When photographing houses in Killester built for soldiers and sailors returning from the First World War, Ruth McManus stumbled upon a question that she couldn’t answer.
She was looking for houses that resembled what they would have looked like when they were originally built when it occurred to her that she could not date many of the street signs she was seeing along the way.
Would they ruin her image of the 1920s homes, or were they ideal features to include? she wondered.
A search on Google didn’t immediately throw up much information on when green and white, bilingual signs were rolled out across Dublin, she says.
As an associate professor in geography at Dublin City University (DCU), McManus is involved in mapping streets in Dublin as part of the Irish Historic Towns Atlas, so she is well-versed in the complexities of documenting the city’s history, but this question stumped her.
Could the originals have survived for the last 100 years or so?
A Brief History of Signs
When author Tom Spalding was writing his book Layers, examining Irish street names, he also found there was a dearth of information on the history of when each type of street sign came into use, he says.
So he started to piece it together himself.
He found that the first bilingual street signs, in English and Irish, were brought in earlier than Irish independence in 1922 — starting in Blackrock township, when the council there rolled out yellow and black bilingual street signs as part of the Gaelic revival movement as far back as 1901.
In Dublin city, an increasingly nationalist council, went for green and white in defiance of the British authorities. “It is classic non-violent, civil disobedience,” he says.
The Original Signage
The first street signs in Dublin are depicted in artwork from the 18th century, and they appear to be wooden signs, which unsurprisingly haven’t lasted, says Spalding.
“They are all gone but they seem to be earliest. I’d say probably from the mid-18th century onwards they were doing that in a fairly organised way,” he says.
Then in the 19th century, there were cast-iron signs, but he doesn’t know exactly what they looked like. You will know it if you find one though. “You will know it is old because it will only be in English,” he says.
Then in the early 20th century, the council started to gradually replace the cast-iron ones with the green and white bilingual signs, he says.
Cat and Mouse
In the early 1900s, the Irish language had no legal status and in an effort to remedy that, Gaelic-revival activists embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience.
They would fill out official documents, perhaps apply for a dog licence, solely in Irish and hand them in to the authorities, he says.
Usually, the person processing the form would just give the dog licence to them, he says, but sometimes the situation escalated and ended up in court.
Newspaper reports from the early 1900s show that some business people were prosecuted for displaying their name in Irish on their branded vehicles — which were carts at the time, says Spalding.
“The language activists love this,” he says.
A day in court means a write-up in the paper, he says. That’s free publicity for their cause and the general public are left wondering what’s the problem with writing something in Irish, he says.
“Then the British government has to say in effect ‘Because I said so,’” says Spalding.
So when the authorities tried to make an example of someone by taking them to court, they just ended up looking silly.
Likewise, the councils had no right to roll out street signs in Irish he says. “Technically what they were doing was illegal. Dublin Castle would have been within their rights to fine the local authority and try to remove the signs,” he says.
He guesses that the British government decided not to play a game of cat and mouse with city corporations over the introduction of the bilingual street signs. “They probably realised this was a battle they weren’t going to win,” he says.
But it was part of a larger effort. “It was the small things like the dog licences, the carts and the signage that fed into the thinking of people like Pádraig Pearse and that fed into the revolution which ended with independence,” he says.
The street signs were the first visible sign that things were really changing. Each county has different colours, but in all of them the Irish language comes first, he says.
“The model from the street signs gets carried into the constitution, the apparatus of the state and the civil service,” says Spalding.
From Green to Blue
In Dublin city, the corporation seems to have used the green and white signs up to the 1950s, Spalding says. “They experimented with different letters, but it is always Irish over English and always using a version of cló Gaelach,” he says.
Cló Gaelach (the old Irish script) was used for all written Irish but was gradually phased out throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he says.
So the change in how the signs were written is part of the overall modernisation of the language and the switch to Latin letters which marked “a massive change across the entire state”.
Some other European languages modernised and brought their lettering into line around the same time, he says.
At some point the corporation stopped using enamel and started using cast aluminium, so the letters stick out from the sign, he says.
The change from green to blue came before the old Irish letters were phased out, he says.
Recently, in the last 20 years, the council started using aluminium, he says. “They are really poor quality.”
Cheaper signs won’t save money in the long run, he says. “Even in the 21st-century street signs are still completely crucial.”
You can use Google Maps to get there but you still need to know you are on the right street when you arrive, he says.
Back to Green?
In Marino, the houses were built in the 1920s, but a lot of the original street signs haven’t survived and have been replaced with the blue ones, says McManus, the geographer. “It detracts a little bit,” she says.
“The thing about all that street furniture, railings, lampposts and postboxes is you don’t really notice them a lot of the time,” says McManus. “But if they are out of sync, or if they don’t quite chime, you do.”
She really is not a fan of the modern, blue signs. “They seem to be slapdash,” she says. “They are not aesthetically pleasing.”
Back in 2017, then Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe called on the council to start using the green and white signs again, instead of the blue ones.
The council issued a report explaining that the current typeface is easy to read and pointing out that blue is the Dublin colour.
Dublin City Council’s transport committee noted the report but also agreed Cuffe’s motion that the committee “recognises the attractiveness of design of early twentieth century street nameplates in Dublin City and suburbs” and “understands that the ‘Transport Medium’ typeface was developed in the UK for use on their motorway network rather than on city streets.”
The committee further commended “the inherent beauty of both traditional and contemporary Irish typefaces”.
Dublin City Council didn’t answer questions in time for publication as to whether it is considering any changes to signage in the city.
Cuffe, who is now a member of the European Parliament, said this week tha he would still love to see the council restore the green and white signs.
McManus says that nearly anything would be better than what we have at the moment. “They are very unattractive, what gets me is they are not even well made,” she says. “The lettering isn’t necessarily consistent.”
Tom Spalding is the author of Layers: The Design, History and Meaning of Public Street Signage in Cork and Other Irish Cities, which is available by contacting him at [email protected]