Master printer who passed on old skills and traditions

Conrad Devlin: September 19th, 1935 - October 19th, 2014

 

Con Devlin, who has died aged 79, was a master printer and typesetter. He had served a rigorous apprenticeship as a Monotype keyboard operator. Yet by the time he retired the ancient craft of printing had been virtually swept away by the mighty computer.

Con Devlin did not give in, and in the years between his formal retirement and his recent death he was back at work printing in much the way that Gutenberg did.

At the National Print Museum in Dublin, he showed a new generation why the values and disciplines of traditional printing – often using the hot metal process – mattered.

His involvement came about largely as a result of him donating a press and cases of type to the museum, located in the former Beggar’s Bush Army barracks in Dublin, after he retired from his own printing business.

They stand in what is affectionately known as “Con’s corner”. There a new generation discovered the lost art of letterpress printing, helped by volunteer workers like Con, Alf McCormack , Christy Farrelly and others, retired printers with “ink in their blood” and a passion for print.

Handcrafted work

This unexpected revival was helped by the emergence of a niche market for personalised handcrafted work on good quality paper - including wedding invitations - but more significantly for limited-run publications showcasing the work of major Irish poets, including Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Paul Durcan and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.

All featured in the exquisite volume Many Mansions, published by Stoney Road Press in 2009, which consisted of new poems by six poets. A copy was presented to President Barack Obama, with production managed by Devlin, operating from “Con’s corner” at the National Print Museum.

The latter-day demand for finely crafted limited editions mirrored the 19th century arts and crafts movement, which had emphasised craft skill above industrialised production.

Devlin saw William Morris as a hero, and a recent visit to London took him to Lloyd Park, Morris’s recently restored house at Walthamstow.

As a young man, he had worked for the Sackville Press and Millers of Baggot Street, both in Dublin and both well respected printing houses. Later, with initial backing from Harry Ardiff and other printing press owners, he set up his own typesetting business in Drumcondra, Typeset Ltd.

Con and his wife, Maura (née O’Connell), were directors and employed about 10 people. Clients included Aer Lingus, Bank of Ireland and Bord Fáilte.

Devlin’s rigorous attention to detail, uncluttered layout and his particular care over choosing the best typefaces for the material showed in their publications throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

He also typeset books in the Irish language for An Gúm, where publisher Caoimhín Ó Marcaigh, who died in March this year, became a close friend.

The revolution in printing brought about by computerised production coincided with Devlin reaching normal retirement age, and when he wound up his company he donated the outdated equipment to the National Print Museum.

The museum developed links with the National College of Art and Design’s in-house print section, the Distillers Press. Con Devlin played a leading role in stimulating the interest of young graphic artists in the craft.

Letterpress revival

“Letterpress printing, which had virtually died out in the 1970s, is now attracting a new generation of graphic designers,” says Seán Sills of NCAD, “Con Devlin was hugely important in fostering that interest.”

As a five-year-old living in Dún Laoghaire in 1940, Con Devlin and his mother watched open-mouthed while the Luftwaffe dropped bombs close to Sandycove railway station.

Local people feared that the mail boat in the nearby harbour was the target. The little boy grew up with a passionate interest in second World War and in current affairs in general.

He was educated at O’Connell schools in Dublin. He married in 1960 and his wife, Maura, predeceased him in late 2012. He is survived by his son John and daughter Susan Langan.