Treasures of the Irish Language: Some early examples from Dublin City Public Libraries

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first book by the Franciscan Archbishop of Tuam, founder of St Anthony’s College, LouvainThe first book printed in the Irish language did not appear until 1571, over one hundred years after Gutenberg’s invention. The earliest works printed in Irish and using the Irish typeface were religious works commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I which aimed to convert Irish speakers to the reformed church. The first book published using the type specially cut for the printing of Irish was Aibidil Gaeidheilge agus Caiticiosma, by John O’Kearney, printed in 1571.

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Bishop William Bedell, Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, completed the translation of the Old Testament into Irish. He ordered a new Irish type to be cut for the publication. The outbreak of the 1641 rebellion and the death of Bedell the following year meant that the printing was postponed. Over thirty years later Robert Boyle, Earl of Cork, took over the project. He commissioned a new typeface designed by the Irish scholar, Andrew Sall, and manufactured by Joseph Moxon. This type was used for printing Church of Ireland religious works from 1680 to the 1820s. Bedell’s Bible was published using this typeface in 1685.

In the early 17th century the Irish Franciscans established colleges on the continent to educate Irish Catholic students. The Franciscans set up a printing press in Belgium to publish Counter Reformation religious works for the Irish mission. They ordered the founding of an Irish typeface to print works in Irish. This typeface was designed by Irish scholars and based on the letters used in Irish manuscripts. An Teagasg Criosdaidhe, compiled by Bonaventure O’Hussey and published at Antwerp in 1611, was the first book to use this Irish type. In 1616 the press was moved to the College of St Anthony of Padua at Louvain, which opened in 1607. Irish books were printed at Louvain until 1728.

About 1675 Irish Catholic clergy in Rome ordered a new Irish typeface for the press of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. This was used from 1676 until 1707 for the printing of Catholic religious works. When Napoleon reached Rome after the expedition to Egypt he took the Irish type back to Paris and it is lodged in the Imprimerie Nationale. Scholars at the Irish College in Paris published two books in a new Irish type in the early eighteenth century. MacCurtin’s English Irish Dictionary and An Teagasg Criosduidhe by Rev. Andrew Donlevy were printed in Paris by Jacques Guérin using this typeface in 1732 and 1742 respectively.

From the late 18th century books using the Irish typeface were printed in Ireland. Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry, published in Dublin in 1789, used a new Irish typeface. The first decades of the 19th century saw an increased interest in the history and antiquities of Ireland and in the Irish language. Several new typefaces came into use for the Irish language and heralded a new age in Irish language studies.

Dublin City Public Libraries seeks to collect early works printed in the Irish typeface and to make them available to scholars. The earliest work in the collections is Sgáthan an Chrábhaidh by Flaithrí Ó Maol Chonaire, published in Louvain in 1616.

Dublin City Library and Archive
138 -144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2.
email: dublinstudies@dublincity.ie

Libraries and Archives Digital Repository: Digital records relating to Dublin, including photographs, postcards, letters, maps and ephemeral material. Highlights of the collection include the Fáilte Ireland Photographic Collection, Wide Street Commission Map Collection (1757-1851), the Irish Theatre Archive and the Birth of the Republic Collection, which comprises material from the period of the foundation of the Irish state.

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