Part II: Canadian Professor Battled Emotions on Discovering Stamp Error

By J. C. Kuhn

The scholarly writing that I had expected to do was within a few days of being completed on May 17, 1976, and I looked forward to a different kind of leisure in this already leisurely world.

The main excitement for May had been that Maura’s parents, Charles and Helen Slattery, had come from Toronto on May 1 and had stayed with us for a week before borrowing our car for some touring on their own. Their parents on both sides were Irish, and they wanted to visit long unseen cousins in County Clare.

For the time that the Slatterys had our car, we rented bicycles. The two miles to Roundstone made a pleasant enough walk, but for daily supplies a vehicle of some sort was advisable. I have a weakness for newspapers, so that I rewarded myself for carrying out my duties as victualler-cyclist by getting the Irish Times.

On the Saturday before the Slatterys were to return with our car, I read in the Irish times that Ireland was to honour the U.S. Bicentennial with a commemorative issue of four stamps. There was a photograph of the four values, with the information that they were “in denominations of 7p, 8p, 9p and 15p and will be issued officially next Monday.”

It wasn’t hard to remember this, especially as I had to write a long-overdue letter of complaint to the stereo department in the new Hudson’s Bay store at Bloor and Yonge, concerning a cassette recorder we had with us which was defective. I typed my letter on Sunday and was happy to have the occasion to go to a post office on the first day of issue of a new stamp. I had never before done this.

I must have noticed subliminally a further point in the newspaper article: “For the first time this year, Ireland will be represented at a philatelic exhibition abroad–Interphil 76 which takes place in Philadelphia from May 29th to June 6th.” My present life was so far removed from concern with stamp exhibitions in Philadelphia that I can only have glanced at it.

I arose around 8 a.m. on Monday and looked forward to an early ride into the village–long before I generally went in.

Our house was on the route that Walter followed from Maam Cross to Clifden, as he left the day’s mail in village post offices along the way. When he passed a little after 9 a.m., I knew that Carmel had the mail in hand, ready to be sorted. I had no idea that he had also just delivered the U.S. Bicentennial commemorative stamps to her.

When I arrived at the post office, Carmel Keane, the postmaster’s wife, was on duty. The only customer was the local church of Ireland clergyman, Mr. Tinney.

We exchanged greetings, and I asked if she had the new stamps. I needed a 15p one for my letter to Toronto, and I intended to get a few extra to stock the postage box back at the house. Carmel got out her looseleaf counterbook of stamps and showed me her full sheets of the new issues–7p, 8p and 9p. The 15p must be the fourth new sheet she had received, although there was no printing on it to identify its value. Nor did it have EIRE on it.

The 15p and the 9p were identical in design, differing only in colours and values. But the silver colour on the presumptive 15p stamp was missing. I felt a bit of a tremble as I saw before me a full, unbroken sheet of stamps which were a dead-on variety from what they should have been.

The clerk was capable of conversation at this point; I was heading under full sail into great internal turmoil. Questions I couldn’t possibly answer took over my mind: is it possible that every 15p sheet is like this? How common may printing errors like this be in Irish postage? How much do I risk if I buy the whole sheet and it’s worthless?

Being on half-pay in Ireland made me pennywise most of the time. Could I afford to be pound foolish with 15 pounds, the price of 100 stamps at 15p each?

Mrs. Keane was telling me that she had expected to receive one sheet of each value, and as she didn’t have one with a face value of 15p, she assumed that the unvalued stamp was the 15p one. I agreed that the stamp in two colours–rose red and dull blue–was certainly the 15p one, pointing out the identity of design with the 9p stamp whose colours were new blue, ochre and silver.

From the 9p stamp one could see clearly what was wrong with the other one: the silver inscription was missing.

I was having trouble staying calm, but I absolutely didn’t know what to do. Later I learned that the stamps had come in hardly a half hour before I did; hence Carmel had no time to think out what she should do with these visibly different stamps.

I examined the sheet at leisure and saw something that Mrs. Keane had not noticed: in the control panel in the lower right margin, three small rectangles of colour should have given instant evidence that the three colours had printed on the sheet. But in the case of this sheet, there was no silver rectangle–only rose-red and dull blue rectangles. A blank space where the silver rectangle should have been made it very clear that the sheet had gone through its third printing where the silver should have been impressed and it had come through untouched.

Actually there was a hint of silver specks here and there on some of the stamps, but a total impression (or even a partial) had not occurred. What was missing were words: “American Declaration of Independence 1776", “Benjamin Franklin” and “15 EIRE.”

To see the variety before me in an unbroken sheet and to know how it came to be a variety (through the failure of the machine to print silver) were certain things. What to do about it was entirely uncertain.

First of all, simply to keep my composure was important. I first had to decide what to do with my by-now burdensome letter which had initially brought me to the post office. So I asked for four copies each of the new 7p and 8p–these were safely usable.

One 7p and one 8p would provide the 15p equivalent needed for my mundane letter. Then I asked how much the whole Ben Franklin sheet would cost. We counted the stamps together! One hundred stamps at 15p equals 15 pounds. Mrs. Keane pensively wrote the figure in the margin of the sheet. I couldn’t say, “Please don’t do that,” but I keenly thought it.

I asked for 10 stamps. Carmel Keane broke the sheet by separating five rows of two in the upper right corner, giving me a vertical pane of 10.

I had no idea how quickly or slowly transatlantic airmail values would sell out in Roundstone. Everyone in the village had relatives in Canada or the States. It was also entirely possible that someone would come along behind me, knowing more than I knew, and would walk off with the rest of the sheet. I was fully prepared never to see another stamp of this kind.

But I have a streak of persistence and a demonstrated skill of researching and documenting. Here was a research challenge with extremely limited means at my disposal. What could I find out before 10 a.m. from Roundstone?

The organizer in my psyche began to lay out steps. First: read the morning paper. I told myself: “The notice that these stamps were to appear was in the news two days ago; it may just as well be in today’s Irish times.” So I went to the newsagent’s, where the proprietress Mrs. Barlow was sorry to tell me that no Dublin papers had come in that day.

It was also no help that the RTE, the Irish national radio-television network, was on strike. In Roundstone, on the day when I most needed news, there was effectively a news blackout–no papers, no radio, no TV.

A second approach was possible: call the post office in Clifden and inquire discreetly about their new stamps. In considering this call, I was partly deterred by realizing that my call had to be placed through Carmel Keane at the switchboard, the postal clerk whose curiosity in the stamps I wanted to circumvent.

But, there was no other way, so I went to the telephone kiosk on the Roundstone high street and asked for the post office counter in Clifden. I inquired of the clerk there if his 15p stamps were all right. Since he didn’t know what I was implying, he asked me to be more specific.

“Do they have printing on them?” I asked, hoping in my heart of hearts that he would say “No” and relieve me of all further anxiety.

“They do, yes,” was his reply.

I wasn’t really sure if he was saying that to be agreeable, or whether he had the stamps in hand and could see the actual silver print on them. I could hardly ask him if he was looking at them, but at least I knew that he had a general conviction that his stamps were okay.

“Would you like some of these stamps?” he continued. “Where are you calling from–Roundstone? You can get some from the post office there.”

I felt a giddy irony at the realization that in Roundstone at least I couldn’t get stamps like his. Unfortunately, from my point of view, I had lost some anonymity of place, for he knew clearly where I was calling from. My hopes for discreet inquiry were beginning to fade.

Contintue to Part 3