- The Postal Imagination of Lady Gregory, Thomas Clarke, and Rabindranath Tagore: Writing the Irish Post
BRITISH POSTAL NETWORKS proliferated over the nineteenth century. The Penny Post, United Postal Union, and telegraph wire moved written lanauge in new ways. Writers took note of this changing environment for literate exchange, some, as we shall see, envisioning the post within the literary imagination. The efficiency and sheer volume of correspondence surprised those able to glimpse the industrial collection, sorting, and distribution infrastructure operating within the walls of St. Martin’s-le-Grand, the headquarters of the British postal service. Charles Dickens, for instance, expressed amazement about the workload and precision of postal employees during the Valentine’s Day barrage of mail at the midcentury. As sorters deftly executed their charge, he wondered “when a sorter goes home from these places to his bed, does he dream of letters?”1 Surely the repetitive handling of messages impinged upon their dreamscapes. Likewise, writers dreamt about these new postal structures and what they meant for the exchange of language and the future of literature.
Victorian postal reforms infiltrated the rhythms of everyday life, and by the end of the century, reliable communication had become an unquestioned fact of modern life. Nevertheless, this grand communications network seemed to fray at the edges. Those on the periphery of the British Empire inaugurated a new understanding of postal progress. This recognition of the fragmentary, subversive, and contingent lines of communication led writers such as Thomas J. Clarke, Lady Gregory, and Rabindranath Tagore to reimagine the Royal Mail and its relationship to the transmission of literary texts and language. Those at the margins of the Empire and its extended bureaucratic reach are the first to register this changing nature of postal realities, and Irish [End Page 220] writers gave literary life to the new political and social potentials of the post.
As an Irish Republican, British civil servant, and bookseller, P. S. O’Hegarty stood at the intersection the Royal Mail, Irish politics, and literature. As he walked through the imposing gates of the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office during his second assignment with the British postal service, he must have been aware of the building’s past—at various times a salubrious wellspring, odoriferous midden, and perhaps most famously as the notorious Cold Bath Fields Prison. When the Royal Mail decided to expand their operations in 1887, the architecture of the defunct jail seemed a suitable fit for the new facility. Not surpsingly the move was not without its detractors. One postal employee reported on “the disappointment that filled all our minds when we heard that the prison was to be our permanent abode.”2 For many Irish men and women, Mount Pleasant was a welcome place to work; the British civil service was a powerful alternative to unemployment and transatlantic emigration. Thousands took up posts in Ireland and abroad, administering to the everyday affairs of England and the empire. O’Hegarty, a bright young man who also had literary interests in addition to nationalist sympathies, would later become the first secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the Irish Free State. But early on in his career, he left Ireland for the carceral spaces of Mount Pleasant, where the modern postal facility retained the “cells, the Roman Catholic Chapel, the photographic room, the corridors haunted with memories of forgotten crimes, and the rotunda with the wide view from its roof over northern London.”3 Mount Pleasant was thus both a modern institution of speed, efficiency, organization, and connectivity and a remnant of punishment, isolation, and criminality. In a splendidly paradoxical way, it symbolizes both the acme of Victorian technologies of communication and the segregation, containment, and silence of an antiquated prison system. Its surfaces contained the history of two seemingly incongruous state institutions. Yet throughout history, the desire for connectivity and communication has often accompanied forced isolation and silence.
O’Hegarty remains important because of his commitment not only to moving the mails but also to the distribution of literature, collecting of books and ephemera, and recording of history. After being dismissed from the British postal service because of his political activities, he operated...