+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Letterpress Printing in Ireland

Location Ireland and abroad
Categories Traditional craftsmanship
Keywords Crafts, printing
Contact organisation National Print Museum

Letterpress is a form of relief printing that involves printing from a raised surface.

Letterpress printing was the common form of printing for over 500 years. From the mid-twentieth century new technologies were making traditional letterpress printing techniques obsolete, in the commercial sense.

In Ireland, a group of compositors and printers salvaged much of the redundant printing equipment and established the National Print Museum. This group of printers continue to preserve the skills and oral histories of the craft at the National Print Museum.


Background information

The origins of letterpress printing date back to 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented a process whereby individual letters were cast in metal. He used the movable type in one of the earliest known printing presses, a grape-pressing machine he adapted for printing. The first book printed from movable type in Europe was Gutenberg’s Bible or the 42 Line Bible. Completed in 1456, the Bible had a print-run of 180 copies.

Although many cultures, particularly China and Korea, experimented with early forms of printing, it was in Europe that printing was to have the most widespread social and cultural impact.

Gutenberg’s invention spread rapidly and by 1500 there were over 1000 print shops across Europe. Printing arrived in Ireland in 1551. The system of printing invented by Gutenberg is seen as one of the most important inventions of modern times.

In recent times, there has been an international revival in letterpress as a craft form. A generation of artists and designers are returning to practice the craft of Gutenberg. One possible reason for this is the concept of digital fatigue and a yearning for the hand’s involvement in design and craft, and the idea of going full circle – from craft to technology and back again.

Print forms an intrinsic part of our lives, and the development, prosperity, and rich heritage of Irish printing form an important part of our national story of craft and industry. On an international level, its invention changed the world, its impact has shaped our histories and its contemporary relevance is greater than ever before.

Practice and practitioners

In Ireland, the National Print Museum is considered the main champion of print.

The National Print Museum is a unique museum and the only printing museum of its kind in Ireland and the British Isles. The collection is not behind glass or rope, but is instead an example of a working collection. The collection consists of fully-operational letterpress printing equipment, displayed and organised like a traditional 1960s print-shop.

The group of printers that founded the Museum is still an intrinsic part, maintaining, demonstrating and bringing the collection to life on a regular basis. The Museum’s panel of active retired printers and compositors are in some ways as valuable as the items in the collection. The knowledge and skills that they possess are irreplaceable and probably the greatest challenge for us is preserving and making accessible their expertise and experience, and passing them on to future generations.

The panel of active retired printers and typesetters is made up of fourteen men and one woman, who range in age from 70 to 86. Each have their own speciality. There is for example, only one Monotype engineer known in the country.

The Museum endeavours to safeguard the skills and knowledge, and the oral histories associated with the technology and craft of printing in Ireland. We do so through our educational programming and project collaboration. The panel is involved in guided tours; demonstration days; workshops and training; filming projects; reminiscence events and oral history projects.

There are a number of small private presses operating in the country today. The Museum works with this community with regards to the transfer of knowledge and skills for their own practice and for the future preservation of the craft for the nation at the Museum. Members of this community work with the Museum, taking part in training programmes and in turn delivering workshops with members of the public at the Museum.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The National Print Museum aims to continue to interpret and conserve letterpress through demonstration and education. However, those trained in the craft are over 70 years in age and the Museum has limited resources to progress the transfer of these skills and oral histories.

The Museum is currently flying the flag for Irish letterpress printing, with involvement in two international research projects on the preservation of letterpress internationally:

Letterpress: Past, present and future An AHRC-funded Research Network that explores the survival of historical printing equipment and how it is used today. The network brings together scholars, museum professionals, printers, and other interested people to explore the legacy of historical presses and type – what survives and where; its condition – as well as what it has to teach us, both about the textual and typographical cultures of the past, as well as those of today.

Creative Makers An EU-funded project exploring ways of innovating the traditional craft of letterpress printing through experimentation with digital technologies and the maker movement. It is particularly aimed towards young children.

At NCAD, the Distillers Press is teaching the craft to students of Visual Communication.

Contact organisation

National Print Museum