Derry postmen remembered in post office war time archives

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Last month an archivist from the British Postal Museum visited Redcastle to hear and record the stories of six Derry men who had worked for the Post Office in Derry during the Troubles.

By his own admission the museum’s senior curator Julian Stray had made a “glaring omission” from his archives by failing to record the stories of Northern Ireland’s postal workers alongside those who bravely served through World Wars I and II.

When Derry man Gerry McKeever came across some of the stories in the Post office monthly magazine, he contacted Julian to tell him about what he and many of his colleagues had endured during the 1980s when they were seen as easy targets to rob and hijack.

Gerry was attacked a total of five times as he worked as a postman, having started the job as a postal cadet when he left school aged just 16 in 1982. He recalls that it was the year after the death of hunger striker Mickey Devine and tensions remained high in the city as he started work for the first time.

“What I really wanted to do was to go back to school and start my ‘A’ Levels at Carnhill High School but back then when you got a job somehwere like the Post Office you just took it,” said Gerry.

“We were the first batch of postal cadets, we replaced the famous messenger boys as telegrams were almost defunct. The very first morning I remember stepping over the fire hoses that had been left from the night before when the office had been attacked by petrol bombs. The sorting office was always a target along with Crown Buildings because they were the most central and the easiest to attack.”

Gerry walked his round in Gobnascale for a few years until he was asked to drive one of the postal vans. While this was considered dangerous work, it also mean a substantial amount of extra money. Postal drivers were always able to earn additional money and were given an open docket called ‘Civil Disturbances’.

On May 28 1988, Gerry’s van was attacked for the first time and so began a downward spiral which would eventually see him medically retired at the age of just 28.

“It all happened so quickly as we were leaving the sorting office on Great James Street,” said Gerry.

“Before I knew, a masked man and armed man pointed a gun at us and told us to open the door. There was a car in front and a car behind us. The man said that he was from the IRA and that we should follow behind the car in front of us. As we drove across Rosville Street he pushed the gun into my ribs and told me to keep going and we ended up at the Brandywell skip site. They got me out of the van and beat me up, I could never understand why they did that or why the burned the van and the rest of the post after they had taken what they wanted. They put me in the workman’s hut which caught fire from the van and I had to knock down the door to get away from the fire. The thing I remember most is how hard it was to breathe.”

That night Gerry was taken to the Post Office Social Club whe he got “tanked” which was a tradition for post workers who had been hijacked.

“I had never even had a drink before that night but in the coming few years I grew to depend on it as a way of coping with everything that had happened. In fact, it was only when I saw my GP about it a few years later that he started talking to me about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I remember saying to him ‘God you’re talking about stuff from Vietnam or something’ and he told me that what I had gone through was also a severe trauma.

“I think the night I saw a policeman killed in Strabane as they tried to take my van again was the worst one. I still have nightmares about that. It was the hate I saw in people’s eyes, I’ll never get over that. I couldn’t believe that one human being could hold so much hate for another.

Expressing thanks to his wife, Mandy who he says was by his side through it all, Gerry added: I’m pleased that the work that we all did to get people their post during those tough time is being recognised in some way. Garvan Kerr, Brian McBride, Noel and Jackie Rankin, and Danny Heraghty all had their experiences recorded too. The stories they told were often very harrowing and Julian couldn’t believe we had worked through all this.”