Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Commencement Matters

Special and Commemorative Stamp Programme

10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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An chéad rud eile belongs to Senator Frank Feighan. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will deal with the final issue. Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire. I call Senator Feighan. The Senator has four minutes to outline his case.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment for attending. My matter refers to the need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to consider honouring the contribution of the Irish navvy to Britain and Ireland by issuing a new postage stamp and to outline ways to facilitate same.

Last year, my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Cannon, who has responsibility for the diaspora, called on An Post to issue a stamp to honour the contribution made by the Irish diaspora to society at home and abroad. His idea is wonderful. I have made a similar proposal but this time I want the enormous contribution made by the Irish navvy to Britain and Ireland to be recognised.

During the recent St. Patrick's Day celebrations, I was delighted to attend an art exhibition by Bernard Canavan, a London-based Irish painter, in the House of Commons. The exhibition was facilitated by Chris Ruane, the UK Labour Party MP for the Vale of Clwyd. Like my own father, Mr. Canavan's father, who hailed from Longford, was one of tens of thousands who took the boat to England in search of work. Bernard was 16 years of age when his family were forced to move to the UK because of harsh economic conditions here. Over the years, Bernard's paintings have paid homage to the generations of Irish people who worked very hard and sent money home in order to assist members of their families. Countless men and women emigrated for work and they often had very tough lives in the process. It is estimated that the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of euro were sent back to this country by labourers. This money helped families here to survive.

Many of Bernard Canavan's evocative paintings are worthy of providing images for a commemorative stamp that pays tribute to the Irish navvy. As many Senators will know, the life of a navvy was a hard one. It was a life marked by many emotions, ranging from happiness to sadness to loneliness. It was a life often fuelled by a large amount of alcohol. Last year, Bernard was awarded a distinguished service award by the President for representing the forgotten Irish in Britain through his art.

Many labourers went on to make great lives for themselves. They set down solid roots in many corners of Britain and, in doing so, reared families who now proudly display their Irish heritage and culture at every opportunity. We must not forget that many of the labourers who left this country went on to build successful construction companies and businesses that continue to provide thousands of jobs across these isles. In many cases, unfortunately, the story of the Irish navvy was one of tragedy whereby comfort was found at the bottom of a pint glass. This led to broken families and people losing touch with home. Sadly, many of them ended up living on the streets of London and many other cities far from their native shores. I know that the Cathaoirleach went to London in the late 1970s and worked as a navvy. I know that every politician here understands the work and sacrifices made by Irish men and women who went there.

Ultan Cowley is the author of a seminal book, The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy, which captures the often bleak world of the Irish migrant labourer. Up until recently, these men had been largely forgotten or ignored but Mr. Cowley has rightly pointed out that, in terms of the canals, railways, roads, tunnels, dams and public utilities, such people, and those in the professions of teaching and nursing, effectively ran Britain. Their standing is a lasting monument to their sacrifices and achievements. Truly, they built Britain and, indeed, they built Ireland. They have made an enormous contribution to British and Irish society. That contribution should never be underestimated. It is my view, therefore, that a commemorative stamp to honour the Irish navvy would be a lasting testament. I look forward to hearing the thoughts of the Minister.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on this matter and I thank the Senator for raising it.

As Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I have a statutory function under section 69(4) of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983 in respect of granting consent to An Post for the design and issue of postage stamps. I want to inform the Senator that An Post deals directly with the process of stamp suggestions. In order to allow sufficient time for necessary approvals, research, design and production, the An Post stamp programmes are planned well in advance of the year of issue. In this regard, An Post invites suggestions for stamp subjects 18 to 24 months in advance of each year in question. Senator Feighan will be interested to know that there is currently a call by An Post for suggestions for the 2020 stamp programme. The closing date for receipt of suggestions is Wednesday next, 28 March 2018. The public trawl by An Post for proposals for stamp programmes runs from October each year to March of the following year. An Post requests suggestions from members of the public and various bodies, as well as Ministers and Departments. I put forward my own proposal to An Post that it would consider the festival of Hallowe'en, which has its origins in Rathcroghan, in my county, Roscommon, in this regard. It is amazing to think that a major international festival such as Hallowe'en is commemorated on stamps in the United States, Belgium and Austria but that Ireland - the home of Hallowe'en - does not yet have such a stamp.

All suggestions received by An Post are vetted by the independent philatelic advisory committee, which was set up to advise on the content of each annual stamp programme. The committee recommends the subjects for inclusion in the An Post commemorative stamp programme. Following ratification by the board of An Post, the stamps programme is then forwarded to me, as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, to bring a memorandum to Government for approval. This week, for example, I received Cabinet approval for the 2019 stamp programme that will cover some 35 stamps on 16 different subjects. I shall give an indication of the scale of suggestions. For the 2019 stamp programme, there were 210 suggestions.

In the context of the design of each stamp, these are commissioned by the stamp design advisory committee, an external panel of art and design experts established to direct the design process. Once I am advised by An Post of the designs, I then bring a memorandum to Government for their approval.

I will bring the Senator's suggestion to the attention of An Post, particularly in terms of the Irish navvy, who, despite what is displayed on the screen in the Chamber, has nothing to do with the Irish Naval Service.The Irish navvy played a very important role in building up the United Kingdom and that should be acknowledged. I fully acknowledge the contribution the Senator has made in highlighting that.

Regarding my own family, my grandfather went to the other side of the Atlantic, to the United States, and worked on the trams in Boston. Very many Irish people went abroad and contributed to building up the economies across the globe. That is one aspect of history that we proudly celebrate during our celebrations around St. Patrick's Day. It is not only about the hear and now, it is about the history of the Irish abroad and the way they developed the countries that they made their own. As the Senator knows, many of the Irish navvies fell on very hard, difficult and challenging times. It would be nice to see their contribution to society in the UK acknowledged by way of a stamp. I will bring that recommendation to An Post on foot of the Senator's Commencement matter.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. I look forward to the outcome of the stamp advisory committee's deliberations.

Like the Minister, I am very proud of the Irish diaspora. They have gone to all corners of the world. They never forgot about Ireland. There is always a rush for us to travel to New York, Boston, Dallas and wherever, and rightly so, but we have taken our near neighbours in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow a little bit for granted, but they never forgot Ireland. I remember in 1988 when the Republic of Ireland beat England in Stuttgart, at least 3,000 or 4,000 of the 12,000 who went to Germany that time were from the United Kingdom, sons and daughters of Irishmen who went there in the 1950s and 1960s. They never forgot our country and we should not forget them.

A new postage stamp honouring the sacrifices made and the toils of the Irish navvy in contributing to all aspects of buildings and services in the United Kingdom, and even more importantly to the island of Ireland, should be issued.

Sitting suspended at 11.03 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.