Meet the postal detectives


WHAT HAPPENS TO missing Christmas cards? And black puddings, Christening gowns, house-keys or 1940s cigarette cases? Items that have been sent to unknown addresses or that fall out of flimsy wrapping are rescued by postal detectives in Limerick who try to deliver them or return them to their sender.

Armed with letter-openers and maps, Joe O’Sullivan and his team track 1,200 lost items a week, all year round. At Christmas that number increases “by maybe 40 per cent”.

O’Sullivan, who started with An Post as a telegram boy in 1977, says people just post without thinking. “They don’t realise they’re doing it; they get distracted. They put the name but forget the town. I’ve seen just O’Connell Street; that could be Limerick, Ennis or Dublin.”

Guarded by heavy steel gates, doors armed with security codes, cameras in every corridor and staff who start at the sight of a stranger, the Return Letter Branch is not your typical post office.

That’s partly because the 16 staff – plus six at a smaller facility in Roscommon – are the only people in the country authorised to open mail.

Walking down a grey corridor towards a grey door, manager Adrian Gordon steps back to allow O’Sullivan past with a tray marked “No 7” up the stairs. It’s 11am and the boxes are mounting.

Pushing into what he calls “Aladdin’s cave”, O’Sullivan has to pass a hefty bag of mobile phones on the floor so he can place his tray on a groaning shelf.

Rows of trays line the walls, marked with the date and number of the torn or illegible envelopes inside. Keys spill out of cartons and bottles of holy water are everywhere.

One bursting tray has a shirt, birthday cards, a bottle of supplements, a St Christopher’s medal, a calculator, ink cartridges, a poster, mobile phone, memory stick, wedding album, a scarf, soap, jewellery, baby clothes in pink wrapping paper, a CD and keys.

“You get a lot of baby clothes,” O’Sullivan says. “People’s handwriting is sometimes very poor; stuff might go to York instead of Cork for example. Or they put ‘Terenure’ but don’t say if it’s drive, road or whatever. I checked on one address and there were 20 possibilities.”

EACH POSTAL REGIONhas an office known as “the blind” which tries to identify senders from the outside of an undeliverable envelope. If they fail, the letter is sent to this three-year old centre in Limerick – the big blind.

Old-style letters are apparently the easiest to track because people still tend to write their address in the corner.

O’Sullivan says even a place name on a card – Aunt Mary in Dingle – can tell them where to start looking. The team can call rural post offices to ask if someone is getting married or having a birthday.

But the stacks of wedding invitations wrongly addressed and without an RSVP address, as they languish on the shelves, frustrate him. And somewhere a bride wonders why her ex-best friend didn’t come to her wedding.

Both men groan at the mention of money, saying people shouldn’t do it. Last year a woman accidentally posted €1,200 in a blank envelope with her Christmas cards. Her local “blind” found it with the cards. Phew.

“Just send a postal order,” Gordon pleads to the loving grandparents of Ireland.

And looking deeper into the room, it isn’t just rashers Irish mammies send around the world.

O’Sullivan points to a stack of Barry’s Tea; boxes of the stuff wobbling on a shelf next to a bottle of Chanel No 5. “Yes, lots of tea. That and the Tayto go to Australia and America a lot, the things you’d miss when you’re away from home I suppose,” he says. “You get the occasional currant-cake and Cadburys.”

“There was some sort of fish once,” he adds, wincing. “It left a bad odour around the place for a day or two.”

And if someone hasn’t collected their wedding veil or whip after three months, it’s donated to the Irish Charity Shops Organisation or WEEE Ireland. Suitable items that is.

“You might get two or three ‘rampant rabbits’ a month,” O’Sullivan says. “Ann Summers stuff. And the pornographic DVDs: we had a batch of them in an envelope the other day. You couldn’t forward them to a charity shop, it might cause offence. So they’d be destroyed if we can’t return them.”

And then there are the headache tablets that aren’t really – customs takes care of those.

So it’s not always the postman’s fault then when things go missing? “You get a lot of blame – ‘that so-and-so never delivered my letter’ stuff – but many people just don’t realise what’s happened,” O’Sullivan says with a frustrated tone in his voice. “When you find the right person, you get a good buzz out of it. We’d stretch the time for something like old photographs we found from the 1870s: they’d be hard to replace.”

Like the Christening gown sent to the wrong address. The lace gown had been used by seven generations of babies but was delivered back to the embarrassed sender a few days too late for another outing.

The owner of that 1940s cigarette case still hasn’t been found. If you’re waiting on this, get in touch before Christmas. It would take a load off their minds.

How to keep your Christmas cards and gifts out of “the blind”

* Check you have the correct address

* Use padded envelopes for sharp items like keys

* Writing FRAGILE isn’t always enough – use bubble-wrap

* Tape things closed especially if the item is sharp

* Write a return address at the front in the top left-hand corner of the envelope

* And always give a return address when posting to Canada – it will be automatically returned by Canada Mail to the RLB otherwise

* Never send fresh food to Australia - it will be destroyed by Customs there

* Contact An Post customer service about delayed mail at 1850 57 58 59

Source:An Post

What happens to undeliverable post

1A letter is sent without a return address on the outside

2The letter can’t be delivered because of an incorrect address, the envelope tears, the person has moved or maybe something breaks and leaks

3The postwoman fills in a pink CN-15 sticker, marking why it couldn’t be delivered

4The letters goes into “the blind”, initially at the local post office and then to the Return Letter Branch in Limerick

5The letter is carefully opened and examined for evidence of the sender’s address

6Three months waiting period starts from the day the letter arrives in Limerick (fresh food is not kept but the packaging is)

7After three months if no-one has claimed the letter, it is destroyed or donated

Source: Adrian Gordon, manager of Return Letter Branch, Limerick