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For many years, Irish people at home and abroad relied on postal services to send Christmas wishes to their loved ones. (In fact, EPIC features lots of these letters throughout its exhibition).

As a result, Ireland has always sent more letters and cards abroad than other European countries. And though the number of letters we send has been steadily declining for the past 15 years, Christmas always bucks that trend.

According to An Post, Christmastime demand has remained constant. But this year, with so many Irish unable to travel home, it is already seeing an increase in the number of cards and parcels being sent off.

The introduction of international post

Ireland’s organised postal system emerged in the 16th century, while the country was under British rule. Regular routes between Dublin and some main towns were set up and, before the arrival of post boxes, a bellman would walk the streets ringing out to let people know he was collecting letters.

Mail coaches began to operate in 1789. Then, in 1855, special sorting carriages were added to trains. The opening of a railway station in Cobh in 1862 facilitated mass emigration from Cork Harbour. Massive transatlantic liners took people to mainland Britain or the US. But they also picked up and dropped off hundreds of sacks of international post – some of which would have held letters from those who had left during the famine.

An Post’s Christmas stamps for 2014 and 2019

Independence and Irish stamps

When Ireland became an independent state in 1922, one of its first acts of separation was to paint all post boxes green. The Government began to issue its own stamps too.

At first, they used standard British stamps with Irish printed over them. But then Irish designs were commissioned – the first of which showed a map of Ireland with green Celtic designs and shamrocks surrounding the word ‘Éire’.

Since then, stamps have highlighted various aspects of Irish life. Past issues have featured everything from Irish musicians and native plants, through to cartoons and old toys.

Earlier this year, An Post even issued a five-stamp set to recognise the experience of Irish emigrants. The designs included an old dancehall in London, Dublin Airport’s departure lounge, and a letter from America.

The introduction of Christmas stamps

There’s much debate over which country first produced an official Christmas stamp. But it’s clear that Ireland was quite late to the game – especially when compared with countries like Canada and Denmark which began the tradition around the turn of the 20th century.

Lots of our stamps had festive themes. For example, a 1954 stamp depicted the ‘Madonna and Child’ sculpture by Luca della Robbia, while a 1960 stamp showed the ‘Flight of the Holy Family’. But neither of these were for Christmas. The first commemorated the Catholic Church’s Marian Year and the second World Refugee Year.

When Ireland’s first official Christmas stamp was released in 1971, it showed the ‘Madonna and Child’ statue which appears in Loughrea Cathedral in Co. Galway.

Ireland’s first official Christmas stamp.

In the run up to Christmas of that year, two million cards and letters passed through Dublin’s sorting office on Sheriff Street every day. (The Republic’s population was less than three million at the time.)

The above 6p Christmas stamp would have been placed on cards going overseas. While inbound, a massive 10,000 parcels arrived from the UK each day.

Contemporary Christmas stamps

For many years, Ireland’s Christmas stamps continued along the same vein, depicting religious sculptures, paintings, and places. The 1974 issue showed one of Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child’ paintings, while the 1988 stamp showed St. Kevin’s Church in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.

But, in more recent years, An Post’s Christmas stamps have moved toward representing modern life – giving recipients a stronger reminder of home.

In 2018, the public voted for their favourite Christmas moments. So stamps included scenes of families watching the Toy Show and meeting loved ones at the airport. 

Last year, stamps depicted carol singing, Christmas charity swims and people posting letters. While this year’s designs aim to reflect the Christmas experience many of us will be having this year – with one of the designs featuring a video call.

Two of An Post’s 2020 Christmas stamps

This year, Irish people are sending more care packages, presents, cards and letters abroad than they have in a long time. “From what we hear, people are conscious of renewing and maintaining contacts with friends or acquaintances abroad,” says Anna McHugh from An Post. “There is a greater awareness of the importance of human connection.”

At EPIC, the letters sent home by Irish men and women are brought to life through our interactive exhibitions. Book a visit this Christmas.

EPIC always aims to give a voice to all the men and women who have left Ireland. This year, we’re documenting emigrant experiences during the pandemic. Get in touch if you have any stories to tell or Christmas letters to share.