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Mary Ann Bolger

PhD Work

Designing Modern Ireland: The negotiation of tradition and modernity in Irish graphic design (1949-1979)

As the modernising Irish state sought to project a positive image of post-war Ireland, a paradox emerged: how could the symbolism of national distinctiveness (heretofore synonymous with the past) be reconciled with modernity? This thesis outlines the role which graphic design played in attempts to resolve tensions between the national and the modern.

The thesis examines how design was mobilised as a symbol and agent of modernisation in Ireland in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 1958 ‘Programme for Economic Expansion’, widely considered to be the manifestation of an explicit state-led programme of modernisation. It examines the gradual replacement of the outward symbols of Republican Nationalism with a pervasive symbolism of modern efficiency, suggesting that this was a visual manifestation of the drive towards ‘organisation’ and rational management that gripped the civil service.

It examines the paradoxical situation whereby designers in Ireland sought to present themselves and the nation as modern and professional, while the Irish Trade Board (charged with both design and export promotion) looked to professional designers abroad to present Ireland and her exports as traditional. Central to this discussion is the critique by designers (particularly those associated with Ireland’s first professional body, the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design) of so-called ‘Stage Irish’ versions of national image-making. An examination of their work and writings provides evidence for a series of alternative visual strategies for being Irish and modern —often quoting Celtic and early-Christian artefacts in otherwise modernist settings— which I have termed ‘Celtic modernism.’

From the early 1950s onwards, debates over ‘tradition’ and ‘modernisation’ were given visible form in the contentious issue of which letterform to use for the Irish language: ‘roman’ or ‘Gaelic’. This culminated in 1965 in the decommissioning of the Irish alphabet – at which point typography, that most everyday and habitually overlooked of visual material, became briefly visible and highly charged. The final section of the thesis focuses on the relationship between language, typography and identity. It argues that the debates about language reform in the mid twentieth-century led to a reconsideration of the variety of ways of ‘being Irish’ typographically and that the ‘Celtic’ associations of the uncial letter in particular offered potential for the negotiation of tradition and modernity.

The thesis concludes that design in Ireland was presented as a means and a metaphor of modernisation. It attempts through an examination of a range of design examples, to follow Roland Barthes’s injunction to ‘track down in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying,’ the ideological constructions hidden in plain sight.


  • PhD


    School of Arts & Humanities


    History of Design, 2009–2018

  • Mary Ann Bolger is a lecturer in Design History and Visual Culture at the Dublin School of Creative Arts, Dublin Institute of Technology, where she is programme chair of the BA in Visual and Critical Studies. Mary Ann received her MA in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art, with a thesis on the print culture of Irish Catholic mourning. Her research interests include graphic and typographic history, design and national identity, the visual culture of the everyday and the material culture of religion. She is co-founder with Clare Bell of the research group Typography Ireland and is Irish country delegate for the Association Internationale Typographique (ATypI).

     Publications include the monograph Design Factory: On the Edge of Europe (Dublin & Amsterdam: Lilliput/BIS, 2009) and a chapter on typographic commemoration in Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the Easter Rising, edited by Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück (Liverpool University Press, 2015). She is co-editor of Campaign: The Journal of the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design and has an unfashionable fondness for the typeface American Uncial.