1In his 1955 study, Five Hundred Years of Printing, still required reading for students of European printing history, S. H. Steinberg paints a very harmonious picture of the world:
- 1 S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955, 179.
It is rather one of the most wholesome consequences of the worldwide expansion of the printing press that the one Latin alphabet should have become the one medium in which every human thought can find adequate expression.1
2Surprisingly, there are only two flies in Steinberg’s ointment: Russia with its annoying Cyrillic alphabet is one and Ireland is the other. According to him, the quirky Irish Gaelic alphabet represents nothing more than a curious bypath of Western typography and should be scrapped: “Irish literature (and Irish tourism) would probably be better off without the encumbrance of a script which, though most decorative on postage stamps, raises an additional bar to its understanding”.2
3The script in question is an interpretation of the Latin alphabet which evolved in the Irish scriptoria of the fifth century, with its eighteen letters and diacritical marks. It is really only in the d, f, g, and t and the long r and s in the lower case that the divergence with what we use today, the Roman version of the alphabet, is very noticeable.
Fig. 1 The Irish Gaelic Alphabet
4Steinberg’s far from neutral approach has, nonetheless, a very useful side-effect: in his eagerness to promote the standardisation of the world’s typography, he raises a number of problematic issues that Irish printing historians seem reluctant to tackle.
5The first of these involves the legitimacy of the characters used for the printing of Irish Gaelic. Far from having been developed in Ireland, they were first designed and cut in England. Later designs originated in Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and the United States. Is there anything essentially Irish about them at all?
6A second point is that the creation of Irish founts was originally a by-product of Elizabethan church policy. They later became a weapon of the Counter Reformation and later still of Irish nationalism. Outside this propaganda use, has Gaelic typography ever really existed?
7Finally, Irish Gaelic type designers have for the most part resisted any evolution towards optimal readability. The shape of the individual characters has more to do with visual authenticity than with any degree of efficiency. And if a typeface does not in fact help the reader to understand a text then should it not be replaced with something more practical? Steinberg makes effective use of these issues to argue that Irish Gaelic typography is essentially artificial and should be phased out. This is, not surprisingly, a conclusion that his Irish counterparts, historians like Dermot McGuinne, E. W. Lynam and Colm Ó Lochlainn steer well clear of.
8With this in mind, this article will focus on three key moments in the history of Irish Gaelic typography: the creation of the first Gaelic typeface at the request of Elizabeth I, the publication of the Annals of the Four Masters in the 19th century and the phasing out of Irish type in the 1960s.
9For the Elizabethans, Ireland was an exotic place, full of strange people with bizarre customs and a frustratingly different language. Images of the distinctive Irish mantle and glib had reached Elizabeth’s court, and it was clear that the Irish also looked very different. On the subject of the Irish language, Elizabethan policy was contradictory. Some of the Queen’s representatives in Ireland called for either education or ethnic cleansing as a solution to the general problem of communication outside the Pale. It was argued that changing the vernacular language would facilitate widespread religious instruction. The Queen supported both methods to different degrees depending on the moment but was personally involved in a far less aggressive project, using the Irish language to spread the message of the reformed church. In the 1560s she commissioned a manuscript Irish-Latin-English Primer from Christopher Nugent to help her communicate more efficiently with her Irish subjects. Nugent explains in his preface:
- 3 C. Nugent, The Queen Elizabeth Primer of the Irish Language, Facsimile reproduction, Dublin, 1988, (...)
For as speech is the special means whereby all subjects learn obedience, and their Princes, or Governors, understand their griefs and harms; so the same being delivered by an interpreter, can never carry that grace, or proper intelligence, which the tongue itself being understood expresseth.3
The Queen, then, would learn Irish and confident in the knowledge that things looked different in Ireland, Nugent did not hesitate to present the language as he found it, dressed up in its distinctive Irish costume. This was a very important moment for both the language and its letterforms, henceforth an inseparable couple and literally fit for a Queen. Nugent’s interpretation of contemporary manuscript Irish letters became the official blueprint for a future Irish Gaelic printing project.
10The stimulus for this sort of project came from an unexpected source. In 1567, while Elizabeth was presumably busy studying her primer, a Gaelic translation of John Knox’s Book of Common Order was printed in Scotland. The introduction targets the Gaelic speaking literati of both Scotland and Ireland :
- 4 John Knox, Foirm na Nurrnuidheadh [John Carswell translation], Edinburgh, 1567, 26.
[The] one great advantage which we the Gaeil of Scotland and Ireland labour under beyond the rest of the world, that our Gaelic language has never been printed, as the language of every race of men has been.4
This approach was possible because the text was written in classical Gaelic, comprehensible to both groups. It was printed using a Roman typeface, a practice which would become the norm for Scots Gaelic in the future. Anxious about this perceived expansion into Ireland of Knox’s project, the established Church responded with the printing in 1571 of John Kearney’s Aibidil Gaoidheilgh agus Caiticiosma (Gaelic Alphabet and Catechism) using exclusively Irish letterforms. Kearney, the Cambridge educated clerk and treasurer of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin was commissioned to produce a vernacular religious text par excellence. This book was not only written in the language of the place, but it was also printed using letterforms based on the Irish minuscule manuscript. As such, it was doubly vernacular. Elizabeth’s strategy was to turn this into a tripartite relationship with the addition of a religious message. It was hoped that the Irish would accept these homely looking books and that Protestantism would be allowed to slip in like the Greeks inside the Trojan horse. In his preface, Kearney reinforces the connection between typeface and religion that is already very clearly established by the book’s title:
- 5 John Kearney, Aibidil Gaoidheilgh agus Caiticiosma, Dublin: John Usher, 1571, preface [no page num (...)
Here you have, O reader, the first fruits and progeny of that good and very laborious work which I have been producing and devising for you for a long time, that is, the true and perfect type of the Gaelic language which will open to you that road which leads you to knowledge and which, moreover, has been closed to you formerly.5
At the same time, the road to Edinburgh was symbolically blocked. The Gaels of Ireland had an exclusive typeface and a religion to go with it. The Gaels of Scotland were literally written out of the plot.
Fig. 2 Queen Elizabeth Typeface from Aibidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma, 1571
11To the modern observer, the Queen Elizabeth typeface looks very tidy on the page. The letters are upright, well-proportioned and well-spaced. The traditional letterforms seem to have been respected. Unfortunately, this was not at all how it was perceived by contemporary observers to whom it represented too great a leap from contemporary manuscript styles and contained too many Roman letters. Type historians are unanimous in their rejection of the Queen Elizabeth typeface as illegitimate. Both Dermot McGuinne and Brendan Leen call it a hybrid fount. E. W. Lynam says
- 6 E.W. Lynam, The Irish Character in Print 1571 to 1923, Shannon: T.M. MacGlinchey, 1968, 6-7.
The type is a very curious one. Only nine letters (d, e, f, g, i, p, r, s and t) and some of the capitals pretend to be Irish, a is italic, and nine letters are Roman. Of the capitals, B and D are uncials and M a nondescript hieroglyphic.6
Kearney seems to have anticipated this sort of criticism of his typeface because he asks his readers
- 7 Dermot McGuinne, Irish Type Design, a History of Printing Types in the Irish Character, Dublin: Ir (...)
Not to revile or insult or disparage it nor myself because of it as a recompense, but wherever you find a fault or blemish in it to do your utmost to correct and improve it that it may be more perfect than it is.7
Because of the close association of form and content in Kearney’s book, the typeface was an easy target for those who wanted to attack the message of the reformed church. Correcting and improving the one proved to be an effective way of contradicting the other.
12The Franciscans in exile in the Irish College at Louvain in Belgium, gladly accepted both Elizabeth’s gift of Irish Gaelic typography and Kearney’s invitation to perfect it and turning the Trojan horse around, trundled it back into the ranks of the enemy carrying a new message. From their scriptorium emerged the design for a new typeface, apparently based on the handwriting of the guardian of the college, Bonaventure O’Hussey.
Fig. 3 Louvain Typeface, from An Teagasg Criosdaidhe, 1611
13It was used in the printing of O’Hussey’s An Teagasg Criosdaithe in 1611. Not only was this catechism written in the vernacular, both in language and letterform, the typeface had the added value of being designed by Irishmen. E.W. Lynam calls it the first legitimate printed Irish letter. As the ideological struggle continued, more Catholic Gaelic typefaces were cut in Paris and Rome to answer the Protestant challenge and this typographic tit-for-tat between centres of Catholic and Protestant propaganda production continued for over 100 years.
14The Elizabethan typographic project established a relationship between the territory of Ireland, the Irish language, insular Irish letterforms and religious propaganda that would continue until the 19th century. The Irish Counter Reformation propagandists accepted this relationship but claimed the right to define what the finished product should look like.
15The second key moment in Irish typographical history occurs in the 1830s with the coming together of George Petrie, John O’Donavan and Eugene O’Curry in the Placenames and Antiquities section of the Irish Ordnance Survey. In the hands of these very passionate researchers it can been argued that the survey became an act of cultural recovery paving the way for 20th century nationalism with an enormous body of documentation on Irish topography, social history, antiquities, genealogy and the Irish language. All three became highly respected authorities on Irish History and all three were involved in the preparation of a bilingual edition of the Annals of the Four Masters, the first volume of which was publishedby M. H. Gill in 1848. It was Petrie himself who designed the typeface used for its printing. The association of such respected names with the typeface and the research that went into its design were considered guarantees of accuracy. Petrie himself was an experienced illustrator and the type historian Dermot McGuinne assures us that as
- 8 McGuinne, Dermot, Op.Cit., 99.
a keen student of early Irish manuscripts and one who had devoted much time to the study of Irish stone and metal inscriptions, [Petrie] was well suited to the task of type design. As one who was actively involved in writing, proof-reading and supervising the various stages of the publishing of his work, [he] would have been conscious of the qualities of a type that contribute to its readability and effectiveness.8
- 9 McGuinne, Dermot, Op.Cit., 122.
16In other words, Petrie’s credentials ensured that he was given a free hand. While type designers and printers in the rest of the British Isles were more and more concerned with technical improvement and the continued movement away from manuscript forms, Gaelic type design was once again pushed in the opposite direction. Petrie’s research for appropriate letterforms led him back to the classics of manuscript lettering. An advertisement for the Annals of the Four Masters explains that the letterforms are “in every case taken without alteration from ms. forms preserved in the earliest known mss., some of them of a date so early as the 6th century”9. If we look at this project through the eyes of a critic like Steinberg we find very little of value. Nobody would question the beauty of Petrie’s design. The Book of Kells has been called the most beautiful book in the world. A typeface which faithfully reproduces its letterforms cannot fail to impress the eye. But what about readability? And was Petrie’s design really suitable for book publishing in the 19th century?
Fig.4 The Petrie Typeface, from The Annals of the Four Masters, 1851
17If it hadn’t been designed by Petrie this typeface probably would have generated more criticism than the Queen Elizabeth design. Suddenly, readers had to familiarise themselves with radically different word shapes. This was the first time the semi-uncial style had been used in Irish printing and the 250 years since Elizabeth’s typeface hadn’t prepared anyone for this development. Furthermore, there was no reason to depend so heavily on manuscript letterforms so far into the development of Irish language printing. Why go back to the Book of Kells at all? It was written in Latin. Surely, the Cathach or the Irish language sections of the Book of Armagh or even the Annals of the Four Masters itself would have provided better models. In spite of McGuinne’s confidence in Petrie’s design abilities, the finished product seems to have more to do with the designer’s personal preference than with technical or historical considerations. Unfortunately, certain letters – o, d, and a ; m, n, and the long r – are easily confused. The typeface certainly looks Irish and suggests antiquity but clashes with contemporary handwriting and typographic styles and with the content of the book it was designed for.
18This was not Petrie’s last say on the matter, however. The Annals and all of the other books printed using this typeface and its derivations were published by the Dublin University Press at Trinity College. When a Catholic university was set up in 1854, access to these Protestant types was denied even to Petrie. John Henry Newman, Rector of the new university, thus had to choose between outsourcing his Irish printing to the college printing office of a Protestant university and casting a new fount for the Catholic university’s own use. He chose the latter option and it was again Petrie who designed the new fount. This time he had a new brief: the Catholic typeface was to be based on the Irish minuscule and not on the semi-uncial form. The Catholic university’s Gaelic texts could therefore be easily distinguished from their Protestant counterparts and, even though the same man had designed both, it was argued that the Catholic version was the more authentic.
Fig. 5 The Newman Typeface, designed by George Petrie, 1857
19The Newman typeface is a better compromise between contemporary typographic culture and historical authenticity. The minuscule script, with its triangular A and overall spiky look had always been preferred for the writing of Irish Gaelic. Compared to the Semi-Uncial, which was a painstakingly slow script used for the transcription of Latin religious texts, the minuscule script was quicker and more practical. Dermot McGuinne gives a favourable account of this typeface in his chapter on Petrie:
- 10 McGuinne, Dermot, Op.Cit., 123.
This typeface, modelled by Petrie on the more angular minuscule forms which were the inspiration for most of the types produced to date, was the first in this style to achieve a neutral remove from the calligraphic idiosyncrasies associated with many of its forerunners. It is orderly and upright with well proportioned individual letters that relate well to one another in the formation of the text.10
20So readable did this typeface prove that the standard typefaces for the next 100 years were modelled on it. The promotion of Irish Gaelic typefaces by such scholarly celebrities as these laid the foundations for 20th century nationalists who used the language and the letterforms to justify their claims for independence. Newspapers were the main source of propaganda at this time and it can be argued that as the Century turned, Irish nationalism was very much a conspiracy of printers. These nationalist printers, however, did not have access to university-sized budgets and were hard-pressed to find the necessary typefaces to print the Irish language in all of its vernacular glory. Irish type founders were not willing to take the financial risk of casting Gaelic types when the principle publishers of Irish language texts, in other words, the two universities, had their own founts and would not use someone else’s. Irish nationalists, led by Bernard Doyle, proprietor of the Franklin Printing Works in Dublin, therefore, approached the British type-foundry of James Figgins. With the acceleration of Irish language printing in the early 20th century, the American Linotype and Monotype companies both produced typefaces based on the Figgins model, and these were still in use when the typographic reform of the early 1960s made them redundant.
21Between 1961 and 1965, the use of Gaelic typefaces for the printing of texts in the Irish language was phased out by the Fianna Faíl government. The main architect of this process was the minister for Education Patrick Hillery and a timetable was established by his department to allow children who had already been exposed to Gaelic letterforms to continue to use them until the end of their primary education. One reason for this reform was that the role of typography in identity politics had come to an end. The distinctive look of written Irish had lost its propaganda value. It maintained a certain measure of symbolic value for the older generation and the minutes of Daíl and Seanaid Eireann debates record sporadic outburst of protest as TDs and senators expressed confusion and nostalgia for the Gaelic script they had learnt at school. On November 10, 1965 while debating the White Paper on the revival of the Irish Language, senator Quinlan summed up this feeling:
- 11 Senator Quinlan, Seanaid Éireann, volume 60, November 10, 1965, Páipéar Bán um Athbheochan na Gaei (...)
Having been brought up on the Irish script, I can never get used to this Roman script with all those h's cluttering up the words and masking the beauty of the word itself. It may be that the only reason that can be advanced for it is an economic one in relation to printing. Yet, to me, at any rate, Irish writing loses a great deal when it does not stand in its native setting.11
The following day Senator Tomás Ó Maoláin answered a number of such complaints in a way that would have made S. H. Steinberg very happy.
- 12 Senator Tomás Ó Maoláin, Seanaid Éireann, volume 60, November 11, 1965, Páipéar Bán um Athbheochan (...)
Both Senator Stanford and Senator Quinlan seemed to be very upset over the disappearance of this so-called Gaelic script. Roman script is in line with modern development. Languages such as German, Turkish, even Chinese and Russian, have been adapted to the Roman script. It is the modern method of printing. It means that newspaper space and book space is saved because quite a lot more Roman type can be got into a page or a column than Gaelic script. There is no reason why anyone should be upset because of the introduction of the Roman script.12
Wrong on all counts, Senator Ó Maoláin, nonetheless manages to communicate the government’s argument that the switch to Roman type was all about progress. Printing was Ireland’s number four industry and the government was the country’s principal publisher of Irish language books. It gave in to market forces and lobbying printers and the expense of maintaining two separate character sets was eliminated.
Fig. 6 The Typographic Reform
22After this typographic reform there was a transitional period of 24 years during which no new typefaces were designed. Since 1988, however, approximately 50 Gaelic typefaces have been produced and Gaelic typography is currently in the middle of a renaissance. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the computer. The economic arguments against non Latin and non-roman scripts have now been eliminated and vernacular styles that were rationalised out of existence are now making a comeback. The second is that the government’s decision to use Roman type liberated Gaelic letterforms from politics and their exclusive use for printing in Irish. At the same time, they have managed to keep their strong association with the territory and traditions of Ireland. Gaelic typography has moved from the realm of propaganda into the neighbouring field of advertising and triggered a renewed interest. No longer important in the political communication of Irishness it has become a means to sell all things Irish on the international market.
23It is significant that none of these new typefaces are being used for the printing of books. Even on the Internet, where the number of pages dedicated to the Irish language is increasing rapidly, Gaelic fonts are generally used exclusively for headings and logotypes with Roman fonts being used for the body of the text. The government’s delegitimisation of the Gaelic script has proven to be permanent in the book trade.
24In the field of advertising, however, it is the consumer who ultimately legitimises typography. Graphic designers often use vernacular writing styles to suggest tradition, craftwork, authenticity or to pinpoint a particular geographical area to their target audience. When it comes to suggesting Irishness, the most popular typeface on the market is American Uncial, designed and cut in 1945 by the Austrian type founder Victor Hammer.
Fig. 7 Example of Victor Hammer’s American Uncial
25Its roundness, just like the roundness of Petrie’s Trinity College typeface, recalls the Book of Kells, an important model for most of Hammer’s work. It is also very clearly pen-derived. Hammer consciously chose to translate the movement of his pen directly into the finished lead type rather than to eliminate the points of transition between strokes. This is a revival and a celebration of manuscript and Hammer hoped that it would reconcile Roman and Vernacular forms of writing. While aesthetically quite attractive, this is not a very readable font. Nowadays, it is generally used for titling and display work and even then it is not always easily decipherable. On top of that, it is not suitable for setting Gaelic texts. It is far too wide, lacks some of the necessary characters and has a confusing slash instead of a dot on the i. Nonetheless it is now very definitely perceived as Irish, especially in the United States.
26Not surprisingly, Hammer’s typeface is not popular with Irish typographers. One of the most prolific of these, Vincent Morley, proposes several alternative display fonts for all those who have had enough of American Uncial. Also clearly dissatisfied with the limited range of designs available for modern Gaelic-speaking users of personal computers, he creates and distributes fonts which complement or replace default and commonly used faces. He caters for different tastes and his fonts can be divided into two groups. The first consists of modernised digital versions of metal type adapted to the needs of word processing. Morley fills in the gaps in the character set, often adding the necessary punctuation and numerals which were almost always missing in past designs. In the second group, we find gaelicised roman fonts both serif and sans serif, italic and bold which offer complete flexibility to the end user. His newest font is a roman and Gaelic companion set based on Sumner Stone’s popular Stone Serif font. To sum up Morley’s contribution to Irish typography – he has done for 20th century writers of Gaelic what Gaelic typewriters did in the 19th century. Morley is nonetheless a realist and has argued that a return to the use of Gaelic typefaces in the printing of Irish language texts is neither probable nor desirable.
27It seems that Steinberg’s doubts about the legitimacy of the Irish Gaelic character are unfounded. In typography, perception is everything. Since its first appearance in moveable metal type, the Gaelic script, both in its semi-uncial and minuscule versions, has always signified Irishness. Does an Irish typeface have to be made in Ireland or conceived by Irish men and women to be Irish? The answer would appear to be no. Typographic Irishness is in the eye of the beholder and who are Irish government ministers to argue the contrary?
28What about Steinberg’s second question: has Gaelic typography ever existed outside propaganda? Not really. Some type designers argue that typography is propaganda. The history of Irish Gaelic fonts tends to support this. Irish typefaces have generally be designed to impress on the reader a sense of Irish identity, whether in terms of religion, national politics or cultural tourism.
- 13 Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography, London: Lund Humphries, 2001, 132-133.
29Finally, have Irish Gaelic type designers really resisted technical progress? Steinberg has a very good point here. The conservatism of the Louvain Franciscans or George Petrie is difficult to deny. Instead of analysing the structure of the Irish language and producing a font that suits its particular needs, typographers constantly return to manuscript models and especially the Book of Kells. In the last paragraph of his Essay on Typography, the British typographer Eric Gill tackles the problem of backward looking design in a way that also sums up the history of Gaelic typography: “You cannot put back the clock (…). No. But you can at least recognise that a certain amount of time has passed and not pretend that we are still ancient Britons”13.