The first Irish postmaster was Melchior van Pelken, appointed in 1618, but the development of a postal system proper had to wait until the Cromwellian era. It was not until the eighteenth 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.

More peaceful conditions in the eighteenth century allowed the Post Office in Ireland to expand. Local postmasters were appointed by the state, surveyors were charged with carrying out checks on the post boys, the postal network was extended and the first mail-coaches were introduced in 1789. Certain remote areas, though well populated, remained difficult to reach, and easy communication with the capital was by no means assured. The GPO created a network of post offices where senders could submit items. All post was transferred from the post office of origination to distribution points called sorting stations, and from there the post was then sent on for delivery to the receiver of the post. Initially it was the recipient of the post who paid the fee, and he had the right to refuse to accept the item if he did not wish to pay. The charge was based on the distance the item had been carried so the GPO had to keep a separate account for each item. For the majority of Irish people, however, the way the mails were sent was a matter of small concern, for postal charges were high and effectively put the service beyond their reach.

The 1711 Act introduced a fine (£20) for the illegal opening of letters. Those working in the Post Office were required to take an oath, printed in the Act, stating that they would not open letters, except under warrant. However, well after the passing of this legislation, correspondents including Dean Jonathan Swift and Peter Ludlow MP were convinced that Isaac Manley illicitly opened letters, to the point that it determined the content of their mail.159 In 1718 Ludlow confided in a letter to Dean Swift:

“I send you the enclosed pamphlet by private hand, not daring to venture it by common post; for it is a melancholy circumstance we are now in, that friends are afraid to carry on even the bare correspondence much less write news … I need make no apology for not sending it by post, for you must know, and own too, that my fears are by no means groundless. For your friend, Mr Manley, has been guilty of opening letters that were not directed to him.”

The practice evidently persisted as again in 1722, Swift complained that a letter addressed to him ‘was opened in the post-office and sealed again in a slovenly manner’.[1]

Meath towns that became post-towns between 1700 and 1724: Clonard junction, Kells, Navan,Trim, County Town.  The small size of a county town did not stand in the way of its becoming a post-town. Trim in County Meath was described in 1785 as ‘a small town with scarce more than one good dwelling house in it’ which, ‘were it not for being the County Town it would be a very poor village’. Yet, it was a Post Office since 1724.[2]

A small number of towns and villages which were of little military or civil importance and which were not the residences of MPs owed their elevation to post-town status to their location at junctions along a postal route. Kilcock in County Kildare and Clonard in County Meath were two such junction towns. John Cusack, postmaster in Clonard, had to ride twice a week to Kilcock, once to Philipstown, and once to Mullingar.[3]

Turnpike Road to Navan from Taylor and Skinners 1777

In 1729 the first two Irish turnpike Acts were passed by the Irish parliament. These concerned the roads between Dublin and Kilcullen bridge in County Kildare, and the Dublin to Navan road. Although the Post Office did use these roads, again there was no Post Office involvement in preparing the legislation. At this time the mail was carried on horseback or by foot and not by wheeled vehicle ‒ hence the state of the road was of little interest to the Post Office. 

The 1784 Post Office Report stated that Elizabeth Hale, postmaster at Kilcock, was ‘To ride Thrice Weekly to Dublin also once weekly to Trim and once weekly to Clonard.’224 Similarly, John Cusack, postmaster in Clonard, had to ride twice a week to Kilcock, once to Philipstown, and once to Mullingar.[4]

An example of a cross post connecting two towns located in close proximity but on different main post-roads was that which connected Trim, the county town of County Meath, and Athboy. Four post roads ran through County Meath, namely the Dublin-Galway, Dublin-Enniskillen, Dublin-Derry and Dublin-Belfast routes. Trim in the south of the county was close to the Dublin-Galway route, to which it was connected by mail car via Maynooth.[5] However, this left Trim isolated in a postal sense from the rest of the county. The result, as a Select Committee stated, was that a ‘foot-post from Trim to Athboy was specially applied for, for the purpose of keeping up the communication between the county town and that side of the county of Meath’. It cost £15 a year to operate.[6]

Before the introduction of the uniform penny post and postage stamps in 1840, few letters were prepaid. This helped ensure that letters arrived at their destination. Once a letter was committed the post, it was handled by many individuals. At the provincial ‘post office’, the postmaster inscribed the cost of conveying the letter as far as Dublin on the front of the letter. He usually applied a hand stamp called a Town name mark. In Dublin, the clerk of the road that the letter travelled along was responsible for checking that the amount charged was correct. He also stamped the letter, indicating the date it passed through the office and whether or not it was prepaid. If the letter was travelling out of Dublin, it was then passed to the clerk of the road along which it was to travel. He crossed out the old charge and inscribed the new charge. If the letter was intended for a Dublin destination, the ‘alphabet man’ sorted the letters for collection. When the letter was collected at the Post Office, the ‘window man’ handed it over and received the money due. After 1773, when the Dublin Penny Post was introduced, the letter was delivered within the city by a letter carrier who collected the money due.

A ‘Penny Post’ service, distinct from the general post, was started in Dublin in 1773 and this provided a very efficient and much cheaper way of corresponding within city and suburban limits. This system of penny and later twopenny posts was gradually extended to provincial towns.

Following legislative independence in 1782, an independent Irish Post Office was set up in 1784.

It lasted until 1831, when concerns over financial management prompted a return of authority to

the postmaster general in London.

Mail coaches began to operate in 1789 with the first one running between Dublin and Cork. The first Belfast to Dublin mail-coach on 5 July 1789 set out every morning at nine o’clock and was scheduled to arrive in Dublin at six o’clock the following morning, taking twenty-one hours in total; the return trip took twenty-four hours.118 By 1830 the two daily mail-coaches departed from 17 Upper Sackville Street.

During the 1790s while Castle officials had an overall impression of revolutionary activity countrywide, grassroots level intelligence was vital. Among local postmasters who supplied information was George Holdcroft, postmaster in Kells, County Meath. He kept Lees informed about subversive events in that county and also in County Monaghan.173 Another County Meath postmaster who supplied information was James Kellett of Dunshaughlin,[7]

In 1840 the Uniform Penny Post was introduced, which incorporated the two key innovations of a uniform postal rate, which cut administrative costs and encouraged use of the system, and adhesive pre-paid stamp. The introduction of the world’s first adhesive postage stamp “The Penny Black” made the postal service affordable to all.

[1] Peter Ludlow to Dean Jonathan Swift, 10 Sept. 1718 in The Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Scott (Edinburgh, 1824) xvi, 390.  Dean Jonathan Swift to Robert Cope, 9 Oct. 1722, xvi, 304. 

[2] Austin Cooper, an eighteenth-century antiquary; the sketches noted and dairies of Austin Cooper, ed. Liam Price (Dublin, 1942), p. 99.

[3] ‘Post Office 1784 report’ Post 15 (Royal Mail Archive London (hereafter R.MA.); also N.A.I., M.F.A. – Post Office film 1, Post 15: 154/5 (microfilm)). 

[4] ‘Post Office 1784 report’ Post 15 (Royal Mail Archive London (hereafter R.MA.); also N.A.I., M.F.A. – Post Office film 1, Post 15: 154/5 (microfilm)). 

[5] Map attached to Report of the Select Committee on post communication with Ireland.  

[6] Report of the Select Committee on post communication with Ireland, p. 230.

[7]  Anthony John Hughes. “The Post Office in Ireland, 1638-1840”  Thesis for the degree of PhD  Department of History. Maynooth University, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.