If you were raised in rural Ireland, especially in the West, and even more especially in one of the many remote regions, you know just how important the local postman has always been to the community. He delivered a lot more than mere mail to the families on his round.

Sadly, in this new world of changing communication systems, I fear that the Irish postman's days are numbered. If my misgivings are justified the communal loss will be huge.

Many of you who are older citizens now will remember him very well indeed. Before your time he was an even more critical spoke in the local wheel because he was delivering the famous American Letters throughout the parishes.

For those of you who were not Irish born I should explain that the American Letters were the dollar remittances faithfully sent home by the sons and daughters who had emigrated to the United States. Many folk have told me down the years how vital those American Letters were for families, typically large families, dependent for their living on small farms on marginal soils.

"You would see the postman coming on his High Nelly bike a half-mile away and you'd be praying that he had the American Letter for you this morning," is how one Leitrim mother described it to me once.

I recall she had two sons and a daughter in the U.S. at the time. Changed times indeed because only one of them ever returned home on holidays in that era of sky-high travel costs. Against that background the postman was an even more vital link.

Back then, and until quite recent times, it is true that the country postman delivered a lot more than the mail to the families on his round. Typically he would come into the kitchen for a quick cup of tea and a slice of bread and jam after arriving and delivering the handwritten envelopes.

Yes, he brought the American Letters, but he also brought the local news of the parish and townland to the homes and hearths.

It was from him you heard that John Joe was nearly on his deathbed and would be lucky to last out the week. Kate had twins and both were doing well, two girls, and Mickie was a bit disappointed that one was not a son to take over the farm from him in due time and season.

Tony Murphy sold his horse and was thinking of getting a second hand tractor. The Johnstons were thatching the house. Minnie O'Donnell had passed the civil service examination and would be going to Dublin at the end of the month. Jackie's ankle was so badly sprained he would not be able to play in the big game on Sunday.

Social tidbits like that, small parochial matters, but hugely important in that time and place. Some of you will remember that well.

I fear the postman's days are nearly numbered in the New Ireland. He (and she nowadays) delivers the mail nowadays from brisk vans which cover far more ground than the cycling postmen of the past. Also, they rarely have time to drop in for a cup of tea and a chat.

Also, in this age of IT and digital connections and Skype and broadband, the volume and nature of the mail is different altogether. Virtually nothing is handwritten any more. Something like 99 percent of the delivery is junk mail.

The Royal Mail in England, on which our service is based, has already contracted sharply to cope with the different market. Here, many of the smaller rural post offices are either closed down or about to be closed.

The omens are not good at all as the postal service seems to have become a part of the movement to strip many services away from the ageing and depleted rural population.

I have known many cases in the West down the decades where the postman was often the only daily caller to farmhouses where elderly men and women lived alone. He was often their last real link with the world outside their doors.

He was more of a social worker to these folk than a mailman. He often brought their shopping for them on his bike or, later, in his van. He posted their letters and did their messages where necessary.

He kept his eyes open for them and, should they show the consequences of advancing years and fragility, he would quietly let it be known to neighbors and the social services. To the lone ones in lonesome places the postman was virtually worth his weight in gold.

It will be a sad, sad day indeed if the new technologies make him redundant. I hope it never happens but I fear that I am correct on this one. I so wish to be wrong.

Time, as always, will tell.

The friendly Irish postman: "It will be a sad, sad day indeed if the new technologies make him redundant."Caty Bartholomew