What is happening to Ireland’s old phone boxes?

The last ever callcard produced in the country was in 2003


The phone box on Ormond Quay looks somewhat battered and unloved. It is situated within a stone’s throw from O’Connell Street where thousands of people pass glued to their mobile phones, yet it holds the dubious record of being the most used kiosk in Ireland.

The Irish Times asked a number of passersby and locals in the area had they ever used it and the answer was consistently no.

It was here in the summer the kiosk gained notoriety when a video emerge of a man appearing to inject heroin inside.

It was revealed earlier this year that the majority of Ireland’s remaining public pay phones are not protected under Eir’s universal service obligations and could disappear under the current rules.

This is because their usage falls below the thresholds at which Eir is required to keep them.

At the end of 2015, there were some 900 public pay phones remaining in Ireland, but 621 were being used for less than a minute per day on average, with less than 30 seconds of this usage relating to freephone and emergency services calls.

Eir is permitted to remove a pay phone unit if the average usage over a period of six months falls below these thresholds.

An Eir spokeswoman said based on their data, from July 2014 to December 2015, the least used pay phones in the country are located in Castletownbere, Mayo, Dublin, Mullingar and Galway.

While there are no phone boxes registering no usage, the usage on some would be low particularly where there are double kiosks, she added.

Independent councillor Mannix Flynn has repeatedly called for the removal of the phone boxes from in parts of inner city Dublin such as Ormond Quay after video footage emerged online last month of a man appearing to inject heroin in broad daylight.

The disused phone boxes are an eye sore with claims by some Tidy Towns groups that their presence hurts their chances of winning.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said generally TidyTowns adjudicators take account of all aspects of the town or village when they carry out their adjudication.

“Rather than focus on the negative, TidyTowns volunteers take care of phone boxes as they do other physical features in their town or village. TidyTowns committees find innovative uses for phone boxes which no longer function in the traditional sense. Some committees have transformed them to information centres for the area or as a facility to swap books. Points in TidyTowns are available for up cycling, reuse of products and sustainability,” he said.

While the phone boxes have becomes conduits for anti social behaviour in recent years, some areas are trying to reclaim them.

Ann Connell, secretary of TidyTowns of Castlecoote in Co Roscommon which holds a Percy French festival every year, had the idea of using the village’s old phone box as a tourist information centre.

“We have the original cream and green phone box but had to apply for planning to the council to keep it. We have it in the centre of the village and it acts as a local information centre about the town’s heritage,’’ she said.

“The phone box is my baby and I want to keep it maintained because it’s a novelty and not many other villages have one.”

While the phone boxes remain, callcards fell out of favour with the proliferation of mobile phones in the country with the last ever callcard produced in 2003.

However, Ross Cullen from Roscommon set up a website dedicated to the history of callcards and phone boxes.

An avid collector, Mr Cullen reckons he has amassed a collection of 3,000 callcards since the 1990s.

Telecom Éireann, as it was formerly known, installed a trial of 36 cardphones in Dublin City back in 1988.

“It was a big thing at the time for kids my age, and we would try and weigh up to see who’s had more value. It was a very good way for kids to learn to barter and the importance of commerce at a young age,’’ Mr Cullen said.

“In 1991 St Patrick’s Day they gave complimentary five unit cards. I went to a small national school where there was a small phone box outside it so we would all be hopping behind the wall to see if anyone had left their card behind so we could take it.

“I found a St Patrick’s Day card while wandering through long grass and it was almost like a child finding treasure - everybody wanted one because they were so rare. Many wanted to trade it with me but I never did. As time went by I realised it was one of the more rare cards but I held on to it and still have it. As a child I didn’t appreciate it.”

Mr Cullen said the cards with the units still on them and in their original wrapper can fetch several hundred euro depending on their vintage and if they were limited edition.

“There was a lull during the recession when people began selling their collections off. A lot of people still trade them on eBay and advert.ie,’’ he said.

“One of the most rare and sought after callcards are ones that were made for the Irish Management Institute conference in 1989 and only 750 were created. Most of the cards were binned by hotel staff after the conference so now there are only 50 in circulation. A lot of them are probably languishing in public sector filing cabinets around the country from the conference back in 1989. That card is probably worth about five or six hundred euro if it still has all the units and is in good condition.”

Mr Cullen said any of the callcards made after 1991 still work in the phone boxes but said he would hold on to his cards for the meantime.

Fellow callcard enthusiast Nick Rankin set up www.irishcallcards.net.

“As a child, I was not interested in sports and collecting callcards provided me a way to pass the time going from phone box to phone box collecting spent callcards people used to leave. At one point I even put up envelopes in my local phone boxes locally asking people to leave their empty phonecards for a collector-many people did.’’

Mr Rankin gets most of his cards on online auction websites and by people who contact him though the website.

He hopes to build a full callcard collection and get a scanned photo of every callcard online.

“I think this is a great way to record a major feature of nineties Ireland, that many will remember especially as time goes on,’’ he said.

“In Ireland there are certainly still callcard collectors out there. I would know many but overall this would be still quite a niche hobby. Internationally interest in Irish callcards is actually larger than you would think. I have traded and purchased Irish callcards from collectors in countries like Holland, France, Germany, and Belgium.

“The reason for popularity in Irish callcards is due to the fact they are highly collectable, only around 350 cards were produced but also Ireland were one of the first countries in the world to introduce chipped phonecards, after France.

“The modern chipset, found on your vista or Mastercard uses the same technology as callcards did back in the early nineties. The smartcard chipset was invented by a French inventor Roland Moreno, and the first smartcards were available during the late 1970s.”

Mr Rankin said some of the final callcards of interest to be produced included a full World Cup 2002 team, where each Ireland player was pictured on a callcard and the manager Mick McCarthy.