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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Irish lettering, scripts and fonts

The beginning of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Durrow.
(example of Insular (Gaelic) script, Wikipedia)
When wanting to use an Irish-looking font on their computers, most people use fonts related to the Uncial script. But, where did it come from?

Contrary to what most Irish believe, the Uncial script is not their invention.  Uncial was derived from "Old Roman Cursive" between the 1st and 2nd century with the oldest known Uncial manuscript found in Egypt.  It remained as a high-level book hand until the 12th Century but was not a major influence past Britain.  Emerging alongside Uncial in the Roman Empire was Half Uncial, which was a derivative of "New Roman Cursive"

Two of the best examples of Half Uncial known are the Lindisfarne Gospel circa 700 AD and the Book Of Kells, now in Trinity College, dated about 100 years after the Lindisfarne Gospels.  The Half Uncial used in Roman England, after the Romans departed, developed into several distinctive scripts, which have been named Insular.  

Insular scripts were "of the Islands" and followed the flow of Christian missionaries and scribes, particularly to and from Ireland.  A distinctive Insular Half Uncial, sometimes called Insular Majuscule, was first used in Christian Ireland where it adopted a Celtic influence especially in its use of decoration and illumination.

On the continent, the Half Uncial script, with an extra 300 (or so) years of Roman influence developed into several "National Hands” like Lombardic and Merovingian.  These variations were consolidated by Charlemagne and Alcuin of York into Carolingian, which is the ancestor of our present day minuscule (lower case letters). Carolingian, made it to England by the 9th century where it became known as English Caroline.  This script never had a major influence in Ireland, which continued to develop and use the Insular Half Uncial, until quite recently.  

An early typographic font, from the 16th Century, used the distinctive rounded letter form, flattened pen angles and some distinctive letters like the "a", "d", "g" and "t" of the historical script.  This font when used in Ireland today is commonly called Gaelic Uncial or Irish Uncial while our normal selection of fonts like Times New Roman are used for everyday printing.

The Irish can certainly take pride in the script which has become associated with them and the Book Of Kells, the highest example of the Insular Half Uncial and its illumination. A history and pictures of the Book of Kells can be found at

A word of caution, Paleography, the study of ancient writing, is not a precise science and accurate dating of scripts or manuscripts is difficult.  My sources for this summary were Claude Mediavilla, Calligraphy, Scriptus Publications; Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance, Oak Knoll Press: Michelle Brown and Patricia Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribe, the British Library; Michelle Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600, University of Toronto Press and Rutherford Aris, Explication Formarum Letterarum - The Unfolding of Letterforms, The Calligraphy Connection; all of which would be good sources for further study."

By Rick Draffin

(Rick is a Professional Calligrapher who provides calligraphy services to Veterans Affairs Canada. You can see his work on the “Book of Remembrance,” in the Peace Tower). 

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