In the People’s Museum of Limerick, we have some telegrams on display.
“Nobody knows Limerick like the telegram boy. We know every avenue, road, street, terrace, mews, place, close, lane. Jaysus… there isn’t a door in Limerick we don’t know.” (1) This quote is from Angela’s Ashes, a best-selling autobiography by Limerick-born writer, Frank McCourt. The telegram bicycle used in the 1999 film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes is also displayed at the museum.
Angela’s Ashes is an account of McCourt’s Limerick childhood in the late 1930s and 1940s. In the book and film, McCourt takes a job as telegram boy with Limerick’s post, money order, and telegraph service on his fourteenth birthday. The author describes riding his telegram bike to the offices, shops, and factories of Limerick city. From cycling to doctors on Ennis Road, to reaching farmers living miles out from the city centre. (2)
Before the popularisation of the telephone in the 1950s, the telegram held a niche as an inexpensive and long distance means of communication. In the 1910s, a telegram from Dublin to Galway was delivered in the hour. (3) Telegrams were sent to notify business and political news, to big life events like births, deaths, and marriages.
Limerick’s telegraph offices were on the Dock Road and William Street. (4) At the telegraph office, telegrams were charged by the word. Messages sent by the people of Limerick were concise. The mean length of a telegram sent in the first half of the twentieth century was only fifteen words. (5)
Electric telegraphy uses Morse code; each letter of a short message allotted a code of dots and lines. Messages were then decoded at the receiving office. (6) Messenger boys waited at the telegraph office with their bicycle to then deliver the telegrams door to door. McCourt describes this process in Angela’s Ashes: ” …we drop telegrams in letter boxes, shove them under doors, throw them over the transom… we fight off every dog that wants to turn us into dinner.” (7)
In the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes, Limerick’s telegram boys wore a khaki green uniform with a cap adorned with the Irish symbol of the harp. Hired boys were generally aged between eleven and eighteen. (8) Their pay was varied. Some were paid by the mile, whilst others in postman training received a set weekly wage. (9) With support from his uncle and schoolteacher Mr O’Halloran, McCourt regularly saved a bit of his weekly earnings so that by the age of nineteen he was able to fund his own migration to America. (10) Ireland’s state-backed telegram system halted in the 1980s.
Thanks to team member Aisling for researching and writing this piece.
1 Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (New York, 1996) p.321 (hereafter McCourt, Angela’s Ashes).
2 Ibid., p 314.
3 Irish Independent, 22 Jun. 2013.
4 Isaac Slater, Royal National Directory of Ireland (9th ed., Manchester, 1894) p.94.
5 Carmen Frehner, Email, SMS, MMS: The Linguistic Creativity of Asynchronous Discourse in the New Media Age (Bern, 2008) p.191.
6 Anton A Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (New Jersey, 2003) p.72.
7 McCourt Angela’s Ashes p.322.
8 Exeter Historical Society, ‘The Messenger Boy’ (https://exeterhistory.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-messenger- boy.html) (24 Mar. 2020).
9 BBC History, WW2 People’s War Homepage, ‘A Telegram Boy: 1942-1945’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/72/a6440672.shtml) (25 Mar. 2020).
10 Sayoko Ohi, ‘A Childhood of Poverty: Frank O’Connor’s Stories and Frank McCourt’s ‘’Angela’s Ashes’’’ in Journal of Irish Studies, 29 (2014) pp..53-61.