Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Volume 30

An insignificant document from 1921 minutely pinpoints a turning-point in the revolutionary era.

By Tim Bowmer

Fig. 1—British period: Edward VII 2/6 values overprinted with ‘IRELAND REGISTRATION OF DEEDS’ in green, next to a flamboyant orange 10/- embossed stamp dated 28 May 1903; all cancelled later in June of that year, stamped in blue.

The War of Independence, the Truce and the signing of the Treaty in December 1921 effectively prevented a territory called ‘Southern Ireland’ from coming into being, but its shadow can still be seen through some documents of the period.

The legal document on my work table is plain—a stiff folio with a pre-printed header and hand-typed details. It has green one shilling and two shillings and sixpence King George V revenue stamps stuck neatly in the upper right-hand corner (Fig. 2, below). On 13 December 1921, a copy of a Land Registry document was signed by the Kilkenny Clerk of Crown and Peace (later the County Registrar), confirming the title of a piece of land under the 1903 Land Act to a farmer, Thomas Campion, illustrating the ongoing transfer of land from big estates to smaller owners. In 1916 Thomas became the owner of ‘39 acres, 3 roods and 16 perches, or thereabouts’ in the townland of Seskin, about 3km west of Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny, and was charged the sizeable annuity of £14 19s (the total debt was £460) by the Land Commission; it had been previously acquired from the Delmege family. What makes this particular document unusual is that the two British-era stamps have been overprinted ‘LAND REGISTRY SOUTHERN IRELAND’.

Fig. 2—Government of Ireland Act 1920: 1/- and 2/6 overprinted with ‘LAND REGISTRY SOUTHERN IRELAND’ in black, from Thomas Campion’s 13 December 1921 document, perfin (pinhole) cancelled with a fleur-de-lis design.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920, the last Home Rule bill, defined the intended territories of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The former was established with six counties in mid-1921, as prescribed under the Act, while implementation of the latter was made impossible by the War of Independence. The Act was then superseded by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.

These ‘Southern Ireland’ revenue stamps were printed as part of British administrative preparations for the implementation of the 1920 Act, and stocks were built up for both territories of the soon-to-be-partitioned island. Administrative preparations for Northern Ireland were proceeding apace in early 1921. Even though the territory ‘Southern Ireland’ only existed on paper, revenue stamps with this overprint were released by officers of two Dublin Castle government branches—the Judicature and the Land Registry—and were used for the collection of revenue duties.


Fig. 3—The same values in a different shade of green, overprinted with ‘LAND REGISTRY NORTHERN IRELAND’ and cancelled on 11 December 1922. Northern Ireland revenue stamps were issued for a full range of duties from mid-1921 until they were finally abolished, some as late as the mid-1980s.

Between 1919 and 1926, the successive issues of revenue stamps for collecting a range of around 40 legal and commercial duties very effectively mark the political and administrative changes leading to the foundation of the Irish state. The philatelic sequence follows five phases: (1) the British period (Fig. 1); (2) Northern Ireland (Fig. 3), with, in parallel for a short time, the anomaly of ’Southern Ireland’ (Fig. 2); (3) the Provisional Government, marked by the use of British revenue stamps overprinted with Rialtas Sealadaċ na hÉireann (Fig. 4); (4) the early Irish Free State, with British issues similarly overprinted with Saorstát Éireann (Fig. 5); and, finally, (5) the new Irish Free State ‘harp’ issues (Fig. 6). Following the signing of the Treaty and the rapid transfer of power in early 1922, there was no time to design and issue new postage or revenue stamps, so existing British stamps were supplied and repurposed to fill the gap. The British issues, newly overprinted for Irish use, were rushed through and such material as was to hand was used, including obsolete Edward VII printing dies from the previous reign.

In 1921 there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the Crown civil service and its employees. Abruptly, the Treaty would transfer all 20,000 of them to the new Irish Free State, including the massive postal service. The new Irish civil service therefore consisted of a large majority of officers transferred under the terms of the Treaty. Former civil servants who had previously been discharged for expressing republican views and those administrators who had worked for the revolutionary Dáil Éireann civil service since 1919 played a significant role, however, and would go on to dominate the new civil service hierarchy.


Fig. 4—Provisional Government: 2s George V overprinted with Rialtas Sealadaċ na hÉireann—the space between the words allegedly to avoid obliterating the king’s face—cancelled in violet ink at the Record & Writ Office, Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) of ‘Southern Ireland’, with the ‘SOUTHER…’ clearly showing at the bottom.

The Custom House fire in late May 1921 destroyed stocks of postage and revenue stamps stored and produced there, as well as printing equipment. Was the release of ‘Southern Ireland’ revenue stamps simply a question of having to replace lost stocks quickly, and these ‘Southern Ireland’ issues happened to be in storage and to hand? We know that fresh stocks were sent from London soon afterwards, but what did they contain?

The High Courts of Justice for Southern and Northern Ireland had already been split along the lines of the 1920 Act and this continued until December 1922. In the later colonial period, the Crown Judiciary, in the absence of the lord lieutenant on business in London, was known to interfere politically. They remained in office until 1924, so there was also some potential for them to interfere in the affairs of the Free State government. The failure of Lord Chief Justice Moloney to alter the reference to ‘Southern Ireland’ on writs that were issued, so as to indicate the new source of authority, reportedly angered Hugh Kennedy, the first Free State attorney general, who demanded that the proper title—Irish Free State—be used. Led by such an example, sympathetic administrative officers could have been tempted to make a similar point. Some of the very few surviving ‘Southern Ireland’ revenue documents are for the Judiciary and, more significantly, used by the Supreme and High Courts. Another aspect to consider is the propaganda value of the label ‘Southern Ireland’. The impact of its use on the stamps for two revenue services would have been small. Ultimately, the lack of any such initiative for issuing ‘Southern Ireland’ postage stamps that could really have grabbed the public attention is much more significant.

Fig. 5—A rather distressed 4d George V ‘JUDICATURE IRELAND’ stamp, overprinted with Saorstát Éireann, removed from another document and reused in March 1924, hand-cancelled in purple with ‘SCJ’ and ‘Southern Ireland’ (showing faintly below Éireann). Some of the Southern Ireland paraphernalia was still in use even if the revenue stamps were long gone!

The Postal Museum in London has registration sheets (full sheets of stamps, signed and dated) in their collection for Land Registry Southern Ireland (3d, 4d, 6d, 1s, 2s 6d, 5s, 10s, £1) and Judicature Southern Ireland (1d, 3d, 4d, 6d, 1s, 1s 6d, 2s, 2s 6d, 5s, 10s, £1, £5), i.e. the two services released and used on legal documents. In addition, their collection includes multiple values for each of eleven further revenue services, making it likely that stocks were printed but never, as far as we know, released. The implementation of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act may have simply been more advanced in the Judiciary and the Land Commission than in the other services.

Although Kilkenny was not placed under martial law during the War of Independence, it saw frequent and often lethal clashes between the IRA and Crown forces. That a copy of Thomas Campion’s document was issued following the Truce and a week after the signing of the Treaty in December 1921 suggests that some things in Kilkenny City were going on as before, almost oblivious to the clamour for change taking place around them. The ambiguity of the future role of the Dáil Courts under the Provisional Government and the early Irish Free State, as opposed to the former Crown administration, may have helped to promote this.

Fig. 6—ÉIRE ‘harp’ issues with the revenue duty overprinted in Irish Gothic script. Mixed, ‘harp’ and Saorstát usage from a Donegal Land Registry document, dated 10 July 1926, indicating that overprinted British and the new Irish revenue stamp issues were used in parallel for several years.

Tim Bowmer chairs the Committee for Risk Assessment at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland.

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