From spe­cial de­liv­er­ies to the em­blems of faith

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Paul Cle­ments

Few in­sti­tu­tions in Ire­land can claim such an in­flu­en­tial pedi­gree as the Post Of­fice, whose 300-year his­tory is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the chang­ing face of Ir­ish life. In The Post Of­fice in Ire­land: An

Il­lus­trated His­tory (Ir­ish Aca­demic Press, ¤26.99) Stephen Fer­gu­son draws on un­pub­lished ma­te­rial, dis­cov­er­ing a wealth of im­ages such as mail coaches, Penny Black stamps, and the days when a whis­tle was car­ried by ru­ral post­men an­nounc­ing their ar­rival in re­mote vil­lages.

An in­trigu­ing chap­ter looks at the Trav­el­ling Post Of­fice (TPO), a pur­pose-built car­riage that first ran on the Dublin-Cork night­mail of the Great South­ern and West­ern Rail­way on Jan­uary 1st, 1855. The ser­vice op­er­ated all over the coun­try and was sev­ered when the last TPO was with­drawn in 1994.

Most post was – and still is – de­liv­ered

safely, but an evoca­tive black-and-white pho­to­graph in 1912 by Fr Fran­cis Browne shows mail­bags be­ing picked up at Queen­stown (now Cobh) and con­veyed from a ten­der on to the ill-fated RMS Ti­tanic – never to reach its ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion.

A com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s past, this is a heavy vol­ume of 450 pages; while it is well worth the weight of its re­search, we should per­haps take pity on today’s postie hav­ing to de­liver it through a let­ter­box.

An­other large tome, lav­ishly il­lus­trated

with 600 colour im­ages, is Ar­chi­tects of Ul­ster: Young & MacKen­zie, A Trans­forma

tional Pro­vin­cial Prac­tice, 1850-1960 (Ul­ster Ar­chi­tec­tural Her­itage So­ci­ety, £28) by Paul Har­ron, an ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian. He doc­u­ments the work of a vi­brant firm formed in the early 1850s which sur­vived for three gen­er­a­tions and pop­u­larised Gothic Re­vival­ism for Pres­by­te­ri­ans. The firm de­signed nu­mer­ous struc­tures in Belfast such as the Ocean Build­ings, Scot­tish Prov­i­dent, and the Pres­by­te­rian Assem­bly Build­ings, as well as the much-missed depart­ment stores Robin­son & Cleaver, and An­der­son & McAu­ley whose build­ings have been re­pur­posed.

The book delves into the life of the fam­i­lies run­ning the firm. Robert Young was the founder and be­came an Ir­ish Privy coun­cil­lor; his son, Robert Mag­ill Young, who was born in Athlone, was a his­to­rian. Aside from the com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial as­pect, ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal build­ings give rise to the chap­ter ti­tle “Ar­chi­tects of Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism (And very oc­ca­sion­ally oth­ers)” cov­er­ing not just the North, but churches in Car­ling­ford, Dun­fanaghy and Ramelton.

One of Belfast’s best-known churches, St Ge­orge’s, is not in­cluded be­cause its found­ing stretches back to 1816, more than 30 years be­fore the com­pany was es­tab­lished, although there had been Chris­tian wor­ship on the site for many cen­turies. Its ab­sorb­ing story is re­counted in A His­tory of St Ge­orge’s Church Belfast (Ul­ster His­tor­i­cal Foun­da­tion, £19.99) by Brian Walker. The church has played an im­por­tant role in the spir­i­tual and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment of the city and has sur­vived many phys­i­cal threats of de­struc­tion in­clud­ing the 1941 Blitz in the sec­ond World War. Dur­ing one year of the Trou­bles, 1972, it was dam­aged no fewer than nine times in bomb blasts.

The ser­vices in St Ge­orge’s are re­garded as High Angli­can. Its mu­si­cal rep­u­ta­tion dates to the ap­point­ment as or­gan­ist in 1817 of Ed­ward Bunt­ing, the col­lec­tor of Ir­ish airs. Bunt­ing had par­tic­i­pated in the fa­mous harp fes­ti­val in Belfast in 1792 and his col­lec­tion of 66 harp melodies was pub­lished in 1797. Rare en­grav­ings, paint­ings and early pho­tographs are among the

range of illustrations. An im­pres­sive two-page pho­to­graphic spread fea­tures 40 well-at­tired gentle­men, ladies and ju­nior mem­bers of the ven­er­a­ble Belfast Nat­u­ral­ists’ Field Club en­joy­ing an out­ing to the church in 1929.

The ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory of an­other church and its ad­join­ing grave­yard is ex­am­ined in Heart and Soul: A His­tory of Saint

Bren­dan’s Grave­yard in Birr (Of­faly County Coun­cil, ¤20) by Stephen Cal­laghan and Caimin O’Brien.

St Bren­dan’s is a pre- Re­for­ma­tion church, and burial plots are at least 800 years old but only 156 memo­ri­als, mostly from the early 18th to the late 19th cen­tury, are leg­i­ble. The au­thors have recorded, pho­tographed and tab­u­lated the memo­ri­als and dec­o­ra­tive em­blems of faith. Del­i­cately carved grave­stone art­work in­cludes spirals, rosettes, winged heads, three-leafed clover, and hour­glasses rep­re­sent­ing the pas­sage of time. The in­di­vid­ual de­tails of the elab­o­rate stone carv­ings are a tes­ti­mony to the unique work that al­lowed ma­sons to demon­strate their artis­tic imag­i­na­tion. The au­thors also ex­plain the use of rubric, the open­ing sen­ti­ment on a head­stone, such as “Here lyeth . . .” or “Pray for the soul of . . .”.

Due to over­crowd­ing, the grave­yard closed to new buri­als in 1879, by which stage geese and lambs were graz­ing in the grounds. St Bren­dan’s re­mains a place of ge­o­graph­i­cal, so­cial and sa­cred his­tory, a phys­i­cal link be­tween the town and the past when Birr was called Par­son­stown. This hand­somely il­lus­trated hard­back en­sures that the re­li­gious and folk art of its tal­ented crafts­men will not be for­got­ten.

Paul Cle­ments is the au­thor of Wan­der­ing Ire­land’s Wild At­lantic Way, pub­lished by the Collins Press

Mail­bags be­ing picked up at Queen­stown (now Cobh) and con­veyed from a ten­der on to the ill-fated RMS Ti­tanic in 1912; from The Post Of­fice in Ire­land: An Il­lus­trated His­tory by Stephen Fer­gu­son. PHO­TO­GRAPH: FR FRAN­CIS BROWNE

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