After Almost 50 Years, a Renowned Irish Font Is Brought Into the Digital Age

Susan Waine remembers working as her dad’s assistant back in the 1970s, when the lettering he designed adorned Irish band Clannad ’s album covers, as well as books and later TV screens in the title of the Irish television series Glenroe.

Back then designers drew the typeface by hand and didn’t even have a stencil, she says.

Her father, Jarlath Hayes, could draw any typeface by hand.

Today, his work can still be found in most households across the country — before he died in 2001, Hayes designed the harp that would be used on Irish euro coins.

Waine says she has had lots of requests over the years from people who want to use his famed Tuam Uncial lettering, but once the Letraset printing transfer system he used went out of use, she had no means of reproducing it, she says.

As of last month, that has changed, as typeface designer Max Phillips, at Dublin-based Signal Foundry, has finalised a digital font based on Tuam Uncial for the 21st century.

Phillips has been perfecting the iconic typeface and is expecting interest from Irish designers as well as others from around the world, once he finally gets to launch it.

Creating a Modern Irish Script

When creating Tuam Uncial, Hayes began with a font known as Helvetica Bold and chopped off the tops and bottoms to create something that was reminiscent of the kind of forms that were done with a broad tip pen in traditional Irish lettering, says Phillips.

“It also had a bang of modernism off it because it was Helvetica,” he says.

Originally, Hayes designed Tuam Uncial for a competition in which he won a runner-up prize, says Mary Ann Bolger, design historian and Hayes’ niece.

“Tuam Uncial was entered in this competition that Kilkenny did in 78,” she says , to look for a modern but definitely Irish typeface.

The typeface Tuam Uncial was part of a wider creative movement in the 1960s and 1970s that celebrated traditional Irish art forms by mixing it up a bit, like Clannad themselves and other folk artists, says Bolger.

Phillips, the typeface designer who is now digitalising the font agrees.

Tuam Uncial developed a cult following among designers, says Phillips, “It filled a need for a country that wanted to take its place on the international stage without surrendering its Irishness,” he says.

It tried to bring Irish design more in line with international modernist currents, and helped solidify Hayes’ stature as a “one of the grand old men of Irish graphic design and advertising”, he says.

A Cult Following

Hayes was not a specialist typeface designer , says Phillips, but he continued to try to perfect the lettering throughout his life.

It was when Phillips heard Hayes’ niece give a talk about Tuam Uncial that he decided to digitalise it and make it available for use.

The digital version isn’t an exact replica, says Phillips. He is tweaking it a bit, perfecting it, “working on the curves,” he says.

“Trying to make this thing more balanced, harmonious, more readable and try to resolve some of the formal problems that Jarlath had been working on his whole life,” says Phillips.

At every stage he consulted Waine, Hayes’s daughter and assistant throughout the process, he says. “To check in if it was still in the spirit of the Tuam Uncial,” he says.

She agreed to some changes he suggested and asked him to modify others.“I’ve tried to get him to keep it as close to the original as possible,” says Waine. “It hasn’t dated — it is timeless”

The only significant disagreement they ran into was the name for the typeface, he says.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call the final version Tuam Uncial, he says, because he has made significant alterations — he wanted to call it Jarlath, but Waine was reluctant.

“I just think that he wouldn’t have liked it because he was so modest and he took a lot of time in calling it what he did,” she says. He called it Tuam because the patron saint of Tuam was Jarlath she says, it was a very unusual name back then, she says.

Jarlath Hayes, photo by Susan Waine

### Jarlath

Hayes took quiet pride in his work, says Waine. “He used to turn on Glenroe on a Sunday night and watch the credits and then turn it off again.”

He was a modest person, she says, when he went to design the euro coinage he feared he was out of his depth but he was streets ahead of everyone else, she says.

She remembers her father as a forward-thinking, perhaps a little ahead of his time, non-judgemental and always sociable person.

He got on very well with young people and trained a lot of young designers, she says.“He was very charismatic, very colourful, he loved his glass of wine,” she says.

He was an artist and part of a wider artistic movement, Bolger says. “There is a kind of revival in Irish culture in the 60s and 70s and they are designing the books and the record sleeves.”

“They are visualising something that is happening culturally,” she says.

The new typeface had its first outing recently, when Paul Guinan, designed badges and t-shirts for Matt Retallick at the Irish Modernist.

The official launch was due to take place at the annual conference of the typeface distributor, Fontstand, on 20 May but was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Phillips says they will launch it at that conference whenever it gets the go ahead.

They still need to reach a final decision on what they are calling, Waine still seems unsure about calling it Jarlath.

“I’ve given in - the family agreed,” she says. “I’ve kind of come around to it.”

“Maybe we will keep the two,” she suggests. “ Tuam/Jarleth?”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Tonie Walsh
at 28 June 2020 at 00:51

I've always had a fondness for Uncial, since I first learned how to write. My primary school class was one of the last to write and read Uncial in the mid-60s. For whatever reason. lithographic printing accelerated its decline (among the mainstream) but digitalisation offers a comback, as you so rightly note here. Such a good news story. Thanks for this, Laoise.

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