The lost art of Irish lettering

Ireland is an easy place to do a road trip. You don’t have to plan much. Along the way, there are plenty of historic ruins, castles, and scenic overlooks to see, and of course plenty of cute towns to stop in. On our multiple road trips driving trough Ireland, we have gone through countless cute towns and villages. They vary in size, the number of Chinese restaurants they have, and the number of places called Murphy’s, but all of them have one thing in common: they are quaint as all get out.

Irish towns cannot stay quaint without strict preservations laws and guidelines. It seems the local councils are making a real effort to preserve the traditional structure and aesthetic of what they call "Heritage storefronts." Not every town's Main Street has protection laws, but a lot of them do. There's even an annual "Best Shops" contest for quaint storefronts and quality service!

Besides all the things we listed in our video about Main Street, main streets have unique signage designs, witty store names, and vibrant colors. The signs used to be handcrafted in plaster or enamel, or just lovingly painted on, often by the local handyman simply because there was no one else to do it. Some towns even had artists who came to do all the local storefronts. Pat McAuliffe did over 40 signs in Listowel and neighbor Abbyfeal alone! Most of them were made in the mid 1870s. The old style lettering is very charming. Here are few of the many shop fronts we found on our road trips.


But unfortunately, like most things these days, these handcrafted signs and hand painted styles are not going to be around much longer. A graphic designer also noticed this and has been traveling around Ireland to document them before they disappear. (What's that? Is that a collection I sense?)

Another thing you can spot is Gaelic typography! We were actually surprised that road signs had Gaelic. We even heard people talk in Gaelic. Gaelic maybe a minority language but it is very much alive and well preserved through use.

The Gaelic typeface or Gaelic script is also widely used in Ireland decoratively. It looks similar to Blackletter and Fraktur, and it's hard to read and kind of only works in Gaelic. Even though it's easy to spot, it's not easy to read. We found some great usage of it.


Not all storefronts are picturesque like the ones above. Sadly, many stores are closing down and changing into chains. Stucco block letters of the old proprietors are being replaced by neon signs. Paints are scraped off, the store names are fading, and there are sometimes no signs of people at all.

Sometimes you'll find a corner of the town where the former life of a shop is still lurking. The curtains on the windows are usually drawn and the sign in the recessed door says "closed" but the lettering still shouts at you from across the street. It tells you who this building is the ghost of.


We find this part of history sad. Faster or slower, it is happening all around the world. We're not too down, though. Like any other movement, there come a day when hand-crafted Irish store fronts will be in style again. Like the Stranger Things title sequence uses '80s typeface and techniques to give it that authentic '80s feel. I'm sure there will be people in the future who find this style fascinating, call it retro, and pay homage. We're interested in other country's commonly used typefaces and lettering styles. If you know of one, let us know. Would love to hear about it!