By Louise Walsh
A rare and intact ‘mothballed’ printing works, dating back to the late 19th century has been rediscovered in Meath – over 30 years after it was locked up in situ when the owner died.
For three decades, pre-Victorian printing presses and old-type fonts were lost in time in a workshop where a calendar still marked the date of its closure and the death of its owner Briany Finnegan on May 6th, 1983.
The time-honoured contents of the complete printing works have now been donated to the people of Kells for an educational project by the last living member of the Finnegan family – Surrey based priest Fr Sean Finnegan.
Community artist and member of the Kells Type Trail Mark Smyth is now determined to keep all the equipment locally and use it to showcase a history of lettering in the town - from the Book of Kells to the annual Type Trail festival which celebrates type as an art form.
Kells historian Willie Car in the old Kells workshop
“We are so excited to come across this printing works. It’s so rare to even find a printing press and it’s unheard of to find an intact workshop,” he said.
“Experts are telling us that a similar printing press to ours was used to print the 1916 proclamation.
“There are posters from businesses all over the north-east and right down through the years in the archives. We are still delving through it but it’s a remarkable find.
“We have been engaging with a number of educational institutions as well as the National Print Museum to see how future workshops can be developed
“Letterpress print has become an art form again and there is a revival of print works springing up worldwide so we’re lucky to discover this on our doorsteps”
Mark has also met with the Benedictine Monks in Stamullen and asked them to come to Kells and create some pieces of printed text – this would come full circle with the works of the monks who created the Book of Kells here over 1200 years ago.
“The Kells Type Trail was started over 8 years ago and re-establishing a letterpress workshop in the town is the stuff of dreams, thanks to the late Annie and Fr Sean.”
The printing works on Maudlin Street was originally owned by Frank Smith, before being sold to Briany Finnegan, complete with machines and archives in the early 1960s.
Fr Sean Finnegan inherited the printing works on the death of his aunt Annie last year and dreaded having to sell the presses for scrap metal because he didn’t think anyone would be interested in them.
“I used to work the printing presses as a teenager and I remember how sad Briany was to see the letterpress printing gradually being replaced by lithography . He was unable to keep up with the technology and invest in new machinery
“I also remember seeing the mast head for the Meath Chronicle which was printed there for a short time decades ago.”
“Briany died on his lunch-break in his house in his early 60s. His sister Annie effectively turned the key in the door of the printing house on that day, thus preserving it.
“She had a great sense of history and we both knew that it was a treasure.
“However, it was not until now that we thought anyone else would be interested in it. To be honest, I thought I’d have to sell it for scrap metal and that thought really depressed me.
“I was so delighted to find Mark Smith and am very impressed with his enthusiasm and excitement for the project, in which I hope to be involved.
“I am the last living member of the Finnegan family who came to Kells over 175 years ago so when I had to shut the door of the house last week one last time, it was a very emotional moment.
“I’m so happy now that the presses will carry on the memory of the family name.”