Love from Cork: Postcards of the City & County, by Perry O’Donovan, published by The Collins Press, is a delight. Before you read a word or look at a picture the book sells itself to you by its presentation, 212 pages of yellowish background hue that look to have been modelled directly on the shade of an old postcard album or indeed an old postcard. The hardcover design is also in keeping with the book’s raison d’etre. For make no mistake, postcards are the star of this volume, put centre stage rather than used as pictorial appendages to a local history…
‘The book is set out like a motoring tour, beginning in the city of Cork, then heading west, north and east. Postcard-wise it is very democratic: old and modern cards sit happily together, as do topographical and comic, heraldic and views, sepia, black & white, and colour—a real collection…
‘The presentation is enhanced by the frequent use of postmarks to add atmosphere, the 3-D effect of shadow borders, and the allocating of whole pages to some vertical postcards. The captions focus on the cards themselves—publisher, message, postal usage, with perhaps a brief note on the subject of the card. In this way the focus is on the postcard as historical artefact, and the whole story is told in the caption, without those annoying references to appendices for extra information…
Instead of including background detail about the places featured on the illustrated cards, Mr O’Donovan has chosen to include extracts from existing literary works of social and cultural significance. So we have travel writer H.V. Morton on Cork city, a newspaper article on the unveiling of a memorial to an Irish patriot, Alice Taylor on memories of her childhood, William Trevor on Skibbereen, and James Joyce on student life at University College, Cork.*
‘All kinds of postcard favourites leap off of the pages—Cynicus the comic artist, John Hinde the iconic publisher, fisher girls who would have felt equally at home in Scarborough or Aberdeen, and a Brin Brothers ‘signpost’ card that would be recognised anywhere.
‘The book epitomises what postcard collections are meant for—to be displayed, shared and enjoyed by a wider audience. Buy this book (for less than the cost of a cracking postcard!) and be inspired by its effect.’
Picture Postcard Monthly, December 2013.
*Evidently Mr Lund misunderstood the extract from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist—it was the father figure, Simon Dedalus, who’d attended university in Cork, and, in the extract reproduced in Love from Cork, Simon (the father figure) takes Stephen (the James Joyce cipher) to the college campus “to show it to this youngster of mine.” (In the context of the review small detail, of course, but better to clarify it.)
Other review highlights include:
“A magnificently produced book… a marvellous work, as entertaining as it is scholarly” —Maurice Sweeney, The Southern Star
“Absolutely lovely…a wonderful concept…one of the nicest books I’ve read in a long time” —Neil Prendeville on Cork’s 96FM
“Beguiling collection … handsome” —Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times
“Beautiful [and] insightful…Cork seen through the prism of postcards…small fragments of lives lived, condensed love letters, gossip between the lines, bulletins from the seaside towns they forgot to bomb.” —Donal Lynch, Sunday Independent
POSTCARDS were always a perfectly lazy way of keeping in touch: a picture to relieve us of the burden of having to give an account of our location or a piece of ready-made wit that we hoped would reflect our own cleverness. Etiquette also demanded blandness, since what one wrote was open to general scrutiny, with everything else, from declarations of love and demands for money to just plain gossip being reserved for the more expensive sealed envelope. It is little wonder that the phrase “Wish you were here” became the archetypal postcard message, preceded occasionally by the equally anodyne “Having a lovely time”. Some American postcards, taking full advantage of holidaymakers’ lassitude, even had these messages pre-printed.
‘Picture postcards, of course, are still with us, but just about, and to anyone under the age of forty probably seem as archaic as coin-operated telephone booths. The physicality of a postcard, however, tells us much more about itself than any electronic communication can. The image or the printed message as well as the overall design can reveal the cultural sensibilities of its time, the handwriting can provide an intimate clue to the age and education of the sender, and the message, cryptic or trite as it may be, still gives us a precious glimpse into a moment of a person’s life. Even how the stamp is applied may be revealing, for it used to be held by an older generation that a stamp placed haphazardly showed either a lack of good manners or a disregard for the intended receiver.
‘The importance of postcards as social and historical documents is well demonstrated in Love From Cork: Postcards of the City & County, a magnificently produced book in which Perry O’Donovan presents examples from the private collections of Aidan Healy, of Leap, and John James, of Kinsale. More than 350 cards, from 1900 to 2000, are featured, and the provenance of each, including the stamp and postal mark where present, is examined fully by the author, who also gives the background to the image used and, where necessary, decodes the significance of the written message. In a postcard of the Old Head of Kinsale from January 1909, for example, the sender complains: “Overwhelmed with Old Age Pension work all winter. Working usually till 3AM & often to 4AM & I cannot see the end yet . . . Our Pension Officer here in the south has gone to Lunatic Asylum.” The author explains that the background to this message (certainly indiscreet, but the writer may have wanted the world to know of his plight) was the introduction of the old age pension for the first time in January 1909 – thus providing a context that converts a simple postcard into vivid historical evidence.
‘The presentation of the cards is also interspersed with extracts from the works of writers from or associated with Cork, including, among others, William Trevor, Frank O’Connor, Aidan Higgins, Elizabeth Bowen, Peter Somerville-Large, Mary Leland, and James Joyce, the quintessential Dubliner who set part of his Portrait in Cork city. These are well chosen, providing both history and ambience
‘Most of the postcard images are scenic or architectural, providing an invaluable visual history of the city and county, and include the work of the ubiquitous John Hinde, the English photographer who did more than anyone else to define the image of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. Although he made a fortune from his postcards, he was more interested in his work as a painter, but that did not stop him from going to great lengths to get the photograph he wanted. This often involved hacking down a rhododendron bush and repositioning it to hide something unsightly, which is why that plant appears so often in his cards.
‘A few of the postcards also tell us much about the type of humour that appealed to earlier generations. The key was invariably the double entendre, though this was never as suggestive as that found in the “saucy” seaside cards so popular in England. A card showing a man with his arm around a girl as they sit under a signpost for Durrus has the printed legend ‘I am making many friends. Some stick tight already. “Another has a sketch of a burly policeman with the caption, ‘No houses to let, but this chap will find you lodgings” and, in smaller type, “At Bandon.” These cards were in fact pre-printed templates, with the name of the village or town added by a local printer, which was quite a smart marketing ploy.
‘This is really a marvellous work, as entertaining as it is scholarly, and one that will have readers returning to it regularly. Not all the cards have messages but some of those that do are intriguing. Who was it that wrote on a postcard of Bantry railway station ‘There isn’t enough to go on but it looks like this is a couple whose marriage is in trouble’? Now that was a glaring breach of postcard etiquette. And I wouldn’t be surprised if its stamp was placed crookedly as well.
The Southern Star, 16 November 2013.
For more on postcards and the Cork postcards project, go to the Postcards of Cork section of the listing of blog-post subject categories in the sidebar. See also the ‘Postcards‘ page (for which go to the Menu bar, above).