In the bad old days I worked for an advertising agency with offices sprinkled as far as the plane can fly, and a small London-based division of cool hunters. Fascinating, actually, how they worked, paying bleeding-edge types all over the world – let’s say a DJ in Mexico City, a graffiti artist in Tokyo, an independent bookshop owner in Boston – a small fee to make intermittent reports of sightings and soundings. These were totted and plotted to show burgeoning trends. Anyway, the coolhunters visited our Dublin office one day and gave a brilliant presentation on what was coming down the tracks – Kidults, I remember, was one theme, and another was Neighbourhood Pride. This was in the days when Londoners were just starting to wear Hoxton, Hackney and postcode t-shirts. But to the audience in the Irish office, the neighbourhood pride thing was old hat – well, county pride was, anyway. This is the country that produced decathlete Tom Kiely, who won his Olympic gold medal in 1904 competing “for Tipperary and Ireland”; where county football and hurling teams are supported with more love and consistency than the national soccer team; where people identify themselves not only by their county of birth but by their parents’ and grandparents’ counties of birth. There are times when pointing out that your grandfather was a Mayo man, or that your mother, though a Leitrim woman, was born in Offaly, can be a shortcut to acceptance, a diversion from argument, or the explanation of a character trait or stray pronunciation.
This time next year, the Greens promise, we’ll have our own postcode system, costing the exchequer up to 15 million euro to implement, with a corollary cost to businesses who have to reprint their stationery and add an extra field to their customer databases. Soon, there’ll be a vintage feel to addresses without the alphanumeric code, and an eBay market for those copy books with blank county maps on the back, when inevitably, efficiently, we move, as is intended in the UK, to a system of postal delivery which depends solely on the code, and from which street names, townlands and counties are deleted. The chairman of the Royal Mail, the BBC reported, said that
some people might get upset as counties were part of the country’s heritage, but insisted they were no longer necessary for business and administrative purposes.
Serious types point out that the county system in England and Wales is already a complete mess, with the original geographical counties overlaid with non-corresponding local government “counties” in 1972, and later by lieutenancies in 1997. In the same way that television regions don’t necessarily match reality – in Dublin when I was growing up you might just as easily have got BBC Cymru instead of BBC Northern Ireland – UK postal addresses can be a nonsense. What’s North London, and what’s Middlesex? No-one but local government officials and the Royal Mail can get their heads around (plucked at random) why people living in the village of Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire must use “Fowlmere, Hertfordshire” in their postal addresses.
In Ireland, did our county lines falter, historically? They must have, somewhat. I grew up with a vague notion of having one lot of antecedents from somewhere in Kildare, but when I fell gratefully on the online census returns for 1901 and 1911, the reality turned out to be Wicklow. Specifically, the West Wicklow town of Dunlavin, which, as it’s near the county border, is frequently referred to as being in Kildare. But maybe the mapped border has changed over the years, and Dunlavin has played German jumps over it. A postcode would pin it down and put paid to that larking about. There are other issues than cost, confusion and county pride – Conradh na Gaeilge says that if postcodes do come into existence here, they should be based on Irish placenames rather than English ones. In other bilingual countries, they use numeric postcodes only; but dropping even, say, a WX or SO denomination would divorce the postcode even further from the place it represents.
Is your chest puffed with pride in your native county, or is it just an administrative area as it was originally created? Was I just sucked in by the GAA’s ask not what your county can do for you campaign, and the guy scrawling I Love Louth on the beach?