End of an era as Sinn Féin Christmas postal service 2019 to be the last
It was back in 1975 when leading Republican Barney McFadden, following discussions with inmates in Long Kesh, suggested the founding of an alternative postal service for Derry.
It was one of a number of ideas examined to offer people in the north west an alternative to using British government services, and it took off in no time.
Veteran Greater Shantallow Sinn Féin activist and former Councillor for the area, Tony Hassan was appointed the finance officer for the postal project, and said that alongside Mr McFadden, Martha MacClelland and Johnny Johnston were instrumental in setting the project in motion.
“Barney came up with this idea and suggested why not put a stamp out and make a few bob for the Prisoners’ Dependants Fund [the PDF, which raised money for Republican prisoners and their families],” Mr Hassan said. “It was a novelty at the time having an alternative to the British post office, and it went quite smoothly. It was well received and there were plenty of members to deliver it.”
Mr Hassan recalled how the first stamp issued featured an image of the General Post Office in Dublin burning in reference to the Easter 1916 revolution, and each year thereafter the stamp reflected contemporary events.
“Every year after that first year, for the stamp we followed the political situation and what was happening at that time, the Hunger Strikes, the Blanket protest, whatever was happening at that time we had a political message on the stamp.”
And the service, which would later be replicated in other cities across Ireland, didn’t go unnoticed by those in power.
In fact, Mr Hassan recalls, back in those first years of the Sinn Féin Christmas Postal Service, Unionist MP Willie Ross tried in 1978 to get the Royal Mail Post Office to take action, and the security forces to put a stop to it, without success, as the Post Office concluded it was not going to damage their service given it was just two weeks of the year, and nor was action in the interests of its employees. Only one Sinn Féin postman was ever arrested,, back in 1981, but it is understood this too came to nothing.
Meanwhile, the uptake went from strength to strength as more and more local people switched to the post. Nine years later, the local Sinn Féin activists were delivering 60,000 envelopes containing Christmas cards and letters in the north west during the 1984 festive period. “It was well received,” Mr Hassan said, “and it generated money for the Prisoners’ Dependants Fund so we saw it as our duty. There was a lot of work but everybody was willing to do it.
“The stamps were sold in the offices and people would come in and collect the envelopes and they were put into different boxes from different areas and people would sort them out for delivery. It ran pretty smoothly.”
For the past 44 years bar one, the postal operation has swept into action around this time of year and today the party activists are regrouping for one last time. And in a fitting gesture, the final stamp features a picture of the late Barney McFadden, regarded as the father of Republicanism in Derry in honour of his pivotal role in getting the service up and running, as well as a commemorative booklet.
Mr. McFadden passed away on Christmas Eve in 2001, and he was described at his funeral by the late Martin McGuinness as a “colossus of the struggle in Ireland”.
A few years back, a German scholar Heinz-Jurgen Kumpf came to Derry and later wrote a book on the unique postal service following extensive research, with images of the stamps and explanations of their origins and the post service itself.
Explaining why this will be the last year of the post, Mr Hassan said: “The reason we are doing it for the last time this year is because with the internet, e-mail, social media, people are not sending anywhere near as many cards and letters these days like they would have done before that, or people deliver cards themselves along with Christmas presents. Because of that this is the final year. We want to thank the Derry public for supporting the Sinn Féin Christmas postal service throughout the years and all the activists who were involved in helping to run it, and it is fitting that our final stamp is dedicated to Barney.”
The 2019 Sinn Féin Christmas postal service starts today, Friday, December 6, and runs until December 19.