Going Postal by Nick Albert

During his first visit to rural Ireland, bestselling author Nick Albert discovered the road to his Shangri-La wouldn’t be easy to find.

I recently saw a piece on the news regarding the successful delivery of a parcel to a house in rural Ireland, despite the address on the label being totally unreadable. The world was agog, social media heaved with chatter, and the press were overawed. But the mystery of how the parcel reached the correct destination received no more than a nonchalant shoulder shrug in Ireland. Because of the intrepid staff at the Irish postal service, An Post, and their encyclopaedic knowledge of their delivery areas, such miracles are almost commonplace here. 

My wife Lesley and I had always had a yearning to leave the noise, stress and pollution of modern Britain behind and move to the countryside, where the living is good, the air sweet, and there is space for our dogs to run free. But our idea would have remained just a dream, had circumstances not forced our hands. Suddenly out of work and soon to be homeless, we set off in search of a new life in Ireland, a country they had never before visited. After much research on the interweb thingy, we chose County Clare, in the rural west of Ireland, and began hunting for our dream home. Bereft of local knowledge and without a Satnav in our hire-car, we quickly discovered the only way to navigate rural County Clare was with an Ordnance Survey map, a compass, a magnifying glass, and some kindly guidance from the local village shops. We never failed to find our destination during that month-long search for our Shangri-La, although sometimes the journey took rather a long time.

The Ordnance Survey map of County Clare is covered with a mind-blowing mass of little squiggly lines, almost like a Victorian maze or the trails of a hundred drunk spiders. On closer inspection, we realized we were looking at a representation of the rural road network. At the bottom of each page was a key, providing helpful clues to the meaning of each line and symbol.

Only a few roads travelled across the map with any sign of confident purpose, and these major roads were colouredred and given numbers. However, when we visited these roads, they didn’t look like a major thoroughfare or display any identifying numbers. More numerous than the red roads on the map were yellow ones. These jolly lines travelled in all directions, like a spilt spaghetti, occasionally connecting two red lines for no apparent reason. Whereas the red lines indicated A-class regional roads, the yellow lines represented B-roads. They were usually around four metreswide, or even less, and resisted all attempts at identification. Lesley and I soon decided the ‘B’ stood for “Bloody hell, we’re lost again!” Branching off from the B-roads were hundreds of grey lines that the map key called ‘other roads’. More apt descriptions were barely passable, impassable, or non-existent. These grey lines were usually subdivided, sometimes several times, into branch roads, each becoming ever more difficult to find and navigate. Inevitably, most of the properties we had selected to view were hidden at the end of one of these branches.

Undaunted and enchanted, we persisted in our search until we found Glenmadrie, a rundown former goat farm, on a few scrubby acres, high in the beautiful hill of East Clare. Out of work and soon to be homeless, we set about If finding our dream house was difficult, buying it seemed almost impossible. How would they cope with banks that didn’t want customers, builders who didn’t need work, or the complex issue of where to buy some chickens?

Upon taking ownership of Glenmadrie, our first task 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 somewhat trickier.

Despite our close ties with America and the UK, many online retailers still consider Ireland 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 package has been dispatched.
  2. We have no idea where your package is…
  3. Your package has been delivered!

Rumour has it there is a Bermuda triangle for courier drivers, somewhere in the green and hilly wilds of County Clare. Somewhere 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 honour 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 zipcode or some other style of postal code designed for the country in question. Zipcodes and postal codes are ubiquitous. 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 zipcode except Ireland. There were a few good reasons for this delay:

  1. Frankly, as a nation, we’re pretty 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 inform the local postmaster 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, the tried-and-tested German structure, 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 into 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!

Nick Albert is the author of the bestselling memoir series, Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds. Published by Ant Press, it’s the comical tale of an English couple and their unruly dogs, searching for a better life in rural Ireland.