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A History Of Irish Printing

"And this our noble art of printing is the very foster mother of all learning. Not until printing came could learning, yea and wisdom also, knock at every man's door."

While the people of the Orient were printing from wood blocks, Europeans were still producing hand-written books. In Ireland many monks spent their lives laboriously copying books with quills and reeds. The Book of Kells (late 8th - early 9th Century) is one of the most famous examples. It wasn't until the early 1400s that Europeans finally discovered block printing. This process involved carving the required words or images in reverse onto a block of wood and it is probable that the first western block printing was used to produce playing cards for the royal houses in Europe. Later, block printing progressed to religious iconography. The earliest recorded European wood block print is a picture of Saint Christopher printed in 1423. Early printers of this period used to bind prints from wood blocks together to produce books. This process, was very labour-intensive however, as each block could not be reused after it had been carved.

The Renaissance era witnessed a growth in the desire for learning. This created a huge demand for the printed word that hand copying and block printing could not satisfy. Johann Gutenberg Johann Gutenberg's invention of movable type solved the problem. Gutenberg (right), of Mainz in Germany, began using separate pieces of raised metal type around 1440. He adapted his printing press from a machine used to press grapes or cheese and assembled his pieces of type into page format (known as a form). By turning a large wood screw upon the inked form, he brought down a wood block on the paper. The major advantage of this innovative method was when Gutenberg was finished setting the required type, the slugs (lines of type) could be disassembled and reused. The Gutenberg press could print about 300 copies a day. By 1456, Gutenberg's 42-line, 1,282-page bible was completed. As a commercial venture, however, the Gutenberg Bibles were a failure. Gutenberg was unable to pay his debts and had to sell his business to Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer who continued to sell copies of the bibles. Many people feared that the new art of printing was a "black" art that came from Satan. They could not understand how books could be produced so quickly, or how all copies could look exactly alike. It is believed that the term 'printers devil' has its origins in these early days of printing. The printer's apprentice was still referred to as thus right up to the end of the hot metal era in the 1960s and '70s. In spite of people's fears, however, printing spread rapidly. By 1500, there were more than 1,000 print shops in Europe, and several million books had been produced.

Printing did not arrive in Ireland until 1551 when Humphrey Powell printed The Boke of Common Praier. This first book in Irish type was paid for by Elizabeth I and was probably manufactured in London. In 1571 an unidentified printer printed Aibidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma, the first book using the Irish character. The London Stationers' Company was granted the King's Printer's patent in Ireland in 1618 and set up a printing house in Dublin. It was short-lived, however, and sold out to William Bladen in 1639. The King's Printer was confined to government printing and this led to a few other presses being established in Dublin and the provinces in the middle years of the 17th century. The first one outside Dublin was set up in Waterford in 1643, followed by Kilkenny in 1646. Waterford followed soon after in 1648 and a Cork press was printing in 1649.

The printing press changed little from Gutenberg's time until the 1800's. An English nobleman, the Earl of Stanhope, built the first all-iron press about 1800. In 1811, Friedrich Koenig of Germany invented a steam-powered cylinder press. This press used a revolving cylinder that pressed the paper against a flat bed of type. The Times in London installed Stanhope's press not long after its invention. It could print 150 completed copies of the paper per hour. In 1834, the Dublin Penny Journal followed The Times example, and installed one of Koenig's revolutionary presses.

After the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, it became common practice for printers and publishers to print pirated editions of works published in Britain. These editions, however, were invariably inferior to the originals.

The Columbian Press George Clymer in Philadelphia invented another popular press of the time, the Columbian Press or Eagle Press, about 1812/13. These presses became obsolete fairly quickly, as the metal was needed for laying railways. Clymer left the USA in 1817 and began manufacturing his presses in the UK where there was greater demand. A number of Columbian Presses were imported into Ireland. When the need for mass production increased during the Industrial Revolution, however, this sort of press went out of use.

David Payne of Otley, Yorkshire, patented the Wharfedale Stop-Cylinder printing machine in 1858. Otley was a major centre for the production of printing equipment and several types of Wharfedale models were made there. This machine which was used in all the major newspaper and printing houses in Ireland, was also the press upon which the 1916 proclamation was printed. The actual machine was a "double-crown" model of the 1860s, which was stored in the basement of Liberty Hall. It was in such poor condition that it had to be held together with bricks. The principal font of type used was supplied by an Englishman named William Henry West, proprietor of a printing business in Capel St. Because of the sensitive nature of the material and the secrecy surrounding it, the amount of type available was not sufficient and thus, the proclamation was printed in two halves. There is a noticeable space dividing the two sections in the genuine original edition. The compositors also ran short of the letter 'E' in the ornamental lettering used for the heading but solved this problem by marrying a capital 'F' in the same font with some sealing wax to form the letter required. These typographical errors serve as identifiers of original issues of one of Ireland's most famous documents.

The first 500 years of printing saw only minor technological advancements. However, the advent of hot metal mechanical typesetting revolutionised the whole industry. Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German living in America, invented the Linotype in Germany in 1885. Other attempts had been made to develop mechanical composition machines, using a cold metal system, but none proved as successful as Merganthaler's model. In 1888 the Freeman's Journal was one of the first in Ireland to install a 'cold metal' typesetting machine and in 1893 the Dublin Steam Printing Company became the first Irish printers to use the 'hot metal' Linotype. Earlier in 1880, Richard Wright in Dublin started producing his 'Emerald' presses, the first cylinder printing machines to be made in Ireland.

Linotype James Joyce's Ulysses was printed on a Linotype (left) in Paris because no Irish printer would print it, thinking it too obscene. None of the French printers could speak English, hence the huge amount of typographical errors in the 1922 edition.

Book typography in the twentieth century reaped the benefit of the Linotype and Monotype systems of mechanical composition. Many new styles of font were developed and illustrations became more elaborate in design. Printers feared that the new machines would spell the end of many positions for compositors but in fact, the opposite happened. The public's thirst for knowledge and newspapers meant that printers were in more demand than ever. They adapted their skills to operate the new machines and a new era of 'hot metal' emerged, one which has only lately left us.

The Longford Leader was the first newspaper house in Ireland to import a Linotype in 1897, just seven years after its invention. Many other newspapers followed the example and within the first decades of the new century, almost all newspapers were produced using the new 'hot metal' method.

Even the most versatile printers however were not prepared for the world-wide changes in the industry that came about in the 1970s and 1980s. The technology of transmitting images to paper through metal type and the letterpress system had served the industry well for centuries and while techniques such as cold setting and offset printing were popular, the basic skills used by typesetters, compositors, machine minders had evolved at a gradual pace and could still be said to come within the traditional crafts imparted by Gutenberg and his descendants.

The changes in the printing industry over the last two decades have been both progressive and traumatic, with much of the trauma experienced by printers who found that the skills they had learned in traditional apprenticeships had suddenly become redundant and who were obliged to either leave the industry or to acquire new and very different skills in a short period of time. Computers now carry out the minute calculations of the typesetter and typographical design is being taken over by Apple Mac and PC operators. As the new millennium approaches, new software is increasingly available to offer ever more simple means of composing text and illustrations. Typographical setting and design does of course still require skills, but these are increasingly computer-related and very different from those of the traditional compositor.