The Post Office in Ireland, from railways to rebellion
The beginnings of an organised postal service in Ireland date back to the 16th century. Since then, the postal service has adapted to changing technology, transport and trends and continues to do so as it meets the challenges of the 21st century.
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Irish Post Office history
An Post plays a central role in Irish life and society, offering a wide range of services from the provision of pensions to parcel collection.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that an organised postal system emerged In Ireland, with regular posts set up from Dublin to a few major towns in Ireland.
Originally letters were delivered by ‘post boys’. In the early days, before there were post boxes on the street, Bellmen would walk the streets of Dublin ringing a bell to attract attention and collect letters from people.
Mail coaches began to operate in 1789 with the first one running between Dublin and Cork, speeding up mail delivery, while the introduction of the world's first adhesive postage stamp The Penny Black made the postal service affordable to all.
The arrival of the railways made mail transport more efficient. In 1855, the Post Office started to use special sorting carriages on trains. Staff would work sorting the letters and mail bags were dropped off and collected as the trains sped to their destinations.
During the 19th century, inventions such as the telegraph led to new services such as the Post Office Savings Bank, set up in 1861 to encourage regular saving.
Regular mail boats were used to carry the post between Britain and Ireland from the 16th century onwards. At Cobh, or Queenstown as it was called, great transatlantic liners would regularly pick up and drop off hundreds of sacks of mail.
Ireland’s worst maritime disaster occurred a month before the end of the First World War in October 1918 when the mail boat RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine in the Irish Sea. More than 500 people died including all but one of the Post Office staff who worked sorting letters on board. The 100th anniversary of the event was marked with the issue of a commemorative stamp.
These days, almost all letters entering and leaving Ireland are sent by plane. This gradually became the preferred mode of transport after the first experimental airmail flight between Galway and London took place in 1929.
Find out more about Irish Post Office history in The Post Office in Ireland – An illustrated history, available to purchase online.
Dublin’s General Post Office is one of Ireland’s most iconic buildings with its pivotal role in the 1916 Rising.
It has seen rebellion, lockout and demonstrations on its doorstep but has survived through two centuries to become one of the oldest operating postal headquarters in the world.
Designed by the Armagh-born architect Francis Johnston, the foundation stone was laid by Charles Whitworth, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in August 1814. The building opened its doors to the public under four years later in January 1818.
As the century progressed, the GPO housed an organisation that became the centre of communications in Ireland through its mail, financial, telegraph and telephone services.
The building was destroyed during the 1916 Rising with the roof collapsing and fire taking hold internally, forcing the retreat and surrender of the men and women inside.
A team from the Office of Public Works, led by TJ Byrne, undertook the reconstruction and extension of the building following its destruction. The enlarged public office, formally reopened by W.T. Cosgrave in 1929, retained elements of Johnston’s design while also introducing contemporary art deco features.
The GPO remains a place of business but also a place of public service, of remembrance, protest and pageantry.
Read more about this historic building in The GPO - 200 Years of History, available to purchase online. You can also visit our award-winning visitor centre, GPO Witness History.