Post-Traumatic – An Irishman’s Diary about US mail delivery, the music of Laurie Anderson, and Dublin taxi drivers

Back in Montana last autumn after an emotional first trip to Ireland, my cousin Rosie sent each of her relatives here a Christmas card with a small metal tree-decoration.

These combined to make something more than an envelope, if not quite a package. And since they were all posted on December 12th, some delay was inevitable.

But the range of delivery times has since been a source of wonder. The earliest ones arrived just after Christmas, the next in early January.

Another came in late January. And I had all but given up on mine when it finally landed this week, after 72 days.


From the depths of memory, I recalled the (unofficial) motto of the US postal service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

It's on the front of the monumental James J Farley post office building in New York. But I remembered it only because it also featured many years ago in a weird but wonderful song called O Superman, with which the avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson somehow gatecrashed the pop chart of 1981.

The quotation is from ancient Persia (circa 500 BC), via the Greek historian Herodotus, who was eulogising a mounted postal service that had reduced delivery times on the Persian Royal Road to seven days, down from the three months it took to walk the 2,800km route.

That’s roughly similar to the distance Rosie’s package travelled overland, between Montana and New York. But it was hardly carried there on foot. Or is it possible that the courier lost his horse somewhere, maybe in the badlands of Dakota?

In vain, I studied the envelope for signs of distress. It was surprisingly, even disappointingly, intact. There was nothing anywhere to hint at the adventures it must have had since leaving Butte in early December.

James J Farley, by the way, was one of the great Irish Americans. The grandson of Meath emigrants, refugees of Black '47, he became one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party, propelling Franklin D Roosevelt into the White House.

He was also, impressively, an early opponent of racism. As chairman of the New York State Athletics Commission, he banned a fight between (then world champion) Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, because Dempsey should have been taking on the No 1 contender, Harry "the Black Panther" Wills. The Tunney bout went to Philadelphia instead.

Like many successful politicians, he was famous for remembering people he’d met, however briefly. It was no accidental talent. One of his innovations was the “Farley File”, some form of which is now standard political equipment. This was compiled from notes made after conversations with anyone he was likely to meet again. Thanks to Farley, Roosevelt too, renewing casual acquaintance, was always miraculously able to recall the person’s marital status, spouse, number and names of children, etc.

Speaking of Irish-Americans, I see that Laurie Anderson is a self-confessed one too (is nobody safe?). This information did not come from my Farley File. It was in an email from the National Concert Hall, where she performs a three-night creative residency in May.

Anderson has done many things since her meteoric pop career. But O Superman continues to be the work most people know, and since it was first written, has taken on a whole new life. With the lines "Here come the planes/They're American planes/Made in America/Smoking or non-smoking?", it became vastly more ominous after certain events, just down the road from the Farley building, in 2001.

On a lighter note, according to the NCH, Anderson has “always felt at home in Dublin”. “It’s the only city I know where everyone uses the language as an art form,” she says. “And I mean starting with the taxi driver who picks you up at the airport.”

Dublin taxi drivers are a great resource, right enough. I look forward to their input to Anderson’s latest work. In the meantime, I’m reminded of a taxi trip once when I let my attention slip in conversation and was startled by the driver’s sudden question: “What is life, anyway?”

Clueless as to what had provoked his existential crisis, I searched for something philosophical to say. Then I realised he was responding to a news story on the radio. With great relief, I downgraded my definition of life accordingly: “I think it’s about 15 years, with good behaviour”.