Analysis: Ireland's unique, handcrafted shopfront signs can transform streets by offering character, identity and a sense of place

Ireland's rich heritage of handcrafted shopfront lettering is disappearing, currently threatened by the turbulent global economic climate. The time has come to recognise the significance of these handcrafted letters before they vanish from Ireland's streetscapes.

Hand painted signs have a long history in Western civilisation, dating back to first-century ancient Rome. Excavations carried out in Pompeii revealed early examples of shop signs and advertisements. In fact, the Roman letter remains a staple in the repertoire of practicing signwriters today.

Hand-lettered signboards first appeared on Ireland's commercial buildings in the 19th century, though these were pre-dated significantly by pictorial hanging signs. As literacy rates increased, pictures and symbols were replaced by proprietors' names on fascia boards. By the end of the Victorian era, businesses readily advertised their services through the lettering on the shopfront. Signwriting was undoubtedly an in-demand trade.

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The story of Irish signwriting is a cyclical one, with the craft falling in and out of favour largely since the introduction of plastic signage in the 1960s. The influx of high-street chains and retail parks, technological advancement in the 1980s and economic globalisation further impacted the trade. Distinctively unique letters, once created by local artisans in idiosyncratic styles, have given way to mass-produced, digitally derived signs that have flooded the urban landscape.

In 1978, Kilkenny Arts Week held the Kilkenny Signwriting Project in response to the craft's decline. The project aimed to showcase the signwriting expertise of Kilkenny city and county artisans, by tasking them with painting shopfront signs and demonstrating techniques like faux bois (woodgraining) and gold leaf gilding throughout the week. This initiative hoped to act as a catalyst for this creative work in order to contribute to the preservation of the town's character. It would also allow shop owners to express individuality in what had become a bland urban environment.

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From RTÉ Archives, Michael Ryan reports for Nationwide in 1999 on how traditional signwriting techniques have been revived in Cork to give shopfronts and streets a new lease of life

In a 1999 epsiode of RTÉ's Nationwide, Michael Ryan introduces signwriting as a much more "stable, viable, and profitable" trade. In footage, the late Skibbereen signwriter Declan Newman describes signwriting as an underappreciated art form with the potential to improve town and village streetscapes. This sentiment is echoed by Sean Rothery in his book The Shops of Ireland published in 1978.

Signwriting is used in films to enhance the visual aesthetic and convey authenticity. American filmmaker Wes Anderson favoured hand-painted letters to digital alternatives in his latest release, The French Dispatch. Anderson has previously commissioned Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins to create posters, signs, and newspapers for his films as graphic props. Admiration for the hand-painted letterform clearly extends far beyond the shopfront fascia board.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, interview with Annie Atkins about her book Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking

The craft of signwriting is currently experiencing a revival, with the creative work of signwriters such as Mack Signs, Vanessa Power, Sos Alaverdyan and Martin Chute, to name a few, enlivening Irish villages, towns, and cities. Historically, the trade was passed down from father to son through the time-honoured practice of apprenticeship but, as seen by the Burds of the Brush event in Glasgow in 2022, Europe currently has a multitude of practicing female and non-binary signwriters.

Despite this current resurgence, Irish signwriters travel abroad for workshops to gain valuable expertise due to limited opportunities for exchanging traditional craft skills at home. In 2017, fifth generation signwriter Gerry Fitzgibbon, who features in the Nationwide piece, retired from the Cork Training Centre after 35 years of service, and the long-established signwriting course finished not long afterwards.

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From Taller Stories, trailer for Gentlemen of Letters: A Dublin Sign Painting Film

Ballyfermot College of Further Education currently offers Ireland's last remaining course, with signwriter Colm O'Connor teaching the signwriting component. As it happens, O'Connor features in the 2013 short film Gentlemen of Letters: A Dublin Sign Painting Film, as does the late, influential Dublin signwriter, Kevin Freeney. Director Colin Brady of Taller Tales created this film in the hope of fostering an appreciation for the craft.

Recent pilot Government funding initiatives such as the Historic Structures Fund Shopfronts Steam 2020 and the Streetscape Enhancement Scheme 2021 aim to aid the preservation of this part of Ireland's built heritage. Government funding supported the recent façade refurbishments at Tynan's Bridge House Bar in Kilkenny. The iconic circa 1970s fascia sign was damaged when removed for structural repairs, but the sign's visual significance in Kilkenny's urban landscape was honoured when it was reproduced letter for letter on the new fascia board.

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From RTÉ Archives, an episode of We Live Here from 1977 takes a look at the typography of the shopfronts of Ballydehob, Co Cork

Ireland's unique, handcrafted signs have the potential to transform streetscapes by offering character, identity and a sense of place, but is this enough to advocate for their protection? Signs are innately ephemeral, as change is ever constant on commercial high streets. However, through documentation and analysis, there is an opportunity to appreciate and better understand their cultural significance. Importantly, by informing policy, this knowledge may result in more considerate and suitable approaches to future shopfront signage.

Although much of Ireland's legacy of hand painted and handcrafted vernacular signs have vanished, many fine examples still exist. If these unique letterforms, capable of nurturing a sense of home, are lost to homogeneity, the very spirit of Ireland's towns will cease to exist. The time has come to reposition, preserve, and promote Ireland's rich graphic heritage of vernacular shopfront lettering…before it's too late!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ