expected, there are two magnificent brass-and-mahogany receptacles for your letters, one labelled ‘Dublin only’, the other ‘All other places’. Careful observation of the postman who collects the letters from these would suggest, however, that whether you put your letter in the one or the other, it’ll end up in the same bag: not everything is quite as it seems at the General Post Office.
There are 900 people coming into work here every day
Take the famous Cuchulainn sculpture by Oliver Shepherd, which is in the centre window of the public hall. When it was unveiled at the GPO on April 21st, 1935, Eamonn de Valera called it “a beautiful piece of sculpture, the creation of Irish genius, symbolising the dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people”. As it happens, however, the events of Easter 1916 played no part in inspiring its creation: the piece was already finished in 1912.
Angus Laverty, Public Affairs Manager, sees the sculpture every morning on the way to his office. As we stop on the balcony overlooking the public hall he mentions its appearance in Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel Murphy. A character in this book, Neary, (who is, for his sins, from Cork) gets it into his head that Cuchulainn’s ‘deathless rump’ is ‘trying to stare me down’. So he headbutts it. But if this artwork has been put to various uses by assorted writers and politicians, so too has the building that houses it.
Upon its completion in 1818, the GPO was the main post office of the second city of the empire – and an emphatic reminder of that empire’s presence in Ireland. But as Angus explains it was also the Postmaster-General’s home. “His family and servants lived here. And there were stables, a bullion room, a gun room – it was like a city within a city”. And whilst the role it played in the Rising tends to overshadow other events in its history, many of those events were also of major national significance.
“Yes it was a witness to 1916”, says Angus. “But it was also witness to the 1913 lock-out and to the First and Second World Wars – when there were huge numbers of Irish soldiers away fighting, and many more of their family eager for a letter back from the front. There was the telephone room in the old days too with banks of phones for talking to relatives in Inis Mor or England or America. In a sense the GPO is the front room of the nation. It’s also been a focal point for protest and celebration. It’s always reinventing itself.”
To prove his point, we leave the balcony and enter the heart of the building – insofar as an open-plan and much-remodelled office block can be said to have a heart. In an instant, the whole birth-of-a-nation vibe vanishes and we find ourselves in the middle of a modern call centre. Here, forty-two people and their suave supervisor Des Lenihan (‘I’m the eye-candy’, says Des) deal calmly and, it has to be said, good humouredly, with ‘the public’ and its myriad queries regarding anything An Post-related.
And it was at this point that the penny dropped for Dublin.ie. Because the building of which the GPO is only the very front bit – the tip of the iceberg – serves as the headquarters of that organisation. That’s why it needs to be so big. Look up the next time you’re on Henry Street, above the ground-floor level row of shops. The building as a whole stretches almost all the way from its frontage on O’Connell street to Arnott’s. In fact there are 900 people coming into work here every day. Which makes An Post one of the city centre’s biggest employers.
In a sense the GPO is the front room of the nation
Right on cue, we meet Garrett Bridgeman, one of the people whose job it is to make sure that this big organisation continues its ongoing reinvention of itself – something it’s been doing since the pillar boxes were red and telegrams were the next big thing. Garrett, General Manager of An Post parcels, explains that he’s finalising preparations for launching an ‘enhanced parcel offering from An Post’. Why? Well as his colleague Angus puts it, “the biggest growth industry is shopping – online shopping. Parcels is where it’s going to be at. We’re always looking for new opportunities here – from the invention of telegraphy to Amazon.”
Another job that has to straddle the old and the new at the GPO is the one that Aidan Murphy does: he’s the philatelic manager – the man in charge of commissioning new designs for that most victorian of innovations, the postage stamp. Is he a stamp collector himself, Dublin.ie wonders? “I’m not but I collect old records – vinyl – so I understand the collecting bug”.
Aidan’s clearly a man with a finely-honed visual sensibility: we notice a copy of Fintan O’Toole’s magisterial A History of Ireland in 100 objects on his crowded desk. He tells us about some new stamps which are soon to grace an envelope near you: a set celebrating women’s rugby, another for the World Meeting of Families and one more devoted to contemporary urban art. Aidan gets upwards of 300 suggestions a year from the public and various institutions for subjects that might be featured on new stamps. Send your idea plus a small piece of supporting text into the GPO and Aidan will make sure it’s seen by the appropriate committee.
Angus leads Dublin.ie away from Aidan’s desk and down a corridor towards the door opening into Henry Street. This used to be the entrance to the old tv and radio studios in the days when broadcasting fell under the remit of the the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. It’s the very same door that Terry Wogan and Gay Byrne would have used on their way into work.
The public will be in touch if the flag on the roof doesn’t go up on time
That’s too long ago for security guard Jim Bishop to remember. But pinned to Jim’s tie Dublin.ie spots a medal bearing a likeness of another star of the olden days: it’s Michael Collins, the big fellah himself. No one’s likely to forget the heroes of the early days of Ireland’s nationhood in the place where it all began. JIm’s proud to work at the GPO, he says. And that word comes up a lot when people here and Dubliners generally talk about it. “They’re proud of it. They really care”, says David, who I met earlier in the public hall. “They’ll be in touch if the flag on the roof doesn’t go up on time”. (Eight o’clock in summer time; half eight in winter.)
On our way out we ask Angus if he’s ever caught sight of a ghost from the Easter Rising. “No”, he says, “we’re in a place of work when all’s said and done. But I’m aware that I’m working somewhere that has an importance beyond that. There’s echoes in this building that you can’t manufacture.”