A Keeper of Swans, Patrick Purcell, Talbot Press, 1944. Design: uncredited


The Dawn of All, R.H. Benson, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1945. Design: uncredited


This Is My Story, Louis Budenz, Browne & Nolan, n.d. (1948). Design: uncredited


I Remember Karrigeen, Neil Kevin, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1944. Design: uncredited


I Remember Karrigeen, (front flap), Neil Kevin, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1944.

The above book covers from 1940s Ireland all eschew illustration in favour of typographic treatments. This was more likely to have been a cost-cutting measure than a design choice.

These covers are all from commercial publishers – Talbot Press, Browne & Nolan and Burns Oates & Washbourne – whose sights were firmly on the bottom line. Three of the four titles are essentially religious texts masquerading as secular reading and would have been considered safe bets sales-wise in the newly free Catholic Ireland.

A Keeper of Swans, the only non-religious work in the bunch doesn’t sound any more inviting. Patrick Kavanagh reviewed it in the Irish Times, 18 November 1944: “A Keeper of Swans is a grand piece of sentimentality from the Ould Sod, which should get still better notices in the USA then even Hanrahan’s Daughter.” The cover is a generic template which the Talbot Press used for numerous books during the period.

The output and production standards of these commercial publishers were generally considered poor by the arts and literary set. Liam O’Flaherty dissuaded Peadar O’Donnell from publishing his second book, Islanders, through the Talbot Press, denouncing them as “outrageously vulgar people”.

The final image is from the inside front flap of the I Remember Karrigeen jacket and refers to the rationing of paper which affected book production during the Emergency (a quaint Irish euphemism for the rather less quaint Second World War.) Judging by the book covers of the period, illustration might well have been rationed too as it was surely in short supply.


Culture File RTÉ Lyric FM

This blog was featured in a short piece for Culture File on RTÉ Lyric FM:



“Don’t Swear Like That!”, Rev. Daniel A. Lord S.J., Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1950). Cover design: unknown


My Mind Wanders, Rev. John P. Delaney S.J., Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1961). Cover design: unknown


Who Made Man?, Rev. J.C. Houpert S.J., Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1952). Cover design: unknown. From Lux Occulta


How to Make an Act of Perfect Contrition, Rev. L. Dowling S.J., Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1948). Cover design: unknown. From Lux Occulta


Modesty and Modernity, Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (1951). Cover design: unknown. From Lux Occulta


I’ve been aware of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland booklet covers for some time but was reluctant to post examples as I wasn’t able to establish whether they were designed in Ireland or elsewhere. Many of the texts were originally published in the USA and further afield – Who Made Man? was first published by the Catholic Truth Society of India! Given the various origins of the material I wondered if the covers were merely reprints or adaptations of the original covers and therefore not truly Irish cover designs.

I picked up a few more examples at the recent Trinity booksale and my curiosity was piqued again. Since my last efforts at research a new resource has come online – Lux Occulta – Catholic Pamphlets. Having looked at the Irish booklets on the site, I have established that all of the covers with an artwork credit are by Irish artists, including the ever prolific Karl Uhlemann, Alfred E. Kerr, G. A. (George Altendorf), P. J. Quinn and J. Mulhern (possibly artist John Mulhern). Since none of the signed pieces are by non-Irish illustrators, I feel it is reasonable to believe that the artwork for the booklet covers was prepared in Ireland regardless of whether the contents were being published for the first time or reprints of previous texts.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (later Veritas) was founded in 1899. Its aim is best summed up by this wording that appeared in many of the pamphlets:

This booklet has a Mission – to make God known and loved. Maybe you can place it in the hands of somebody who needs it. Don’t neglect to do so if you can. If you can’t, leave it behind you on a park seat, in a ‘bus, in a theatre, and Providence will guide it aright.

It seems from this that urbanites, in danger from the evils of modern living, were the target audience. The covers above give a good idea of the styles thought best to appeal to the city dweller in need of Truth. There is quite a nod to advertising and showcard design of the era with a hint of modern/deco styling although the crude printing mitigates against producing the desired slick effect. While these publications now appear quaint and often hilarious it is worth remembering that they formed part of an insidious culture which held sway in Ireland through much of the 20th century.

The dates quoted above aren’t, as far as I can discern, the original publication dates but rather the date of that particular printing. Many of the designs are in styles which would have been anachronistic by the time of the stated print date. While My Mind Wanders is dated 1961 another booklet in the series titled My Mind STILL Wanders has a date of 1945 which suggests that the original publication date of the former must have been earlier than 1945.

Reading Pictures at the RHA

After all of that, if ye still seek the Truth, I will be speaking about vintage Irish bookcover design this Saturday, 16th March at 3pm in the RHA. The talk is part of Reading Pictures – A celebration of Irish children’s books and illustration, organised by Irish Design Shop in collaboration with the RHA and Children’s Books Ireland. Admission is free and all are welcome.


Gleann Airbh go Glas Naíon, Seán MacMaoláin, Oifig an tSoláthair (1969). Cover design: unknownImage

Ceol na nGiolcach, Pádhraic Óg Ó Conaire, Oifig an tSoláthair (1968, 1976 reprint). Cover design: W.G. Spencer


Réamhchonraitheoirí, Máirín ní Mhuiríosa, Clódhanna Teo. (1968). Cover design: unknown


Vintage Irish Book Covers is delighted to be taking part in Marathon Irish, a celebration of Irish Culture, which is taking place in London until the 15th of September. I will be packing as many Irish books with beautiful jacket and cover artwork and bringing them to the Dialogue Culture Space in Vyner Street, East London for a pop-up exhibition from Thursday 6 to Saturday 8 September.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post the three covers above for some time. All three are from the late sixties, employ two shades of green in varying degrees of abstraction and are printed paper cases. But other than that, I’m afraid, I know little about them except that their simplicity really appeals to me.

W.G. Spencer, who designed the abstracted reeds on a river bank for the cover of Ceol na nGiolcach, may be the architect of the same name who contributed sketches of old Dublin buildings to The Irish Builder from 1963-4.

The Book of Famous Irish Spy Stories, Daniel O’Keeffe, Irish Pocket Books (1956). Design: M.G. (Michael Gallivan)

The Book of Famous Irish Ghost Stories, Edited by Daniel O’Keeffe, Irish Pocket Books (c. 1956). Design: Michael Gallivan. (Courtesy of Larry Hynes)

Memorable Irish Trials, Kenneth E.L. Deale, Irish Pocket Books (c. 1956). Design: Osborne. (Courtesy of Larry Hynes)

Valentine Vaughan Omnibus, R. Thurston Hopkins, Grafton (1947). Design: unknown

A Case Book of Ghosts, F.W. Gumley & M.P. Mahon, Northern Whig (1971). Design: unknown

Triúr don Chómgargadh, Eoghan Ó Grádaigh, Sáirséal 7 Dill Scéalta Mistéir Uimhir 5 (1968). Design: Úna Ní MhaoilEoin

Ruathar Anall, Eoghan Ó Grádaigh, Sáirséal 7 Dill Scéalta Mistéir Uimhir 3 (1962). Design: Seoirse Mac Aodhagáin

Genre fiction has never really taken hold with Irish publishers. The zealous censorship of publications during the first few decades of the State probably played a role but it is more likely that there just isn’t a big enough population to sustain indigenous mass market paperbacks. The above examples of crime, mystery and horror covers display a charming amateurishness.

The first three are from The Mercier Press’ Irish Pocket Books imprint which operated in the mid-fifties. Michael Gallivan illustrated the first two and the third is by a mysterious ‘Osborne’. I’m afraid I can find no information on either artist. Larry Hynes kindly provided two of the examples which he included in a beautiful poster design celebrating 21 years of Charlie Byrne’s book shop in Galway.

There are 24 years between the next two examples, 1947’s Valentine Vaughan Omnibus and A Case Book of Ghosts from 1971, although the latter cover could easily be from the same period. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy of the Valentine Vaughan book. The October 2010 issue of Book and Magazine Collector, from which the image is taken, estimates it’s value at £150-£200 sterling! The book is set in London but was published in Dublin by Grafton.

The final two covers are from Sáirséal agus Dill’s Scéalta Mistéir (Mystery Stories) series from the sixties. Úna Ní MhaoilEoin presents a rather naive rendering of a smoking pistol on the fifth book in the run, Triúr don Chómgargadh. I previously posted another of her designs for the series, An Masc. Ní MhaoilEoin wrote and illustrated a number of travel books for Sáirséal agus Dill during the sixties including An Maith Leat Spaigiti? (Do You Like Spaghetti?) (1965) and Turas Go Tuinis (Trip to Tunisia) (1969). According to Manchán Magan the Sunday Dispatch described her books as the most amusingly outspoken books ever to have appeared in the Gaelic language.

Séideán Bruithne (Typhoon), Joseph Conrad, Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais (1935). Cover design: unknown

An tOileán Corghruanach (The Coral Island), RM Ballentyne, Oifig An tSoltáthair (1939). Cover design: unknown

An Fáidh Dubh (The Black Prophet), William Carleton, Oifig An tSoltáthair  (1940). Cover design: unknown

Críocha Fiadhaine an Tuaiscirt, Sir William Butler, Oifig An tSoltáthair  (1938). Cover design: unknown

I’ve been very tardy in updating the blog of late, a trend I hope to reverse in future as I’ve built up a back-log of interesting book covers. Unfortunately, it is proving difficult to find information on a lot of the designers and illustrators and that is causing me to hesitate about posting covers. I will try to keep updating at regular intervals regardless of the depth of detail I’ve managed to amass on the artist involved.

Recently, Will Schofield of the excellent 50watts blog (formerly A Journey Round My Skull) featured 14 covers of Irish language books from the 1930s from my collection. The covers include artwork by Austin Molloy, George Altendorf, Olive Cunningham, Michael A Keane, and Victor Penny, all of who studied illustration and layout at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art & Design).

Above are four of the featured designs by artists that I have been unable to identify. The bold flat colours really jump off the page and make a great argument for embracing spot colour printing in contemporary book covers as the ubiquitous four colour process (CYMK) can’t come close to reproducing such vivid shades.

I hope to feature Molloy, Altendorf, Cunningham, Keane and Penny in individual posts as each is a significant book jacket artist in the their own right. In the meantime, take a look at some nice examples of their work over at 50watts.

Cló Morainn Covers

August 16, 2010

Lá Dá Bhfaca Thú, Críostóir Ó Floinn, Cló Morainn, 1955. Design: Mícheál Ó Nualláin

Ag Baint Fraochán, Séamus Ó Néill, Cló Morainn, n.d. (1956). Design: Mícheál Ó Nualláin

John Devoy, Séan Ó Lúing, Cló Morainn, 1961. Design: uncredited

I believe that Cló Morainn started publishing in 1955. It is mentioned as a new venture in a review of Críostóir Ó Floinn’s Glaotar na Ridiri in The Irish Times of April 26, 1955. Sharing the page with the book reviews is Cruiskeen Lawn by Myles na Gopaleen (Brian Ó Nualláin) which seems appropriate as two of the Cló Morainn covers above were designed by Ó Nualláin’s brother – Mícheál Ó Nualláin.

These covers have a very modern feel and eschew illustration, relying instead on typography and bold blocks of colour. Lá Dá Bhfaca Thú is particularly effective. Mícheál Ó Nualláin is an accomplished painter yet I hadn’t realise that he had also designed book covers until I stumbled on these examples.

Sixties Fishing Guides

July 28, 2010

Ireland Sea Angling Guide, The Inland Fisheries Trust/Bord Fáilte Éireann(1962). Cover design: uncredited

Ireland Salmon and Sea Trout Fishing, The Inland Fisheries Trust/Bord Fáilte Éireann(1962). Cover design: uncredited

Ireland Coarse Fishing, The Inland Fisheries Trust/Bord Fáilte Éireann (n.d.). Cover design: uncredited

These three fishing guides from the early sixties are aimed at international visitors rather than the home market. The illustrations of the fish have been handled quite differently on each yet they still have the feel of a set, helped by the single colour limitation and the repetition of ‘Ireland’ in Perpetua bold italics.

Ceann an Bhóthair, Séamus Ó hAodha, Oifig an tSoláthair (1966). Cover design: uncredited

While I normally like to post a number of similar or related covers together, I’ve been struggling to find anything that I could group with the above design. It’s a beautiful three colour illustration, for a mid-sixties collection of poetry in Irish by Séamus Ó hAodha, but no artist is credited. The textured paper wraps directly onto the hardback boards and feels like a children’s book, an impression that the illustration accentuates. This is a great example of mid-century ‘naïve‘ design that is currently enjoying a revival. The use of the term ‘naïve’ to describe this style is rather inappropriate, while the designs have a childlike quality the artists behind them are invariably well skilled and knowing.

Day Tours by Road and Rail, 1957, Great Northern Railway Board

Glendaloch and its Ruins, 1967 (12th edition),

Kerry County Guide and Maps, 1966 (3rd edition), The Irish and Overseas Publishing Co. Ltd.

Above are three examples of tourist guidebooks and brochures from the fifties & sixties. What is interesting about these covers is how little the designs draw on Irish clichés – no shamrocks, leprechauns, shillelaghs, Gaelic script, Aran jumpers, Paul Henry landscapes, pints of stout, harps, rebels or ballad singers. Who the hell were the designers behind these and what were they thinking?

An Bó Bhuachaill Bómánta

November 12, 2009

BoBuacaill480I picked up this booklet a few years ago for the princely sum of €1 – drawn in by the amazing cover rather than the promise of the story within (my Irish is not great). Published in 1960 by Oifig an tSolátair, this is the sort of artwork which makes serious designers cringe but is really a wonderful piece of vernacular design.

The title translates as Eamonn Róg, The Half-Witted Cowboy and we can only imagine the shenanigans our hero gets up to after he hitches his horse outside the GPO and moseys on up O’Connell Street. What a great juxtaposition of iconography – the GPO, Tri-Colour flag, Nelson’s Pillar, the green double decker and the Garda looking on while the sheriff steps straight out of a Western movie and onto the streets of Baile Átha Cliath.

Yet again the cover artist is uncredited but more examples from the same hand – with one credited to a mysterious L.M.S. – can be found in this gallery of fantastic covers from An Gúm/Oifig an tSolátair publications.

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