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General Introduction

Note: This is the first in a series of pages on aspects of Irish philately, utilizing holdings in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University Libraries of Notre Dame. It will be followed, in 1999-2000, by pages treating the 1) the forerunners and 2) essays relating to the first permanent issue.

Most of the material illustrated herein derives from the Ireland collection donated to the University Libraries in 1991 by Dr. Charles Wolf of Walled Lake, Michigan. Some items derive from the extensive worldwide collection assembled by the late William J. Waldron Jr., of Bricktown NJ, donated to the University Libraries by Mrs. Ann Waldron in 1998.


As a general philatelic term, "overprint" designates an addition to the face of a stamp after it has been printed. Overprints are a common enough occurrence in philately, often being resorted to when circumstances dictate a time- and cost-effective way of altering an existing issue. In time of war, for example, the name of a given nation might be overprinted on another's stamps, for use in occupied territories. In times of inflation, overprinting (or, more technically, surcharging) might be used to alter a stamp's value. Within the confines of Irish philately, the term is used not just generically but to designate a specific group of issues: the Great Britain definitives of 1912-22 (and later) overprinted with either "Rialtas Sealadac na héireann 1922" (Provisional Government of Ireland 1922) or Saorstát Éireann 1922 (Irish Free State 1922). These issues span the history of the Provisional Government (January-December 1922) and the Free State (December 1922-December 1937), though they were of greatest significance in 1922-23, prior to the appearance of the first permanent series of definitives released by the Irish Post Office. The rationale for the overprints was simple enough. The fledgling Post Office of the Provisional Government needed to issue its own stamps as quickly as possible, and on 1 February 1922 published a notice in the press calling for designs for an inaugural issue of Irish definitives. But in the shorter term, all that could be done was to overprint the British stamps then in use in Ireland with the name of the Provisional government. The British Post Office agreed to supply the stamps (indeed, Irish postal affairs were formally under British control until the end of the fiscal year on 31 March). The first overprint issue appeared 17 February, and unoverprinted British stamps ceased to be valid in Southern Ireland at the end of March.

The Overprint Issues

The "Rialtas" and "Saorstát" overprints are significant for any number of reasons. They include, of course, the first legitimate, governmentally sponsored issues of the modern independent Irish state. Moreover, the stamps were issued at a time of great historical interest, whose events (including the Civil War fought between the Nationalist advocates of the 6 December 1921 Treaty and their Republican antagonists) are necessarily reflected in the postal history of the period. The era's postal affairs, dominated by the transfer of authority from the British to the Irish Post Office during 1922-1925, are also of unusual interest. Finally, there is the overprints' complexity as a field of philatelic study. The MacDonnell Whyte specialized handbook (1991) recognizes 77 major listings, grouped into fourteen sets of from three to fourteen stamps. Each of these sets is regarded as a coherent issue, whose printing was dictated by particular historical circumstances. And each is distinguishable from the others, though the differences may be anything but apparent at first observation. Sets 1T to 8T employ the Provisional Government's "Rialtas" overprint, while 9T to 14T use the Free State's "Saorstát"; this is one obvious means of categorization. A second is the distinction between low values and high values: seven of the sets consist only of the former (that is, stamps from among the twelve values ranging from 1/2d to 1s) while six sets consist only of the 2s6d, 5s, and 10s values (set 9T includes both). The low value base stamps were typographed, and feature a portrait head of George V. The high value stamps were engraved, and are of a much larger, horizontal format; with the portrait head flanked by the allegory "Britannia Rules the Waves" (the stamps are familiarly called the "seahorses"). Beyond these broad categorizations, though, distinguishing between like values in different sets often depends on a careful examination of the overprints themselves. For example, identification may hinge on qualities like the precise length of one or more of the lines of type making up otherwise similar overprints. Or the only distinguishing feature may be the particular sheen and shade of overprinting ink used (these are widely regarded as the most problematic cases).

But this only accounts for the major listings. There are over 150 "error" varieties included in MacDonnell Whyte, some resulting from the overprinting process (mostly handled by the Irish Post Office) and some resulting from the manufacture of the base stamps (by the British Post Office). Error varieties are generally regarded as the more distinct and uncommon departures from what is perceived as the norm for a given stamp. Many of the best-known base stamp "errors" were not literally accidental, but resulted from various kinds of corrective measure brought to bear on the die or printing base, subsequent to an initial printing. A specific base stamp error will not be unique to the Irish overprints, of course, because it stems from the British stamp to which the overprint was applied. Errors deriving from the overprinting process commonly resulted from wear (to the overprint die or plates), or from human error: the best known example of the latter are the inverted overprints found on stamps of several of these sets.

Even more prevalent than the errors are the minor overprint varieties - the province of the real specialist in the "Rialtas" and "Saorstát" issues. Because of the relative crudity of the overprinting process, varieties resulting from defective, broken, or misplaced type, shifted settings of individual lines of type, and many other causes are readily found. These minor varieties are, in general, less idiosyncratic than the errors, and more common; the difficulty lies not in finding examples of these varieties, but in knowing where to draw the line in identifying them. The landmark researcher in this area (and in the study of the overprints in general) was W. G. Meredith, who in the fourth and last edition of The Postage Stamps of Ireland (1927) compiled a listing of more than four hundred minor overprint varieties. In many cases, Meredith included the plate location(s) of these varieties: i. e., he identified both the particular plate (if more than one was used) and the location among the overprint subjects on that plate (8th subject, 16th row, for example), from which a given variety derived. Meredith's work, though since refined in some particulars, remains the core body of information on overprint errors and varieties. In this catalog, these errors and varieties, as well as usages and other items subordinate to the main listings, are linked at the bottom of the set page to which each logically relates.

Facts About This Page

The fourteen generally recognized sets of "Rialtas" and "Saorstát" overprints - identified as 1T to 14T - provide the basic organizational principle for this page. The numeration and set groupings were developed by David Feldman for his Handbook of Irish Philately, published in 1968; the same essential system was adopted by the McDonnell Whyte handbooks. The sets may be accessed via the primary (black-bulletted) links featured under "Overprints" in the Table of Contents. Each set's main page includes a small (72 ppi) scan of each stamp in the set; also included are links to mid-sized [MID] scans (generally 288 ppi, with dimensions four times those of the small images) and large [LAR] scans (generally 504 ppi, with dimensions seven times those of the small images). These standard sizes of 288 and 504 ppi may be reduced in the case of multiples, stamps on piece, and other larger items, to accomodate a wider range of monitors. Where appropriate, one or both of the expanded images are details of the small image; this is indicated by (det). The pages also include information on stamp design, printing, overprinting, separation, watermark, date of issue, and quantities issued, a section of notes, and a short bibliography on the set under discussion. The secondary, or white-bulletted, links in the Table of Contents include errors, varieties, usages, and other items relevant to the set above. Individual stamps are identified by both a MacDonnell Whyte number (T1, T2, and so on) and, where applicable, a Scott number, following in parenthesis.

Questions and comments about this homepage should be directed to George.K.Rugg.1@nd.edu, 102 Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5629

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Copyright © 2000

Dept. of Special Collections
University of Notre Dame
102 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame, IN 46556
Telephone: (574) 631-6506
Fax: (574) 631-6308
Email: George.K.Rugg.1@nd.edu
Page content last modified 10May 2000