Monday 12 March 2018

Going Postal

I saw a piece on the news this morning regarding the successful delivery of a parcel to a house in rural Ireland, despite the address on the label being totally unreadable. The world is agog, social media heaving with chatter, and the press overawed with the mystery of how the parcel reached its correct destination. Here in Ireland such miracles are almost commonplace, thanks to the intrepid staff at An Post and their knowledge of their area and customers.

 When we first visited Ireland in search of our dream home, Lesley and I quickly discovered the best way to navigate was with the aid of an Ordinance Survey map, a magnifying glass, and some corrective guidance from the village shop. We never failed to find our destination, although sometimes it took a while.
Our first task upon taking ownership of Glenmadrie, was to visit our local post office and announce our presence. Since then, we have always received our post, even when it was only addressed to: Lesley, Clare, Ireland. That being said, international parcels can be rather more tricky.
Despite our close ties with America and the UK, many online retailers still consider Ireland to be an unsuitable destination for their products, even though they seem happy to ship to nefarious third-world countries and war zones. A small proportion of parcels never reach Ireland, heading instead for far flung places like Australia, Israel, or France, with all the enthusiasm of a drunk homing pigeon. Such confusion is understandable. After all, depending on how the mood takes you, Ireland can be referred to as: Southern Ireland, Ireland, Eire, The Republic of Ireland, or just ROI. The tracking data for those parcels which do arrive usually has just three entries:

1.      Your parcel has been dispatched.
2.      We have no idea where your parcel is…
3.      Your parcel has been delivered!

Rumor has it there is a Bermuda triangle for courier drivers, somewhere in the green and hilly wilds of County Clare. Here in amongst the tangle of leafy lanes, unsignposted junctions and mobile phone blind spots, there must be a pub called, The Backend of Beyond. I imagine it is a welcoming place, with a warm fire, good beer, friendly staff, and a car park bursting with hundreds of abandoned delivery vans.
Because of the high turnover of courier drivers, we seldom see the same person twice. I have spent many happy hours on the phone trying to direct a delivery driver to our house. At times I felt like an air traffic controller guiding a crippled aircraft safely towards a landing. Although we now have a carefully developed series of instructions with easily identifiable waypoints, sometimes it’s just quicker to drive to the local post office and wait for the courier to arrive.
One quirk of rural Ireland which first endeared us to this beautiful place, was the lack of postal codes. For many years we struggled to explain this omission to any company with a computer or an online booking form. The technology simply couldn’t cope with the blank postcode box and refused to complete the transaction. The residents of rural Ireland proudly wore this affront like a badge of honor, until the day we heard the shocking news – Ireland was going to get postal codes.

In most civilized countries, to help those good people at the post office deliver our letters and parcels, it is common practice to use a zip code, or some other style of postal code designed for the country in question. Zip codes and postal codes are very common. Germany introduced them in 1941 at the height of World War Two. Argentina introduced them in 1958, the UK in 1959, and the USA in 1963. By 2015, almost every country on the planet was using some sort of zip code – with the exception of Ireland. There were a few good reasons for this delay:

1.      Frankly, as a nation, we’re quite resistant to newfangled ideas. Although, it can become quite tedious, explaining how we manage to get around and make a living, despite being so cruelly disadvantaged.
2.      We’ve been finding each other’s houses for centuries, without the need for digitized codes. When you move in, you simply visit the local postmaster and tell him, or her, where you live. They will then say something like, “Oh, you mean Bill’s old place” and that will become the moniker for your residence, even though Bill was chronologically only the third in a long line of owners, but evidently first in regard to notoriety.
3.      We quite like the rebelliousness of entering a string of zeros into the postcode box of online forms and being able to tell foreigners that we don’t have, or need, postcodes.

Postal codes are really simple. They are just a code for an address in reverse. For example, take the English postcode CM7 3DT. The UK has 121 postal areas. CM is the code for the district of Chelmsford, and 7 is the sub-code for the town of Braintree. The number 3 directs postmen and delivery drivers, to the southeast of the town, and DT takes them to Howard Close. So, a letter addressed to: 201, CM7 3DT, UK, would easily reach 201, Howard Close, Braintree, Essex, England, United Kingdom – if there were such an address. Each element of the postcode is a unique but logical identifier for part of the eventual destination. It’s so simple an idea that you couldn’t cock it up if you tried. Or could you?
In 2005, the Irish government announced they were going to design a unique postal code system named Eircode. Not for them the stuffy system used by those tricky Brits, or the tried-and-tested German structure, or the logical American Zip codes, or even something based on the newfangled GPS system. Ten-years, and €27-million later, having roundly ignored advice from all sides, the new Eircode system was unveiled, and the good people of Ireland gave a collective snort of disbelief and said, “Well that’s never going to work!”

I recall a discussion I had with Brian, a friend who happens to be a retired postman:

“Are these Eircodes really just random letters and numbers, or is there some system being applied?” I asked.
“No. The lettering is deliberately haphazard,” he replied, smiling over his beer. “They couldn’t risk delivery drivers using the Eircodes, without paying for them. So, each city was allocated an arbitrary letter, which appears at the beginning of the Eircode. These letters bear no relationship to the city name. For example, Galway is H, Cork city is T, and P and E. Tipperary will be designated E, but an F is for North Roscommon and Sligo. County Clare, Limerick, and parts of Kerry will use a V. The second part of the Eircode is randomly generated, meaning it is impossible to identify two linked addresses, even if they share a dividing wall.”
“It sounds fantastically complicated,” I laughed. “Perhaps it’s like a Mensa question. If Waterford is X, County Laois is R, and Ennis is V, how many apples has Sally got?”
Brian snorted and sipped his beer.
“Did every house get an Eircode?” I asked.
“Well, every property in Ireland was allocated an Eircode. If someone didn’t get one, it was because Eircode didn’t know their house existed, or because they thought the house was in a different field, or because they made a mistake.”
“And how are these mistakes to be rectified?”
“Why do you ask?” His eyes narrowed.
“There’s a special website set up to help people check their Eircodes,” I explained. “According to the map, my Eircode will send people to a muddy farm track up by the forest.”
He pulled a face before answering, as if he were trying to suck something from between his front teeth.
“If your address was inadvertently changed during the issuing of Eircodes, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. My advice is to order some new stationery, change the sign on your house, inform all of your friends, and get over it.” Brian smiled benevolently and sipped his beer.

Not to worry! Our post (devoid of an Eircode) still finds its way to our house, even when it is addressed to our old house in England, but with the useful footnote, County Clare, Ireland. If you want to send a letter to Ireland, you can try adding an Eircode – it might work. Or, you can deliver it by hand. Everyone here would be pleased to see you. Alternatively, address your letters like this:
“Your man Henderson, that boy with the glasses who is doing the PhD up here at Queen's in Belfast; Buncrana, County Donegal, Ireland.”

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!