Conor Purcell meets an Offaly designer documenting Ireland’s signage, one town at a time.
It’s a unique aspect of the Irish countryside, and one often overlooked: the remarkable typography of our towns and villages. From pubs to grocery stores, hardware shops to post offices, we are blessed with a design aesthetic of our own; one that is now, thankfully being documented. Trevor Finnegan, a graphic designer from County Offaly, has spent the past five years documenting the facades of Ireland’s towns and villages. It is an interest that stems from his father — an architect — who used to collect old enamel signs from the sites he worked on. “He used to get them at auctions as well, and he would put the signs up on the garage at the end of the garden. I would be out the back garden playing football and would be intrigued by them,” Trevor says.
During his first year studying graphic design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, he began to take photographs of the signage as part of a photo project, and his passion for Ireland’s typographical heritage has grown from there. “I started taking photos of the signs I knew in Offaly. I realised then that a lot of the signs were being removed and not being replaced. A lot of the shops were being bought by developers and that was my reason to start documenting them before they were gone forever.”
Indeed, many of the signs Trevor has photographed have already been taken down, or painted over, whether they are protected or not. “A lot of the signs are meant to be protected, but I have seen protected signs in Dublin painted over — I even wrote a letter to Dublin City Council regarding Kennedy Pub on Tara Street, which was taken over and the old protected sign was painted over. There is meant to be protection, but it doesn’t happen in practise,” Trevor says.
Luckily, things are better in other parts of the country, particularly the west and southwest. “Along the Wild Atlantic Way, there is definitely more of an emphasis on keeping the signs and restoring them, and that might be due to the tourists that go there.” The community feel in rural Ireland also helps. “People want to keep their family name on the shop, and there is pride in making sure the signs look good,” he adds.
There are differences around the country though, with the Midlands particularly bereft of the old signs. “I am not sure if that’s to do with the economics of the place — a lot of the residents have left, or maybe there are less tourists, and so less motivation to keep them.” The style and quality of the signs varies depending on where you are in the country as well. “The signage does differ depending on where in the country you are. In the southwest, in places like Clare, Cork and Kerry, there is definitely an emphasis on ceramic lettering. In many places the shopfront would be built and then a stonemason would be brought in to carve the letterings. This would only happen there — in the northwest it would be different, they would use molds, while in other areas they would be hand-painted on the wood,” says Trevor.
The one thing that doesn’t change wherever you are in the country is the function of the shops. Many of the signs advertise what are in effect community centres: hybrid DIY/grocery/pubs that operate as social spaces in often isolated rural areas. “The function of the shops really depended on the size of the town — if it was a little village, there would often be one shop for everything. There would be a pub, a grocer, a DIY shop, and except for the post office, it would all be in the one place. They were a social place for the community — they would go there, buy their groceries and then meet up with neighbours or have a drink. It was a big thing back then — a place to meet people, to shop, to socialise,” says Trevor.
“There was a 90-year-old woman in a pub called Clancys in Midtown Malbay in Clare, where there were two different doors: one for the woman’s living room and one for the pub and you could sit at the bar and chat to the woman in her living room. That’s the side of Ireland that is disappearing.”
For Trevor the stories and people he meets on the road are as important as the his role in documenting this little-heralded, but important side of Irish design. “A lot of the places were just someone’s house, so I would always knock on the door and let them know what I was doing — you wouldn’t want to scare them by just taking photos of their house! I would chat to people, and at first they would be hesitant, but if you explain what your intentions are, they are happy enough.
A lot of the pubs and shops would be very social and they would tell you stories about the characters in the area, which is one of the most interesting parts of the project for me: listening to the stories from the locals. There’s so much more to it than the signs — it’s great to hear the stories and history of the area.”
For Trevor, there are more journeys planned with his wife Karen and his dog, Ralph. “It’s a hobby at this stage. We have seen parts of Ireland that we would never knew existed, tiny villages off backroads where it might be just one pub or shop in the middle of nowhere. We drive around and keep an eye out for any interesting signs,” he says.
“It’s very important to document these signs — its unique to Ireland. If you go to England or Europe you will see very different shop fronts and very different signage, so it is something special to Ireland. It was one of the reasons I started to do this. I was in the South of France recently and they have their own style, where the Basque Region has its own style, and we have our own style.”
Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in this type of graphic design with increased media coverage of the art. “There’s a company called Freeneys who did a lot of signs, such as the Ambassador Cinema on the top of O’Connell Street. They would have hand-painted the signs for the films as well and done the delivery vans for the likes of Cadburys. John Freeney is there now and he runs classes where people can learn how to hand paint signs,” says Trevor.
Trevor hopes to publish a book in the future, but for now, is looking forward to packing up his tent, and discovering another piece of rural Ireland.
This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Hot Press magazine.