It is an unfashionable thing to admit in 2013...but I collect stamps. There...I said it. My only excuse is that I am a 61 year old guy and collecting stamps was considered "normal" for a child fifty odd years ago. The vast majority of children grew out of it. I didnt.
It was October 1970 when I decided to start concentrating on Irish stamps. It was the natural thing to specialise in Ireland. After all, I am Irish and I think that Stamps are in a sense, a nations Greatest Hits...the "Best Of...".
Irish Stamps are about the History, Geography, Culture, Sport, Literature, Music, Folklore, Fauna and Spirituality of the nation. And all in a format as compact as Wikipedia. Crucially it tells us as much about the contemporary state of the Nation. In ninety odd years it has become less insular and more international, The recent issue of four stamps celebrating an Integrated Society is a statement or assertion.
Stamps have always been used as propaganda? There was a Fenian issue of stamps and there were Green Cross stamps during the War of Independence.
It was perhaps inevitable that propaganda and stamps would become entwined in 1970s Belfast. After Internment in 1971, there was a campaign of civil disobedience. There was certainly a short-lived attempt to affix British stamps upside down on envelopes. I do not think this is actually illegal. After all a postage stamp is little more than a receipt for a service and I suppose at one time, all of us have accidently made a mistake putting a stamp on a Christmas card.
In the 1970s "Northern Ireland" stamps began to emerge on the philatelic market over-printed with republican slogans. The urban myth is that these were stamps stolen in a post office raid and over-printed and used on mail. It isa good story but suffice to say the same source produced loyalist "overprints" (Ulster Says No) a decade later. I have both examples in my collection. They have no historic or philatelic worth, other than being an interesting footnote.
What is true is that the Provisional Republican Movement in Belfast did organise a Christmas postal service for a few years in the 1970s. As far as I am aware, I never saw any "stamps" or "labels". As a stamp collector and student of history, I would have noticed. This was merely a local service which undercut the official British Post Office by hand delivering Christmas mail in republican areas of the City.
I moved out of Belfast in 1979 and over the next few years settled down to married life and a more adult approach to stamp collecting. Around 1984, I was approached by an English collector to obtain some "republican stamps" for him. He had, I believe been a member of the British Army.
I obtained some stamps on cover for him but I advised him that they were not authentic. Some months later, I was asked by a family member I. West Belfast if I would like some stamps, which she had taken from mail received over the last year. To my surprise the bag contained a "stamp" delivered thru republican mail. I went immediately to my Philateic source and got some more. They were authentic but he had obtained them for himself and (American clients) but had not passed thru the mail. That was in June 1985.
For 1986, 1987 and 1990, I was able to arrange to have some mail delivered for myself in West Belfast. The "stamps" ...different each year...were actually adhesive labels with designs such as "Stop Strip Searches" and a dove on barbed wire. The postmarks...and I am told....there are up to ten different....are clear cancellations from republican areas such as Ardoyne, Beechmount and Andersonstown. A few years later 1993, a friend from Derry got me one cancelled in Shantallow.
I think for historic reasons which should concern us all, it is necessary to state the real story behind "paramilitary stamps" (dubious to say the least)) of the 1970s and "republican mail" in the 1970s and 1980s. It should not be a concern merely of stamp collectors.
Necessarily both of these activities operated under the radar and the time is not quite right to make the entire story (stories) public. There is more to be told. But all I can reasonably do now is alert historians and collectors to the fact that the fog of secrecy brings about urban myths which quickly become accepted as FACT.
By the way, for over two years, I have run a very successful blog on the North of Ireland. It is called Keeping An Eye on the Czar of Russia. I closed the blog down about two weeks ago (although it is still alive on the Internet. I was suffering a kinda "blog fatigue" as its success was too much like hard work.
I have set up a Blog on Stamp Collecting so I can just chill out. And of course this post with photographs of the republican mail will be posted on the Stamp Collecting blog later today.
Thanks for reading this.