Tuesday, March 13, 2012


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...
                                                    S.H. Steinberg. Five Hundred Years of Printing

"Short Directions for Reading Irish" - from The Life of Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland. Dublin: H. Fitzpatrick, 1810.

The three pages of instruction reproduced here appeared in several editions of this life of St. Patrick. Similar abbreviated Irish language tutorials may be found in other religious works, Bibles, etc. from the early 19th century. They are interesting for the use of Irish type, which, as Steinberg observed, was an exception amidst the predominating Roman typefaces of western Europe.

A good overview of the history of Irish typefaces may be found in Mathew Staunton's work Trojan Horses and Friendly Faces: Irish Gaelic Typography as Propaganda in which the earliest Irish type is revealed to be the work of Queen Elizabeth I. The Irish themselves wasted no time in appropriating the idea, and a number of native Irish typefaces were developed which were far less Roman in appearance and more related to medieval letter forms.

By the 1830s the rise of Irish nationalism and interest in Irish history spurred the development of Irish types such as the semi-uncial produced by George Petrie for use in the first bilingual edition of one of Ireland's key historical sources, known as the Annals of the Four Masters.
Opening words of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, 1856 

Petrie later designed a typeface modeled on early Irish minuscule hands. Known as Newman, this font was created for use by the Catholic University of Ireland, being named after that University's first rector, John Henry Newman. Despite the Irish government's adoption in the 1960s of Roman letter forms for printing Irish language texts, Irish typefaces are still being produced and their beauty is appreciated by practitioners of fine printing in Ireland and elsewhere.

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