Gutenberg alive and well in Corca Dhuibhne

A Swiss printer-publisher is producing books in Irish and English in west Kerry – using a Gutenberg-style press. Photographs by Bryan O'Brien


When the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg bankrupted himself over a Bible-printing project, little did he know that homage would still be paid to his revolutionary technique more than five centuries later.

“An absurdity in the digital age,” quips Dominique Lieb, a Swiss-born graphic designer, about her mission to maintain the craft of letterpress printing in her “laboratory” on River Lane in Dingle, Co Kerry.

Sligiríní is the title of the sixth book she has hand-printed in nine years, working with the author and Kerry poet Domhnall Mac Síthigh. The slim volume of five essays, originally written by Mac Síthigh for RTÉ Radio’s Living Word, is in bilingual format with linocut illustrations by Lieb.

Lieb met Mac Síthigh in 2005 when she was looking for an Irish-speaking poet who would describe some images she took of a drystone wall. By then she had been in Kerry for two years, having come to Dingle, as so many residents did, for “three months . . . or a little longer”.

In 2004 she had heard that Hawthorne Press, run by Stan Phelan, was for sale. Phelan had been an employee of Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press in Dublin, and had taken equipment with him to Kerry to set up on his own. The same equipment had a distinguished provenance dating back to Dun Emer/Cuala Press, the printing company run by WB Yeats’ sisters Lily and Lolly.

Phelans’s focus was on flyers, posters and stationery, but Lieb had other ideas for the press she had been shown in Bóthar an Phúca – Lane of the Ghosts. “There were 120 fonts, all quite small and fine and good to combine with each other,” she says.

Here was a chance to use a technique that had always fascinated her. Bi Sheng of China is credited with devising a movable clay type in the late 11th century, cutting thin pieces of baked clay and placing them on an iron plate coated in wax and heated resin.

Four centuries later Gutenberg had taken it further by placing individually cast metal letters, which were reusable, in a frame, inking them and applying pressure – allowing for mass production of printed material.

“In Zürich, where I was trained as a graphic designer, I did layout and design with the appropriate computer software, but I always loved simple and clear design and working manually,” she says. “In art college we had a letterpress studio, but nobody ever used it.”

“ To revive the letterpress was a technical challenge for me,” she says. “ But I soon developed a technique to reproduce photographs and linocuts on the press which I would combine with text.”

With Mac Síthigh she produced her first book in a limited edition, and it seemed only natural that hand-built walls, created without mortar for shelter and covering Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle Peninsula) like a “sculpture”, should be the subject. In Allagar na gCloch – Stone Chat, Mac Síthigh wove a story around each of the structures that she had recorded in linocuts.

She printed 500 copies for the first edition in 2005, and went to a second edition in offset print several years later. She also published several more works, including Planet Ventry Strand, a fictional tale in her own words and pictures.

Lieb began to learn Irish shortly after moving to Dingle. She teamed up with Aogán Ó Muircheartaigh, formerly of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, who translated Mac Síthigh’s work into English. “I like the idea of translations, because it opens up the closed circle of the Irish language,” she says. “I have a foible for bilingual books, maybe because in Switzerland all packaging, user manuals or public instructions are indicated in three languages. A good translation is like a bridge that connects mentalities and different cultures.

“The formatting of the books is done with a layout program on the computer,” Lieb explains. “When the preparation is ready I compose the text by hand, with movable lead type. The letter block is locked up in a chase press and is put into the printing press.”

Lieb admits that her work is time-consuming and that she cannot handle large books in handset format.

She has noticed a letterpress revival in Europe and North America over the past five years.

“In this digital age we are deluged with constant technical innovation,” she says. “But we could do so much with the infrastructure we have already, and instead of abandoning it overboard we may recycle and combine it with new systems.”

Sligiríní by Domhnall Mac Síthigh is published by Púca Press at €30 in a limited edition of 200;

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