What do you get delivered in the post? It’s probably all the essentials – bills and insurance from organisations who won’t allow you to receive online correspondence, or urgent requests from companies whose emails you’ve neglected to respond to. The era of love letters, even postcards, barely exists anymore – we have Skype, Whatsapp and a myriad of other technologies for that now. The Internet has however increased deliveries of parcels to homes via online shopping, and the quiet thrill of an order being delivered is its own specific 21st century high.
For the national postal company in Ireland, An Post, the ever-familiar institution that was founded in 1800s, they’ve witnessed (and played a role in) vast social changes through the decades, all the while delivering the mail in whatever form it takes.
This month we meet a postman of 37 years, Dublin man Greg McQueirns to see what his morning route looks like.
Greg is a driving postman, based in the Whitehall Delivery Office, where he has worked for the last five years. The Delivery Office is located on the leafy suburban thoroughfare of Griffith Avenue on the northside of the city. It sits alongside a row of semi-detached houses and just a few doors down from the former Whitehall Garda Station, which will soon become the City Morgue. There’s around 40 employees in the office, which covers deliveries for areas between Whitworth Road in Drumcondra up to the North Ring Business Park in Cloghran. It’s open to the public every weekday from 7am to 7pm, for people to collect missed deliveries but is manned almost 24 hours a day, with the night team coming in at 10pm to get things ready for the next day.
Greg tells us that the “midnight driver” working that shift will make four trips to the Dublin Mail Centre on Nangor Road to collect mail which will then be grouped and sorted by the night-time staff. The morning shift starts at 6am when each person sorts their own individual route.
I arrive somewhat bleary-eyed at 7am through the wrong door to meet Greg. Another postman, Tony, walks me through the office (which consists mainly of several large and tall workstations for sorting the mail) and out to the courtyard where Greg, in short sleeves and a high-vis An Post vest is leaning with arms folded against a wall, and vaguely looking in the direction of the gate we had agreed I’d come through.
After apologies and introductions, we set off in the van to complete the first half of Greg’s daily deliveries. The route will take us first to the Santry Industrial Estate. Officially Greg starts at 6am but says that he usually arrives after 5am to have a shower, get settled and get a jump start on the day.
“It's all about prep. The prep is the hardest part really.”
He had been working at Lexie Tynan, an importing company, for a few months in 1979 when the An Post job came up. At the suggestion of his father he applied and got the job. After eight weeks training, he was out on the road.
“I loved the driving end of it - I won't tell you my age - but I was 18 going into the post office. You're driving around in a van thinking you were it, all around Dublin.”
He started off in the Sheriff Street post office, and through the years has also been stationed at Kilbarrack, and Churchtown before Whitehall. If the Post Office hadn’t come up, he reckons he may have ended up in Australia. From the off though, he loved the job and has never looked back.
It’s 7:20am now and we’re motoring up the Swords Road, the sun flooding into the van that’s loaded up with trays of parcels and letters. Greg beeps and waves to the driver of the 33 bus going in the opposite direction, who returns the wave. “There’s me friend on the bus”, says Greg and I am about to learn that this will be a theme.
“That's my bus home, when I used to get the bus, and I used to see her every morning and then we just got to see each other on the road and we'd wave so, I don't even know the girl’s name … and she doesn't know mine.”
From his route, and no doubt the many he’s had before, Greg has got to know a lot of people this way and says he often finds himself in a supermarket or at a concert with someone thinking they know him but not quite being able to place him. This social aspect of the job, from the micro-interactions of a minute or two every day, are one of the most enjoyable parts of the role for Greg.
“It's nice and like that you get to see people every day, every morning, you get to know who's who.”
During the two-hour route, I hear about Martin and Phil who work as security guards in Swift Square, the woman from one company who recently broke her ankle, various receptionists, and I even meet Polly and some of the office staff at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Northwood. Greg could drop the bag of mail at the front desk but says he often drops it directly into the office down the corridor (after the okay from reception). Several of the women there shake my hand, and amidst hearty chit-chat about how everyone’s weekend went, someone jokingly asks if I want a headache tablet when they realise I’m doing Greg’s route with him. Another person chimes in, "He's known as a charmer, even his colleagues when he's on holidays come in and say does he be charming again?" Everyone is very upbeat and switched on for before 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning. If first encounters mean anything, it would be easy to deduce that it’s nice office to spend time in. But there’s post to be delivered and we’re back in the van in about three minutes.
“The girls there are great, you get a great laugh out of them.”
Greg remembers residential customers too, one older woman with mobility issues who used to give him a few dollars if she heard he was going to America on holidays – it was her way of saying thanks for him bringing the milk to the door for her when he was delivering the post. And another young mum who introduced him to her own mother in the supermarket as the only person she had seen from one end of the day to the next while she adjusted to being at home with a newborn.
Amidst the joking and the laughs he has with some of the people he meets on his route, he does say that he’s careful to essentially read the room and not be in the way or joke with someone he knows is usually not that chatty. He has those traditional notions of what a postman is often considered to be - a person providing a service out in the community every day.
“You are the face of An Post when you're out there.”
We head back down Ballymun Road and to the sorting office just after 9am. It’s a very different place now from the hub of activity it was a few hours before, with just a handful of postmen around alongside Caroline, the cleaner. Greg takes a break now before heading out to do his second route of the day, which is mostly parcels for residential customers. He usually finishes up before 2 o'clock, and this type of shift work was helpful when his kids were young.
“You were always there at one stage or another you know - you might be there in the morning to bring them to school … but then the next week you could be on an early so you could pick them up from school so you were always [around].”
His eldest Oisin is now 21 and in his last year of a Journalism degree in DCU, while Sinead is 18 and about to do her Leaving Cert. There’s a photo of them with Greg and his wife Joan on holidays in Florida hanging from the rear view mirror. “Once they're with me all the time, that keeps me going.”
Earlier in the van we talked about the decline in mail and as an example, Greg mentioned that he used to remember DCU getting half a van of mail, 20 bags or so, where now that would be around five. (For the record, according to their annual review published in April, An Post recorded a profit of €8.6 million in 2015, up from €3.3 million in 2014. Volume of mail declined by 2.9% on the previous year however, and is down by 35% since 2007.) Greg believes that this decline is something management are worried about, and are thinking of ways to diversify the company. From his point of view, he thinks they should push the solid brand name they have and focus on the personal touch alongside an efficient service. “An Post, like they can guarantee anything.”
Before I go, I’m introduced to Jason with the Lovely Legs, so called due to his fondness for shorts. "It's public demand on me route you know, before I knock in, people say 'put the shorts on'". And another postman, Declan waves a high vis vest in front of me, only to dryly tell us we’ll have to do the route again when he realizes we’re already back.
Declining numbers of mail don’t seem to be the most pressing issue today, with plenty yet to be delivered. So I leave Greg to get a cup of tea before heading out to do his second route of the day, and no doubt, meet some familiar faces.
Written by Sinead Fox ©2016
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe ©2016