Colum Cille and Irish Gaelic type

The newly independent Ireland (1922) saw a concerted effort to preserve and celebrate what was distinctly Irish in their culture, separate from the British elements that had come with political domination. In addition to Irish literature, there was a reinvigorated emphasis on the Irish Gaelic language, the use of which had been declining in the previous century in favor of English.

Colm Ó Lochlainn (1892-1972) and his Three Candles Press exemplified this national pride. Ó Lochlainn collected and printed works of the Irish tradition – poems and songs for example. Dissatisfied with existing type used to print Gaelic, Ó Lochlainn designed a new typeface that he called Colum Cille.

Ó Lochlainn rooted Colum Cille's letterforms in the medieval letters found in the manuscripts of the great Celtic tradition. Yet he also recognized the bilingual reality of modern Irish life, and designed additional glyphs to make the typeface usable for both Gaelic and English.

Colm Ó Lochlainn's background helped contribute not only to his interest in printing, but also his nationalistic attitude. Ó Lochlainn was highly educated, eventually receiving his Master's degree in Celtic Studies in 1916. He also came from a printing background. Therefore, it is easy to see why Ó Lochlainn not only opened his printing business in 1926, but also why he printed materials on Irish subjects. Not only was Ó Lochlainn interested in Celtic history, but also the Gaelic language and Irish typography. (Modern typography, in particular German type, was also of interest to Ó Lochlainn, leading him to travel to Germany and study with influential typographers such as Rudolf Koch.)

While in college, Ó Lochlainn was put into contact with several prominent figures from the Gaelic League. The Gaelic League, or Conradh na Gaelige, was founded in 1893 in order to preserve and revive Irish as the popular vernacular throughout the country. The Gaelic League hoped to promote the Irish language by creating a bilingual curriculum for schools. The League and fellow revivalists, hoped that the Irish people would be able to unite and identify with one another through a shared language that was unique to their nation.

As previously noted, the Three Candles Press printed materials not only of Irish subject matter, but also in Gaelic. As a printer, Ó Lochlainn found many inadequacies with existing Irish typefaces. In his opinion, these inadequacies not only led to difficulties printing, but were also unpleasing to read. The main issue Ó Lochlainn found was the lack of a full range of Irish Gaelic type. The existing typefaces were missing letters, certain sizes of type, and italics. This led Ó Lochlainn to write several editorials in an Irish publication demanding a new Irish typeface. These demands were answered by the English Monotype Corporation, which contracted with Ó Lochlainn to create a new typeface.

Ó Lochlainn wrote that Colum Cille was "an attempt to combine the inspiration of scribal forms with the formal elements of printing type design. An entire elimination of non-essential scribal motifs has resulted in a severe yet attractive face which composes in a soldierly line, legible and clear and free from angularity, even in tone."1 The combination of scribal elements with modern typography is one of the things that makes Colum Cille unique in the history of Irish type design. Colum Cille is based on a specific kind of medieval manuscript calligraphy known as the half-uncial, marked by round shapes and generally short ascenders and descenders (extensions of the letters above and below the main line of the letters). Several glyphs unique to the Gaelic language and found in manuscript writing, were included in the typeface, such as the letters "g" and "d". Ó Lochlainn also included a small lead-in serif on the left of his letters, which alludes to the calligraphic hand.

While Colum Cille looks to Ireland's calligraphic past for design inspiration, its design was also inspired by modern typography. Besides the just-mentioned lead-in serifs, calligraphic touches have largely been eliminated. Also, Ó Lochlainn created a full range of letters for Colum Cille, so that it can be used to print Gaelic materials, but can also be set in numerous languages including English. In doing so, he produced a typeface that not only looked back to the Gaelic heritage of Ireland's past, but also acknowledged the bilingual and modern reality of Ireland's present.

— Natalie Stanton

1Quoted in Dermot McGuinne, “The Colum Cille Irish Type,” in Type & Typography: Highlights from Matrix, the Review for Printers and Bibliophiles (Lower Marston Farm, Risbury, Herefordshire, UK: The Whittington Press, 2003), 189.

Suggestions for further reading:

De Burca, Eamonn. The Three Candles Press: A Catalogue. Dublin: De Burca, 1998.

McGuinne, Dermot. Irish Type Design: A History of Printing Types in the Irish Character. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992.

McGuinne, Dermot. "The Colum Cille Irish Type." Type & Typography: Highlights from Matrix, the Review for Printers and Bibliophiles. Lower Marston Farm, Risbury, Herefordshire, UK: The Whittington Press, 2003.

Ó Lochlainn, Colm. "The Printer on Gaelic Printing." Irish Book Lover vol. XVI (July-Dec. 1928).