Saving traditional Irish shopfront signage

By SignCraft.com

Posted on Sunday, May 15th, 2022

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About two years ago, Dee Maher Ring realized that a beautiful part of the Irish cityscape—the traditional hand-painted shopfront sign—was at risk of slipping into oblivion. After living in Scotland for eight years where she taught graphic arts in college, she had returned to County Kilkenny, Ireland. She lives in a small village called Inistioge just outside of the city of Kilkenny, where she grew up.

Dee had been following a debate raging on the “Kilkenny Down Memory Lane” Facebook page about the disappearance of the beautiful hand-painted, handmade signage on the historic shopfronts in the town. Being back in Ireland for a while made this reality even more apparent to her.

“Back when I lived in Scotland,” Dee says, “I noticed this when I came home on holidays. I began to feel as if I was losing my connection with my town. The high street [main street] was filled with chain store signs. Others were complaining about it online, but no one seemed to offer any answers as to why this was happening. And more so, no one seemed to be doing anything about it. The seed had been sown for my project.”

Dee’s concern became a project—or perhaps a crusade—to raise awareness of the value of the traditional shopfront signs that were once common throughout Ireland. She has begun auditing and cataloging the signs that still exist as well as collecting historic images of shopfronts.

Her hope is to create a database of examples of Ireland’s vernacular signage from 1900 to date and link the signwriters to their storefronts where possible. Along with that, she hopes to document the letterforms and techniques used to create this work and encourage the continued use of the traditional Irish shopfront sign. You can follow her work on Instagram @signwriteire.

Dee’s father Willie is a retired painter/decorator/musician who learned signwriting during his apprenticeship. Dee watched him paint letters early in his career. His business became painting/decorating as vinyl lettering and digitally printed signs changed the sign industry. Those roots gave her a passion for traditional hand lettering, which led her to creating hand-rendered designs for a family print firm, then studying graphics in college/university and finally becoming a graphic design lecturer (an assistant professor) in Scotland.

It’s a lofty project, and Dee expects it will take years to get it up to speed. But she is a woman with a mission, determined to help preserve and encourage this unique slice of Irish graphic art. She is also a PhD candidate at Technological University Dublin and continuing this effort as a research project entitled “Towards a methodology for documenting Ireland’s visual graphic heritage of vernacular shopfront lettering: A case study of Kilkenny Signwriting”.

“If we don’t understand the value of this work in terms of our graphic heritage,” says Dee, “then they will keep disappearing and all that will remain will be photos of it. I’m hoping that my work will possibly inform a national strategy that will help protect the signs and promote the traditional methods.”

 

Signwriter: Derek Bailey

Signwriter: Pat Quigley

Signwriter: the late Eoin Quigley, who was featured in the July/August 2004 issue of SignCraft

Signwriter: Eoin Quigley

Dee’s father has made from clay models of some of the iconic Kilkenny shopfronts, including The Marble City Bar, which was lettered by the late Eoin Quigley.

Signwriter/Ceramicist: Michael Holden

Signwriter: Jimmy Glennon

Signwriter: James Stafford

This is what was left of the original sign at Tynan’s Bar.

Signwriter Sos Alaverdyan did the repaint.