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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. The material illustrated herein derives from the Ireland collection donated to the University Libraries in 1991 by Dr. Charles Wolf of Walled Lake, Michigan.


In the context of Irish philately, the term 'forerunners' designates a group of stamp-like items of political interest, printed prior to or just after the establishment of the modern independent Irish state in 1922. The word suggests that these items are in some sense predecessors of the first legitimate, governmentally sponsored Irish postage stamps, the overprint issue of 17 February 1922. (Prior to that time, of course, the mails in Ireland were franked with British stamps). In fact, the Irish forerunners are more adequately termed political labels, the better to distinguish them from their postally valid cousins. Most forerunners were not meant to verify prepayment of postage (the basic function of postage stamps), nor were most sponsored by anything like a competent local political authority. But they remain relevant to the turbulent and complex political history of the period, even if there is much about them that remains unknown.

The Forerunners

A more general way of categorizing the Irish political labels is to lump them with what philatelists call cinderellas. This term - coined by the Cinderella Stamp Society, founded in London in 1959 - refers to the so-called stepchildren of philately: an often bewildering variety of items formatted like postage stamps but not primarily definable as such. Cinderellas are frequently described as material not included in general (as opposed to specialized) postage stamp catalogs, though this scarcely provides a consensus definition. The Cinderella Society itself specifies 'local stamps, telegraph stamps, fiscals [revenue and tax stamps], bogus and phantom issues, Christmas seals, registration labels, advertisement and exhibition labels' - though this list could be expanded (or abbreviated) almost at will, depending on one's particular perspective. In any case, all the Irish political labels discussed herein can safely be called cinderellas. Most can be readily identified with one or another political faction or organization - Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionists, the IRA - though the particulars of that group's involvement with the printing of a label may be unknown. A nearly universal purpose of the forerunners was the dissemination of propaganda. Another, recurring purpose was the raising of funds for the cause espoused by the label (some include values as part of the design; others do not). But the ways in which the labels were meant to be used varied considerably. The Sinn Féin propaganda labels of 1908-16 (set 4L) were specifically intended for use on correspondence - not to pay the postal fee, but to set an 'Irish stamp' alongside the British one as a political gesture. Others of the forerunners had no intended postal association: the Manchester Martyrs label of 1916 (8L) was to be folded around a pin to form a small paper flag - though examples on cover are known. The closest thing to legitimate postage stamps among the labels shown here is the IRA issue of 1922 (11L), printed to prepay postage in the Republican dominated south of Ireland during the Civil War (these stamps were prepared, but never issued).

The collection and study of Irish political labels received its greatest impetus, perhaps, from the inclusion of a section on forerunners in David Feldman's 1968 Handbook. Feldman included thirty-one major varieties, loosely arranged into five sets. The MacDonnell Whyte handbooks built upon this somewhat, ultimately including forty-five major varieties grouped into eleven sets. These range from the Fenian issue of 1865-67 to the White Cross labels of 1922. Inclusion in Feldman and MacDonnell Whyte served to canonize these labels as mainstream collectibles within the broader area of Irish philately.

Facts About This Page

The eleven sets of forerunners identified in MacDonnell Whyte as 1L to 11L provide the basic organizational principle for this page, though only seven of those sets - 4L, 5L, 7L, 8L, 9L, 10L, and 11L - are actually represented. The sets may be accessed via the primary (black-bulletted) links featured under "Forerunners" in the Table of Contents. Each set's main page includes a small (72 ppi) scan of each label 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 label design, printing, separation, watermark, date, and quantities issued, as well as 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 usages relevant to the set above. Individual labels are identified by a MacDonnell Whyte number (L1, L2, and so on).

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

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