Clodagh Finn: The end of the line for Ireland’s public payphones

The first public payphone in Ireland was installed in 1925. Picture: Neil Danton

Since the first one was installed, on Dawson Street in 1925, they have provided a social
history of our country, but 640 of the remaining 900 will be gone before Christmas,
unless ComReg receives enough objections by June 24, writes Clodagh Finn

There are six days to make a last-ditch plea to the communications regulator to prolong the life of that anachronistic, though beloved, beast, the public telephone box.

Though probably even Superman couldn’t save his famous changing room now.

640 of the 900 remaining public phones could be gone by Christmas, and more than a few of us will mourn the demise of a network that provided a lifeline to generations of Irish people.

The history of the Irish telephone box is a social history of the country, having charted births, deaths, marriages, the fates of emigrants, their loved-ones, and so much more, since 1925, when the first box was installed on Dawson Street, Dublin.

That history can feel so alien in this digital millennium that it seems we were a different species then. How can you explain to a Snapchatter what it was like to press button ‘A’ if someone answered your call? Or what it was like to be a student in a queue outside a phone kiosk on the Lower Rathmines Road, waiting to ring home on a Sunday night?

It was an art form to say a polite ‘hello’, call out the number at breakneck speed, then wait for the folks to ring back without you incurring the evil eye of someone in the queue, who would tap the window and their watch in an infuriating attempt to get you to wrap it up.

Almost as soon as the public payphone appeared, the ingenious and the mischievous looked for ways to cheat it.

There were those who claimed to be practised in the dark arts of getting free calls. They’d tap out the number, morse-code like, on the little spurs under the receiver, and claim to have gotten through without paying. That might well have been an urban myth, though there were many ways the average phone-user tried to get one over on the P&T, as Eir was known then.

You might not actively seek to do the telecommunications company out of money, but if it accidentally came your way, it was like hitting the jackpot. A friend of mine tells the story of inadvertently banging against a pub payphone. It started to cough out a casino-like stream of 5p coins. He and his friends grabbed a hat, filled it with the unexpected windfall, and split it three ways. Later, when each went to pay for their chipper order by counting out stacks of 5ps, the man serving them called his family out from the back to witness the sight.

And yet, the very first prosecution for interfering with a public telephone box had nothing to do with theft. In May, 1928, a man with a choice turn of phrase was bound over to the peace at the Limerick Sessions for using bad language when talking to the operator.

The telephone box would feature in darker roles. They were robbed, of course, but they were often used by people who had nowhere else to go. They became refuges for addicts and homeless people, who stuffed the air vents with newspaper to keep the draft out. In the 1980s, RTÉ did a documentary about the babies abandoned in them.

Then, as now, they were the target of vandals. Bob Geldof headed a 1980s TV campaign to remind everyone that phone wreckers were, and I quote, “idiots”.

But for all the bad news stories, there are just as many good ones. If you’re feeling nostalgic for a more innocent time, there was a wonderful account in the Irish Press newspaper of a nun who used a phonebox in Ballsbridge, in August, 1977, to enquire about the umbrella she had left behind at the Charismatic Renewal gathering in the RDS, earlier that day.

She rushed to catch her train, only to discover that she had left her purse behind in the phonebox. Her word — and the offer of her name and address — was enough to secure a ticket to Malahide. Later, the station master at Lansdowne Road, a Tom Martin, thought to ring a shop near the RDS and ask someone to run down the road to see if the purse was still there.

Then, as the Irish Press put it, “miracle of miracles, when the nun returned next morning to tender her fare, Tom Martin presented her with the resurrected purse”. (There was no news of the missing umbrella, though).

For other heart-warming phone memories, you can’t beat the short film, Bye Bye Now, by Ross Whitaker and Aideen O’Sullivan. In it, a father recalls going into a phonebox feeling like Clark Kent, but coming out as Superman, after hearing his wife had just given birth to a baby girl.

Others lovingly recall how the kiosk itself was an integral part of the town architecture, used for courting, as an impromptu bus stop, and for fellas who had too much to drink.

“All of human life was in that little phonebox,” said one contributor. And, funnily enough, some of them even used it to make phone calls, too, though when asked the last time they did so, the answer varied from three to ten years.

It doesn’t augur well for the future. Some towns have put up a spirited defence of what Eir now calls “legacy architecture”, but it does look like the ‘end of the line’.

There’s still time to take a stance. ComReg has invited written comments before June 24. It’s asking the public if it agrees with the recommendation that Eir can remove those phones used for less than a minute a day over a six-month period — there are 640 of them.

I can’t help feeling we’ll be doing that very Irish thing in the near future: saying our ridiculously prolonged bye bye… bye bye, bye bye, bye bye.


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