An Irishman's Diary
I had to post a letter a while back, which wasn’t urgent, or I would have sent it express. But it was at least somewhat important. So, to ensure prompt dispatch, I did what I usually do on such occasions, and took it to the GPO.
There’s something about Dublin’s GPO, in particular, that adds to the solemnity of posting letters. This time, however, the solemnity was disturbed by a suspicion, immediately post-posting, that I’d forgotten the stamp. It must happen all the time, I knew. And yet, suddenly, it was as if I had dropped my letter into a black hole from which it might never emerge.
I explained the problem to a passing postal official who suggested I needn’t worry, that the letter would be delivered in the normal way. At least that’s what he seemed to be about to say, until he checked himself mid-sentence. Then his initial breeziness gave way to an uncertain tone, in which he suggested my letter would be delivered “probably” or “eventually”.
Doubt might have haunted me for days afterwards. Except that, even as we spoke, another man arrived to unlock the box. And there, sitting primly on the pile, was my letter, stamped. So we all parted happily: including the first postal worker, who had avoided having to compromise the system’s integrity by admitting that non-compliance could be without consequence.
An Post straddles a similar dilemma in the now-annual November set-piece whereby it first reminds children that Santa letters require a 55c stamp but then adds – lest the company be mistaken for the Grinch – that unstamped letters will still be delivered.
It’s an uneasy compromise. In effect, An Post is admitting that the stamp is a voluntary contribution. A nearly-negligible contribution (unless you have 10 small children, in which case you may need the waiver). But voluntary nonetheless.
Like a tip to a taxi-driver you’ll never see again, or to restaurant staff who’ve already fed you and will probably have moved jobs by the time you return, the Santa stamp is a tax on good manners, or guilt. The system is entirely self-assessed, with no chance of an audit, and no effect on service if you don’t pay. And yet it always sounds a bit grubby when An Post brings the subject up at all. Yes, these are hard times and it needs all the money it can get. But given the historical resonance of the GPO, and the fact that people who pay voluntary contributions are – by definition – volunteers, maybe, instead of mincing words, the company should be more forthright and make its annual appeal in patriotic terms, viz: Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of mail delivery, An Post summons her children to the postbox and strikes for commercial viability.
Having organised her manhood through the Irish Postal Workers Union, having patiently perfected her discipline, having waited resolutely for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by Christmas cards to her exiled children in America and her gallant allies in Europe, but relying also on a significant contribution from Lapland, she strikes in full confidence of fourth-quarter profits.
The company guarantees equal rights and opportunities to all senders of Santa letters, and to cherish all the children of the nation equally, oblivious of the differences that might be fostered by an alien, privatised service. But in this supreme hour, the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and the readiness of children’s parents to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called. We’re only asking for 55 cent, after all.
Personally, I enjoy putting stamps on envelopes. It may be a generational thing, but rarely as I do it these days, I still love the ritual involved in posting letters, and the romance of thinking about them physically winging their way around the world.
In fact, I suspect that a residual fondness for postal services has made paying other bills less unpleasant. Like many people, I used to resent the annual lump-sum bin charge. Then they introduced pay-as-you-go stickers instead, since when my resistance has crumbled.
Of course I reduce and reuse as much as possible. And I feel bad about the waste we still throw out. But each week, the act of sticking a stamp on the bag lends it at least some of the magic of a Santa letter: if only the hope that it will magically end up in Greenland.