A tale of two cartoons, two holy men and two Olympics
21 September 2020
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe takes issue with An Post, the Irish Postal Authority.
If the internet is to be believed, there is a Swahili proverb that goes Chombo hakiendi ikiwa kila mtu anapiga makasia yake, which roughly translated means A boat does not go forward if each one is rowing their own way. That is why a popular cartoon image for disunity is a couple of rowers pulling in opposite directions. I included two such images, from 2012 and 2016, in my recent article The Brexit Olimpicks.
This year, that image appeared twice more, but for two quite different aspects of life in 2020. In February, Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post forewarned that the USA and China would take opposing positions on how to deal with COVID-19 and in August, the EU/GB post-Brexit relationship got the double-trouble treatment.
That is how the image is supposed to work. Right? Imagine my surprise when this seating arrangement was used by An Post, the state-owned provider of postal services in Ireland, to depict teamwork on an ancient postal route.
Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Europa stamps from An Post were finally issued on 16 July in the form of a two-stamp set with the designs reflecting this year’s theme for the pan-European series of Ancient Postal Routes. The first stamp depicts a clean-shaven medieval Irish monk writing a letter, as well as depicting another monk and a ferryman, both bearded, on their way to deliver the said letter. The second stamp depicts a monk on horseback riding to a convent where he is seen delivering the letter to a nun. Both the stamps and the First Day Cover (FDC) were designed by Red&Grey from illustrations by Orlagh Murphy.
In 1994, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands issue a similar twinset of stamps for that year’s Europa Issue, the theme being Great Discoveries. The three postal authorities joined together to celebrate the early 6th-century voyage of Saint Brendan to Iceland. Despite not being canonised in his lifetime, Brendan appears on the stamp with a saintly halo. He is the patron saint of boatmen, although Saint Clement I might dispute this. Brendan the Navigator is thought to have travelled as far as present-day Newfoundland and his voyage is celebrated in song by Christy Moore. His transatlantic journey was retraced between May 1976 and June 1977 by a five-man crew from Brandon Creek in Dingle, County Kerry. The resultant film of this historic voyage is available on YouTube – Part 1 and Part 2.
Ireland has issued commemorative stamps celebrating its participation in the Olympic Games since 1972. Every four years different sports are selected and eventually my patience was rewarded in 2008 when rowing was chosen for one of the designs. Technique is rarely a consideration when rowing or sculling is being selected for postage stamps and Ireland’s Beijing commemorative was no exception. It and its sister stamp, featuring a shot-putter, are based on illustrations by Graham Knuttel. His designs are true to his unique style of painting which Duke Street Gallery, Dublin, describes as “bold use of colour and form and the narrative tensions which wind their way through all his work, make him a true storyteller. Knuttel’s works are instantly recognizable, making him one of Ireland’s most popular and collectable living artists of our time.”
If rowing technique did not top the list of requirements in Knuttel’s commission from An Post, the same cannot be said of Ann Flynn’s design for the 1988 Olympic Games FDC. I have long admired the rowing image and wished it had made it on to a stamp. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I now notice that the three sports depicted are all ‘seated’ sports and perhaps the composition of the two se-tenant stamps, also designed by Flynn, with the competitors facing forward, was all part of her master plan. The cancellation stamp made up of a trio of images: Olympic Rings, Olympic Torch, and a Shamrock, add greatly to the cover.
In 1985, the President of the International Federation of Olympic Philately (FIPO), Juan Antonio Samaranch, under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), created the Prix Olympia, a competition to honour the most attractive postage stamps issued on the occasion of each Olympic Games. The winners of the II Prix Olympia, celebrating stamps for the Seoul Olympics, was Flynn’s show jumping stamp, but it could easily have been the bowsider in green that graced the First Day of Issue Cover.
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