Cavanšs postal history

By Mairead Reynolds.

County Cavan has benefited from a regular postal service for many a long year. This distinction might be appreciated better when it is realised that the neighbouring county of Leitrim had no post office even in the early nineteenth century.

It was neither geographical features nor a large letter-writing public which ensured that Cavan town and Belturbet had a regular postal service to Dublin and London from about 1659. Indeed this honour was due to the fact that Whitehall was worried about the rebellious nature of the O’Reillys. Early postal services were established by the crown in localities considered ‘sensitive’ therefore when it was planned that a postal service should serve “the remotest parts of Ireland” Belturbet shared the privilege with Belfast, Derry, Coleraine, Sligo, Galway and Cork.

Richard Robinson was appointed as postmaster in Belturbet and paid £26.8.0 (£26.40p) per annum for his own salary and for “keeping a foot post to go to Dublin 52 miles backward and forward and for his office and house.” This meant that Robinson employed a man who ran regularly, if not continuously from Belturbet to Dublin and back again. Robinson himself, probably, did little work. Indeed he may have been the Robinson paid for the responsibility of a few other offices. This meant that Robinson paid others to fulfil his duties in each office while he managed the business from a remote but comfortable chair.

Lack of documentary evidence leaves it open to question why Belturbet had lost its postal service by 1677. By that stage addresses had to collect their mail from Enniskillen.

I have found no evidence yet as to what happened in the intervening years but by 1746 Cavan had re-established its rights and the post from Belturbet, Cavan, Cootehill and Killeshandra arrived in Dublin every Monday and went out to these towns on Tuesdays and Saturdays. A letter of a single page folded on itself (without an envelope) cost fourpence (four old pence) postage while two-page letters cost eight old pence. The postage was paid by the addressee. By 1761 Virginia had been added to the list of Cavan post towns, all of which had post twice weekly. The demands of Cavan farmers and businessmen ensured that Ballyconnell was added to this list by 1778. By that time there was post three times a week to all of these towns other than Cootehill, Bailieboro was made a post-town before 1800 and by 1811 Kingscourt and Mount Nugent were added. This mushroom growth shows that the county enjoyed, used and expected a regular dependable postal service. People seem to have had little patience, however, with some of its less efficient servants. For example, annoyed at what was considered as a lazy postmaster, an angry “freeholder of the town of Cavan” wrote to the Freeman’s Journal on October 9th, 1770, “requesting that the postmaster of the town rise earlier on the post mornings to distribute the letters at proper times.”

Although Cavan had a good postal service to Dublin, the service to Belfast left much to be desired. Such post was carried on “cross-roads” or roads which connected the main roads. This service depended on the constant availability of suitable personnel. For example, when in 1746 the horse-rider who carried the mail the ten miles from Clogher to Lisnaskea died, he was not replaced for some time. This meant that the mail from Cavan was brought to Dublin and then forwarded to East Ulster. Linen merchants complained bitterly about these delays which seriously inconvenienced them in their business.

On the 5th of April 1803 the Enniskillen Mail Coach service commenced. Intended to carry mail quickly, the company defrayed some of the postal costs by carrying four outside and one inside passenger. The coach, drawn by four horses, travelled through Kells, Virginia, Cavan and Lisnaskea. As this coach travelled at night leaving 97, Capel Street, Dublin at 7.45 each evening, it needed the protection of two armed guards. Ostensibly the guards’ function was to protect against highway robbers and to ensure that the driver travelled quickly, that he did not delay too long at any stop and that he did not partake too liberally of liquid refreshments even if it was for ‘protection’ against the cold night airs. Some irate gentlemen travellers suggested that the guards were of little practical value as they were known to imbibe somewhat themselves!

This mail coach service was contracted to John Anderson, a Scotsman, who then lived in Fermoy. It was said that his good family connections helped him to win all of the lucrative Irish mail coach contracts. However, he was known to be a ‘stickler’ for time ordering that each coach should travel as fast as was safe - which worked out about an average of four miles per hour.

This was the same pace attained by the local coaches and carriages which carried mail occasionally. For example, the Cavan-Killeshandra and Enniskillen-Ballyshannon coaches had a declared speed of about six to seven miles an hour but they averaged much less.

It is interesting that although there was a good mail coach service foot posts were used in Cavan as late as the 1840s. These were men who carried the post from Belturbet to Cavan Post Office, from Killeshandra to Ballinamore and from Kingscourt to Bailieborough.

Throughout much of this time letters were delivered only to the nearest post office. The addressee or a representative called to the office to collect the mail. Dublin introduced an offical Penny Post about 1765 (revised 1773) by which letters were delivered to a home address for one penny. In some places such as Belfast it was the post-master who personally hired the letter carriers to deliver letters to each house. They were paid a wage out of these extra pennies which they collected. This convenient penny post service was established by the post-master of Butlers Bridge on the fifth of January 1831. From August 1832 the people of Ballinamore had their letters delivered from Ahascragh Post Office for an extra penny and from December 1832 the people of Carrigallen similarly took delivery from Killeshandra Post Office. The Treasury did not sanction these Cavan services until 1834.

Irish people never enjoyed paying high postal charges. The people of County Cavan, though, had reason for some extra dissatisfaction because the people of Virginia paid less for postage to Dublin than did letter-writers in other parts of the county. About 1800 a one-page letter from Virginia to Dublin cost fourpence while the cost was fivepence from neighbouring Cavan towns. Two-page and three-page letters cost twice and three times that amount. The reason for this discrimination was that Virginia was less than 50 miles from Dublin.

The uniform pre-paid penny post for general letters throughout the country was introduced on the tenth of January 1840 and the penny black stamp put on sale on the following May the sixth. Predictably, Cavan appreciated this stream-lining of the service. In 1847, for example, the Post Office income from Cavan was £3,261, exceeding the income from all nearby counties and being almost twice the income of some.

From the 1840’s the Post Office began to expand in duties as well as in the number of sub-offices. Postmen’s duties later included the carriage of books and parcels as well as letters and newspapers and the post offices began to issue money orders, postal orders and life insurance. In fact, critics maintained the postal officers had become “money brokers and petty bankers”. To the general public, though, postmasters were “honest, sedate, good men” - and women.

The security of the job attracted many, it ensured competition for each appointment and the use of plenty of “pull.” Records shows that Post Office appointments in County Cavan between 1858 and 1867 were filled on the personal recommendation of Lord Farnham, the Hon. I. Maxwell, M.P., Col. Annesley, M.P. Hamilton, M.P. and W.A. Moore, M.P. The men and women appointed as postmasters got a salary of about £4 to £5 per annum. Applicants were expected to be “most respectable”, have the support of the “gentry of the neighbourhood” and be able to make a sufficient payment as surety. For example £15 was expected as guarantee for a postman for a job of about eight shillings a week.

This form of selection, however, gave rise to problems on occasions as, when it was found that the person who had received such a laudable recommendation could, when put to the test, neither read nor write. This happened when Patrick Malley was appointed in Spiddal, County Galway. Was this the reason that William Chambers, who was appointed to Bailieborough Post Office on the 23rd of July, 1858 on Lord Farnham’s recommendation was replaced by Mary Anne Adams who was recommended by Mr Annesley the following August the twentieth?

Throughout its history women held positions of responsibility in the Post Office. This may have been the reason why, in the late nineteenth century, when the rise in the cost of living forced even “gentlewomen of limited means” to seek employment, many looked to the Post Office. Respected they must have been, but I wonder why The Cavan Weekly News carried the following story on June 6th, 1890.

“Women have proved themselves the equals of male clerks both as regards the amount of work they can do, and the ability with which it is done. In the Post Office Savings Bank at the present time the women are doing exactly the same work as the men, and they are doing it with fewer mistakes. All along the line of women workers the greatest progress has been reported, except in this one question of civility and attention to business, which affects only the Post Office workers who stand behind the counter. Everyone knows that there is a good deal to put up with. Men are not nowadays all that they should be, even where women are concerned, and occasionally the Post Office girls are obliged to take impudent remarks as well as money in exchange for stamps. Some of them resent being told that they are pretty, and visit their resentment upon unoffending customers, while others then object to an exactly opposite kind of treatment and are wrathful with men who do not, and women who cannot, flirt with them ...”

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2004