Category: Archive

Going postal: in search of a symbol for Irish America

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

There are not too many better sights on earth these frantic times than an empty post office. And peace reigned a few minutes after 9 a.m. last Friday at the postal station located at 31st Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

Not a creature was stirring. Not even a tweety bird. But there was movement of the human variety. One or two early customers were just wandering in. There were also signs of life behind the bulletproof counter screens. But by the standards of a couple of hours hence, this was philatelic nirvana.

The place, in short, was blessedly free of the kind of lines and irritations that build up as the day progresses. The wait would be mercifully short.

The signals, however, were not immediately encouraging. The U.S. Post Office is nothing if not eager to sell stamps, whether they are headed for an envelope or not. In recent years, it has gone somewhat mad in this regard. Stamps depicting all manner of persons, events, objects, historical occurrences, love, war and even cartoon characters have been rolling off the postal presses at a rate that would leave your average stamp nut awestruck and exhausted.

Many of these subjects were on display in the postal station on 31st Street. Elvis was not evident but there were more than enough distractions for the eye: Leftover love stamps from St. Valentine’s Day with big red hearts on them — no prizes for that design. Another stamp featured Superman in flight while yet another had a ballet dancer in a position unfamiliar to those of us who daily experience the limitations brought about by too many hours in front of the TV.

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And of course there were the stamps honoring such American icons as Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird and his feline pursuer, Sylvester.

But there was neither sign nor hint of the long-awaited and highly anticipated stamp being issued this very day: The commemorative marking the vaunted history of Irish immigration to America.

Given the upsurge in all things Irish in recent years, you would think that the immigration stamp would have been on prominent display in this busy midtown station, up there on an advertising poster with Sylvester and his pals. There was no visible sign of its existence on earth at all. But hope lingered nevertheless.

Finally the moment came. "Next in line please." Next-in-line walked up to the counter and, in a voice a little louder than usually employed in such circumstances, inquired as to the availability of the newly issued Irish stamp.

"I believe we have it," said the very pleasant postal person.

She reached for a drawer, locked, but with a key protruding. Out from the depths came the desired sheet of 33 cent commemorative depicting a sailing ship — presumably a "coffin ship" — arriving in an American harbor. A port, New York or Boston perhaps, in which the water was decidedly green, the dockside empty of welcoming relatives. A lonely scene indeed.

But why no fuss, no visible hint of this new arrival? Why no sign listing the stamp as a collector’s newly minted imperative alongside the issues honoring Wisconsin statehood and the Trans-Mississippi whatever it was.

Oh, a more public display would likely follow in a few days, the polite postal worker replied.

OK, so it did take 150 years — roughly the historical lifespan of postal stamps themselves — to secure a stamp acknowledging one of the epic migrations in human history, a pivotal event in the formation of the modern United States.

With that in mind we can, perhaps, wait a few more days before the Irish Immigration stamp of 1999 gets its share of the philatelic limelight — up there with Elvis, Tweety, the man of steel and the ramrod-straight ballet dancer.

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