As far back as 1890 the Skibbereen Town Commissioners were discussing a site for a new Crown Post Office in the town. However, it took nearly fifteen years before the ambition was realised and a new Post Office opened in 1904.
Like most things in the town, the process was far from straight-forward and business houses and residents at either end of the town competed for the building.
In 1890 a site at the top of North Street was secured for the building of a new Post Office. The site was to be leased from Sir Henry Becher for sixty-one years at what was described as very favourable terms.
An alternative site at Market Street was proposed by other business people as a more suitable location. A Mr Sexton, Post Office Surveyor, attended a special meeting of the Town Commissioners in June 1891 at which the most appropriate site for a new Post Office was debated.
Mr Thomas Downes, solicitor, who lived and carried out his practice at Norton House, was strongly in favour of the North Street site. He argued that the part of the town above the Town Hall contained the banking establishments, and a large proportion of the trading houses.
Mr Timothy Sheehy was among those promoting the Market Street location. He proposed that the Town Council would build a Post Office on the site there and lease it to the Postmaster at a rent equal to six per cent on the outlay.
Mr Sexton was of the opinion that the Market Street location was more central and that was the deciding factor in choosing the site. It was felt that a Post Office at the top of North Street would be too far away from the Railway Station at the other end of the town.
The hullabaloo did not end there, however, and it was over a decade before positive steps were taken to build a new Post Office. When it was built in 1904, the design of the building caused consternation among some people in the town. It was described by one member or the Town Council as a ‘shed’.
While it was certainly not like the style of the other business houses in the town, the new Post Office building was typical of the Edwardian period and the red brick front was quite common in those years. The three-bay elaborate false frontage contradicts the very plain interior of the single storey building, much of which is made of limestone.
The red brick used in the new Post Office was in keeping with the Bank of Ireland, which opened in 1877 and was just a little bit down Market Street. The ground between the Post Office and the CYMS hall was just a vacant site and was offered for sale by the Town Council in 1905.
In 1904 we were still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the post boxes were red and post offices carried the Royal Crest and all the insignia of the Royal Mail.
Following the formation of the Free State in 1922, a Postmaster General was appointed by the new Government. One of the first tasks of the new service was to replace all the Royal Mail post boxes. This was going to be far too expensive however, so it was decided to paint all the red post boxes green and then gradually replace them.
While it may have been the intention to replace all the Royal Mail post boxes in Ireland, the authorities never got around to some of them and here in Skibbereen we have a few remnants from the days of the Royal Mail. The best example of this is the iconic Penfold Pillar Box at the top of North Street. Dating from about 1870, this hexagonal Penfold is in excellent condition and is one of only about six such pillar boxes left in Ireland.
The Royal Crest over the front entrance to the post office in Skibbereen was replaced with the harp only in the late 1930s.
Prior to 1904 the location of the Post Office in Skibbereen was not a fixed one and often was situated in the premises of the Postmaster at any particular time.
There was a post service in the town dating back to the mid-1820s, and maybe earlier. In 1826 the Postmasters General entered into new contracts for the conveyance of mails to a number of new locations in Ireland, including Cork to Skibbereen.
The first record of a Postmaster in Skibbereen that we have come across was George Levis. Mr Levis died in 1835, having acted as Postmaster in Skibbereen for many years.
Owen Leonard, a well-known Fenian sympathiser in Skibbereen, was Postmaster for some years in the mid-nineteenth century.
John O’Shea later ran the Post Office from his business establishment at the top of North Street. His son Charles O’Shea took over as Postmaster on his father’s death. Readers of a certain vintage will remember Mrs Dolly Wood-Wolfe in North Street. Charles O’Shea was Dolly’s father and John O’Shea her grandfather.
John Bournes was the Postmaster when the new Post Office was built in 1904. Before the opening of the new office, the Post Office was for a while situated in what is now Pierce Hickey’s Newsagents in the Square.
Having spent thirteen years in Skibbereen, John Bournes was transferred to Tipperary in 1913. Mr was replaced by Mr P.J. Keating who served in Skibbereen for a few years.
Others who acted as Postmaster in Skibbereen included Michael J. Somers, a native of County Louth, who served for ten years in Skibbereen from 1919 to 1929. Owen Moynihan served, we think, in the 1940s and he was replaced by Donal Foley. Perhaps some of our friends in Skibbereen Post Office might fill in the gaps for the later years.
For many years the Manual Telephone Exchange was situated in the building behind the Post Office, which later became the sorting office. The new Automatic Telephone Exchange opened in Skibbereen in 1977, doing away with the work of the manual telephonists.
In 2019 a new €750,000 delivery unit to serve the Skibbereen area opened near the roundabout at the end of Market Street. The new unit has certainly helped ease the congestion in High Street and must be a great relief to the staff.
The postal service is something that in recent years we may have taken for granted, but in the present crisis with Coronavirus the value of the service has never been so vital. Particularly in rural Ireland, the post is definitely an essential and crucially important service.