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Fixing the Irish Postal System

The government through the regulatoris now seriously considering introducing postcodes in Ireland. Let me tell you the dirty little secret of why we don’t have postal codes in Ireland at the moment.

Basically, the national postal company, An Post doesn’t want them, because it would make it too easy for other postal firms to come into the marketplace and increase the standard of service while at the same time reducing the cost.

Think about it. At the moment, it would be very difficult indeed to introduce a new postal or courier service in Ireland. To operate efficiently, you need highly knowledgeable mail sorters and postmen to deliver the mail. They have to be familiar with every single streetname and house number in order to be able to sort the mail correctly first time and deliver it efficiently.

This is particularly the case in rural areas. Many rural homes have no house number, and so the delivery of the mail depends on the postman knowing exactly who is living in which house. This is all the more difficult in areas where many people share the same surname.

This difficulty plays to An Post’s strengths, however. It is the only body which has a national network of staff who know where every single house is. As a result, they have a monopoly that is impossible to break. The unions in An Post know that they are in a strong position too. An Post staff are paid far in excess of what other manual and delivery workers are paid in this country.

At the same time, service is abysmal, and the cost is enormous. Look at the US – a far larger country, with around 50 percent of its population in rural areas, where you can send a postcard for around 19 euro cent. In the UK, sending a postcard anywheree in the country would cost about 30 cent. Sending the same card within Ireland would cost you 48 cents. This is a very sad state of affairs for Ireland.

Introducing postal codes will be a great move forward. Introducing a postcode system will make postal services faster and more accurate and at the same time make them cheaper to run.

Be sure to send in your supporting comments about this to before 6 January 2004.

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  1. In fairness, the US postal system is a disaster.

    Sure, it’s cheap, but even assuming you’re sending something that conforms to their extremely strict size, weight, and labelling requirements, it may still never get there. And if you’re posting anything of non-standard-letter size, you need to take a trip to your nearest post office and queue for an hour. (I’m not exagerrating — waits of an hour are par for the course at my local PO.)

    Also worth noting that in my experience, I haven’t encountered a more bureaucratic postal service outside of India.

    From what I’ve heard, the reason it’s so cheap is because the price has been frozen at that point for quite a while. Hence they’re chronically understaffed, overworked and underpaid. I guess the bureaucracy comes from wherever all the other US state service bureaucracy comes from 😉

    Not a good example, IMO…

  2. Well, the obvious scheme would be as follows:

    first four digits: District Electoral Division Number or Ward Number (in cities where ward divisions are used)

    next four digits (optional): building number (composed of 2 digits for street/road number and 2 digits for house number)

    This would allow everyone to be assigned a four digit code pretty much immediately without further ado. It would also mean that the numbers would largely correspond with existing administrative divisions.

    I agree that mixing letters and numbers in the code makes things more difficult. Using letters also means that you can’t easily enter postcodes through a small keypad or a phone, which is often a convenient thing to do. Most of Europe other than the UK appears to use numberic postcodes, so it’s probably the way to go.

  3. I’d rather have the post codes entirely unrelated to any existing boundary. If we tightly couple one to the other we will have endless headaches when one of them needs to change.

    But we should also ensure that a single postcode corresponds to exactly one DED, county, newspaper delivery route or whatever. We can do this by making the code so finely grained that it is most unlikely to have a boundary slicing though it.

    The benefit is that little text entry box on a webpage – “type your postcode here to display [a list of local planning applications | the names your local representatives | local radon gas measurements | etc.]”. It’s easy to aggregate postcode areas but not easy to split them up.

  4. A good point. Have to be careful on this.

    DED’s hardly ever change, although wards are changed now and again. This would need to be sorted out. Most importantly, the DED’s whose population has greatly increased but which were never subdivided (Drogheda for example) would have to be broken into wards. But there wouldn’t be any rush with doing this. You could implement the postcode system initially and then make improvements as time went on.

    There would be plenty granularity when the system was fully implemented, because pretty much every building would have its own eight-digit postcode. (Although use of the eight-digit postcode wouldn’t be compulsory for day-to-day letter-addressing purposes.)

    Once this were done, there would be no need to move the ward boundaries anymore either. The electoral areas could be changed by simply assigning ranges of eight-digit postcode numbers to a particular constituency (in a geographically sensitive way, of course).

    If this were done, it would no longer be appropriate to use the term “DED” for the postcode divisions. You’d call them ‘District Divisions’ instead, to distinguish them from Electoral Divisions.

  5. As far as the postal system in the US is concerned
    its as good as it gets.
    the Zip Code System is very good,and i think its reasonable price wise.
    When you talk about Ireland the first thing i think about is the numbering in the towns and
    In Dublin for example if a house is numbered 10 across the street should be 11 or 13 but thats not the case.
    Its confusing for strangers and visitors and I hope some day they renumber all buildings in Ireland.
    I still love the place though and go back every year.

  6. If you think Ireland’s house-number system is confusing, you should try Japan.

    There, the houses are numbered in the order in which they are built, with no relation to their particular position on the street !

  7. 48 cents in Canada too and we have postal codes! The service is good and the staff are paid well.


  8. I am proposing a 5-digit parseable post code in my response to ComReg’s consultation document. First digit indicates the province. Second and third digits: identifies the county (two overlaps in Leinster). Last two digits: identifies the post office. There are obviously more details than this in the scheme I’m proposing, but that’s it in broad brushstrokes. I don’t think it would be wise to use DED boundaries. They’re not user-friendly.

    I also think the scheme should be drawn up as an indigenous Irish Standard by NSAI’s subcommittee on Codes, Character Sets, and Internationalization, along the lines of ISO 3166. The major sakeholders (An Post, DSL, etc.) can participate in drawing it up and in maintaining it in a Joint Advisory Committee, but as an I.S. none of them would own it.

  9. Hello Michael,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I know these aren’t the full details of your scheme, but I don’t think going by post office is a good idea. Here’s why:

    – ‘Postcode’ is really a misnomer. The code needs to be used for a wide range of purposes. As has been discussed elsewhere, companies like ESB and eircom could benefit from a coding system to help them keep track of their assets. Similarly, it would be useful for public services like the Gardai and health to be able to use the coding system to more clearly define how their service is delivered (i.e., for tracking information about which Garda station is responsible for a particular street).

    – Post offices are closing all over the place and as a result areas are being merged. Realistically this trend can be expected to continue for some time to come. Therefore a system based on this would require fairly regular changes.

    – Postal sorting (from what I can see) is done on the basis of ‘walks’ or routes, not on the basis of the location of post offices. Sorting is not supposed to be carried out in the local post or delivery office – it is supposed to be taken care of in the National Sorting Centre. In the Dublin area this is particularly the case. Mail delivery is run out of special delivery offices which have no relationship with post offices.

    – An Post’s delivery and customer service arrangements are its own proprietary property. Your scheme would depend on these details becoming public. An Post is unlikely to be willing to turn them over to be used to allow private operators to compete directly against them.

    – Your scheme doesn’t address two of the big problems for rural deliveries: many houses have non-unique addresses (e.g., ‘Buncrana Road, Upper Illies, Buncrana P.O, Co. Donegal’, an address shared by 20 or 30 houses). Also townland names may not be unique within a particular post office’s catchment area. The result is that the system is entirely dependent on the postie’s knowledge of local personalities to allow him/her to accurately deliver the mail. A scheme which doesn’t address this problem isn’t really going to be much help.

    – From a purely mathematical standpoint, a lot of the numberspace is wasted by assigning a province code. There is also the difficulty of deciding which province would get the number ‘1’!

    I agree that the standard needs to be maintained independently. However, significant ongoing resources would have to be assigned to it to keep it up-to-date as new streets and buildings are added. My view is that replication of this function could be avoided if we could tie the administration of electoral divisions and postcodes together.



  10. I wouldn’t be concerned about ESB or (especially) ?ircom or their assets. What I am *mostly* concerned about is the predicament of Internet users who are denied goods and services because online forms don’t accept addresses without postcodes, and the other, non-USO carriers, who are crying out for codes. And while you are right that An Post has its own ways of distributing mail, it is still the case that other carriers are ALSO doing so, and they all say they want postcodes sooner rather than later.

    A very high level of granularity will involve literally years of work, and would include the naming of unnamed streets and roads and the reform of non-unique addresses. Yet we don’t have years to invest on all of that, never mind the contentiousness it will engender (as it did in Northern Ireland). We have an immediate need for SOME kind of code, and I pray that the best will not be the enemy of the good.

    If An Post does not give over the information on its “walks” then either we have to spend years driving up and down the country taking a census and naming streets and roads ? or we could just take the set of notional post offices (whether there is a building there or not) ? they’re named entities of some utility ? and assign numbers.

    The 20 or 30 houses on the Buncrana Road you mention either have house names or house numbers, do they not? (I favour the assignment and use of house numbers on named roads and consider that they would be far more useful to emergency services and so on than any “postcode” could be.)

    Regarding the first digit: well, I think people want to parse the numbers somehow. Anyway to decide who gets what was easy and alphabetical: C?ige ?tha Cliath = 1, C?ige Chonnacht = 2, C?ige Laighean = 3, C?ige Mumhan = 4, C?ige Uladh = 5. (Yes, Dublin gets elevated to the level of province.)

    I’m glad you agree that the standard should be independent. I’ve given a good deal of thought to how we might do that with NSAI.

    Electoral divisions are not immutable either; is there an actual list and map of these online? I couldn’t guess what DED I live in. I recall from the Postcodes seminar that a number of people said that statistics based on the DED were not particularly useful, and they were hoping that another structure based on postcodes could be used to replace it.

    At the end of the day, I guess we’re all agreed that we need something, and sooner rather than later. The details will be hammered out by the Project Team set up after the consultation is over.

  11. Ah, to clarify, the first digit is the province, the second digit is the county, and the final three digits identify the post offices ? or whatever. It gives 998 different locations in each county (except Laois, Offaly, Longford, and Louth, which have only 498 each). Currently the largest number of “post offices” based on the lists I was working with is 245 in Co. Cork.

  12. Well, poor management of assets leads to higher costs for us all. Your Ward or DED is written on your voting card that you receive before every election. The map of Wards and DED’s is available from the Ordnance Survey. Wards and DEDs are the basis on which the census is compiled. Every residential address in Ireland already has a DED or Ward assigned, and the same could be done with every business address relatively easily.

    There is no chance that statistics will be recoded to match the postcode rather than the DED. The primary constitutional purpose of the census is to determine the constituency boundaries, and this means that it has to be based on the boundaries used for elections. (Constituencies are made up of DEDs and wards.)

    You say we would have to spend many years driving up roads to create a census. The state already does a census, every 10 years or so, and keeps an updated list of streets in the form of the electoral register.

    Anyway, the information to do this is already contained in the geodirectory, and is available to be purchased commercially. Similar information for urban areas is available from commercial services (Navtech and Mapflow).

    No, the houses I mentioned in Upper Illies do not have house numbers. Some of them have names, but these names are not well-known to anyone other than the local postman. This is not an uncommon situation. According to the consultation paper, 40 percent of addresses in Ireland are non-unique. That’s an amazingly high proportion.

    One upshot of the ‘Cuige Atha Cliath’ Plan is that you would (presumably) assign arbitrary postcode numbers within the Dublin area. This would be almost as unintuitive as the DED coding.

    I disagree that the presence of postcode boxes on web pages all over the world is in itself a good reason to introduce postcodes here. You can always fill in ‘00000’ to bypass it. However, the fact that it is international best practice to use a postcode certainly is a reason for seriously considering it.

    We all agree we need something, and it’s a question of trashing out the issues and making sure the system is as good as possible. That’s why it’s great to be having the discussion.

  13. I tend to think that the scheme I propose is the least costly, as what it does is add a number to what people are already using. It could be standardized and implemented in very little time. Most of the other schemes I have heard proposed would seem to require a great deal of additional consultation and work, which, it seems to me, does not meet more immediate needs expressed by some participants at the seminar.

    I think you misunderstood my use of the word “census” but no matter. Ordnance Survey maps of DEDs and Wards do not appear to be available online.

    I would like some actual proof that 40% of addresses in Ireland are non-unique before I would believe it. Or at least an explanation of what bit they are talking about. Sure, there are a lot of Church Roads out there. There’s one in Howth and one in Sutton. But there aren’t two in Sutton.

    In C?ige ?tha Cliath I wouldn’t assign numbers arbitrarily. I’d make use of the existing postal service area codes. Sutton, Dublin 13 would become 11303 Sutton. Cobh, Co. Cork would become 43116 Cobh. (And of course 11303 Cill Fhionntain and 43116 An C?bh would still apply.)

    Of course my scheme is just an example, based on some 2000+ names in I.R. Uimh. 133/1975: An tOrd? Logainmneacha (Foirmeacha Gaeilge) (Uimh. 1) (Postbhailte) 1975. As such, it is in harmony with the way other postcode schemes are structured throughout Europe and elsewhere (though Canada and the UK do something very different. Simple, familiar, and functional. Or so I hope.

  14. Michael, would you give arbitrary postcodes to areas outside the postcode areas? Since you are following statute with your naming scheme, would you take into account the fact that Dublin now consists of four counties, not one?

  15. A year ago when I replied to the first ComReg consultation on postcodes, I did up a scheme where the numbered Dublin postal areas were treated at the second level, and then localities called “Co. Dublin” were added on at the end with North County Dublin being odd-numbered and South County Dublin even. It worked. The idea was to make as much use of the existing postal delivery sector numbers as possible, and the North/South odd/even convention.

    But last night I was considering the matter and came upon the idea of doing just what you have suggested. It is probably well worth slicing up the Dublin pie that way. It would make sense for certain statistical purposes.

    Possibly Tipperary could be divided into North and South as well.

  16. I think there is a fundamental problem here, that postal administration and delivery practice has diverged away from the ‘official’ scheme of what the counties are supposed to be.

    To get your scheme to work you would still need to do a lot of work at local level, to determine definitively which townlands, streets and house numbers were part of each postal area. This would be easy enough in rural areas, where townland boundaries are still known, but very difficult in Dublin, where area names like ‘Glasnevin’ are being applied to very wide, undefined areas.

  17. As I said, C?ige ?tha Cliath can be handled without reference to the four “counties” within it, sticking closely to the existing postal delivery sector numbers. Or it could be attempted to do it the other way as I considered last night. The sticky thing about that would be where the existing sector number crosses a “county” boundary.

    Dublin does present a different set of challenges than does the rest of the country, but I think the scheme I have set out passes its proof-of-concept: It’s simple, harmonized with what is done in other countries, and works. Other schemes might be imposed, but I think this one is the least obtrusive. Of course more work will need to be done when the Project Team is set up.

  18. There’s no point in implementing any postal code system that’s based on An Post’s delivery structures as it means that it’s utterly useless for any other purpose, including for competing delivery companies.

    The purpose of a good postal code system would be to provide a unique codified address for each business and residence in the country in a user friendly non-complicated way.

    Sticking to traditional provence / county zones would be rather inflexible and won’t allow for population changes. Remember, this system’s going to have to work for a LONG time.

    The codes should simply provide geographical information & location. It’s up to An Post (or anyone else) to assign these codes to walks / routes / whatever they want.

    Ideally the code should provide a lot of info

    For example
    Code: 01234567

    0 = Southwest chunk of Ireland
    1 = 1/10th of that area.
    2 = 1/10th of that area .. which happens to include the town of kilarney
    3 = 1/10th of that area which includes an area of Kilarney.
    the subsequent digits could define it in more detail.

    So 01234567 could = the location of a particular postbox.

    A system like this is flexible enough to allow for extra digits to be added for more precise location.

    And lets face it, a few digits on a postal code’s not a huge deal. People already handle >10 digit phone numbers without any problem.

    Special services could perhaps use extra letter codes. E.g. 01234567F might be freepost

    Companies receiving bulk mail could have perhaps 01234567B or something like that.

    (Similar structures have been used by Eircom for decades!)

    E.g. 1800 Freephone … lead digits 71 on any special rate number = Bulk/Bursty call receiver (which allows the network to manage congestion before the number’s even fully dialled!) [this is why all radio station’s quote 1850 71XXXX as their on-air nos]

    Btw, if you look at eircom’s geographical numbering system you can see how 2 and 3 digit codes can define pretty tight areas of the country.

    E.g. The Cork Area (02) is made up of 2 digit area codes (ignoring the leading 0 prefix)

    Take the number 023 99999 (and lets suppose it’s in Bandon)

    2 = County Cork
    23 = The area around Bandon
    2399 = A particular exchange within that area.
    2399999 = a particular line connected to that switch.

    such a system could easily be applied on a more geographic basis to identify locations.

    It doesn’t have to be based on geographical coordinants but it does have to be logical and flexible.

  19. I would like to know why the irish postal system has suddenly up and decided, without forewarning to the public, that it is charging people for incoming packages from loved ones overseas. The reason: “because its Christmas”. This is criminal and insane and it would never happen in the USA or UK because there would be an uproar amongst the citizens who are already charged exorbitant fees in postal rates. I personally mailed 3 box’s from the US to Ireland 3 weeks ago on the same day and one box was delivered as normal with the right customs and insurance forms attached last week with no problem but conveniently An Post delivered the other two THIS week and told my unsuspecting mother that she had to pay 62 euro “because the irish are shopping overseas and mailing their packages home instead of buying here in Ireland”. Does anyone else here see the criminal injustice in this? Are we not living in a free world where once you pay for your mail it is delivered to the destination without further payment from the receiver? And yes, the correct postage was paid.

  20. Hi Morgan,

    Surely the issue is that the correct duty and VAT (sales tax) wasn’t paid? The same thing happens if you mail stuff to the US. What was the value of the items?


  21. As a post code, why not use the internationally recognised Latitude and Longitude.

    For instance my house is:

    53.2611, -6.2112

    and my next door neighbours is:

    53.2610, -6.2110

    Try typing these coordinates into Mapquest at

    and you’ll see where I live

    Here, in Ireland the first 5 of the latitude and the minus sign in the longitude are superfluous
    so that would equate to a 10 digit number


    Giving the location to within about 10 metres. If you really wanted you could add another two digits to cater for separate rooms/floor in that space.

    This would be a real boon to emergency services and anyone trying to find your house with a GPS handset.


  22. Yep, it’s definitely one way of doing it. There are other coordinate-based systems being suggested.

    Mind you, it would be very difficult to plot a route using this information alone. Have you actually tried driving to a GPS coordinate!? You would probably need some sort of lookup table of streets.

  23. A letter was sent from Dublin to an address 40 miles north of Belast on the 11th dec 06, it was delivered on the 20th Dec 06, 9 days ???? Need I say any more !!!! And before anyone says anything, the same thing happened the month before, its time you had a decent postal service never mind worrying about postcodes, by the way the UK postcode works well

  24. As far as the postal system in the US is concerned
    its as good as it gets.
    the Zip Code System is very good,and i think its reasonable price wise.
    When you talk about Ireland the first thing i think about is the numbering in the towns and
    In Dublin for example if a house is numbered 10 across the street should be 11 or 13 but thats not the case.
    Its confusing for strangers and visitors and I hope some day they renumber all buildings in Ireland.
    I still love the place though and go back every year

  25. Postal codes for Ireland are all very well but what about the person on the street trying to find a house whether to deliver / collect material, responding to an emergency or just to visit a friend where there are no house numbers to be seen?

    They may well have been asigned – and indeed used – but so often they are a secret!

    I gather that in France each house / apartment must have a standard enamel number easily read from the public road/footpath. No Number? Then the post office will not deliver mail! Simple!

    Surely this could be readily made to apply in Ireland – and would enable any Post Code System easier to apply

  26. I propose a general numbering system based on squares within squares, with increasing number of digits meaning increased granularity. First the island is divided into a square with 9 equal size squares within it (like a grid), 3 across and 3 down. This is the first digit, where Donegal would fall within number one, Dublin belong to number 6, and Wexford to 9. Basically only digits 1 – 9 would be used, znd zeroes just as fillers for example when a 6 digit number is wanted but the granularity needed is only 4 digits the last two are filled in with zeroes. OK, so Galway falls within number 4, then that square 4 is subdivided into 9 boxes, 3 across and 3 down. Westport might fall within subsquare 1, so the code for Westport would then be 41, Galway town being in the centre of that subsquare would perhaps have code 45, and so on. An area in Dublin might have code 653 or more exact 65328 or if you need to fill in 6 digits you type it in as 653280. This system is general in its nature and could be established once and for all and not need or allow subsequent modification, as it is based on geographical lines (either latitude/longitude lines or the national grid) and not borders like province or county or smaller which may change over time. It might not be ideal for postal deliveries either but there you go. An even numbered area always borders with an uneven numbered area within that square, and so on. Code 6 has code 9 to its south, 3 to its north, and 5 to its west. Code 68 borders with code 92 to its south, and 65 to its north. 68 is the same as 680 or 680000.

    But how many digits do we need to pinpoint any square a km in size somewhere in the country? About 4 or 5?