With some honourable exceptions, shopfronts and signage in the capital have been in decline for a long time now. The city is awash with ‘Temporary Signs’, plastic and corry-board signage which remains in place for months if not years over certain businesses, a way of dancing around regulations. Before anyone suggests that is an elitist attitude, it should be noted that the worst offenders are often not small struggling businesses, but frequently large chains, in particular convenience shops.
In recent times, there has been an enormous growth of interest in historic signage in Dublin, popularly known as ‘Ghost Signs’. Sometimes these are painted shopfronts, other times physical signage. Some examples of this which we’ve looked at include John Purcell’s (the Lafayette building), Kapp and Peterson (Starbucks) and that mysterious little sailor on Duke Street. Similarly, there has been a growth in interest in the artists who painted signage in the city, such as Kevin Freeney. The excellent short documentary ‘Gentlemen of Letters’ looked at Freeney in particular:
This interest in the history of the build landscape in Dublin is wonderful to see. Still, it can be difficult to think just what signage in Dublin today might excite the historians and photographers of the future. In 2011, An Táisce complained that “cheap, garish shopfronts and signage” were becoming commonplace, and one of the best pieces examine the rot came in 2013 from Kevin Duff in Village magazine, highlighting areas were particular problems were evident:
The look of shopfronts in Dublin City Centre is in freefall, owing to an absence of effective planning enforcement for shopfront planning permissions and unauthorised shopfronts, signage and uses. While Grafron St and environs and oft-maligned O’Connell St have developed some shopfront pride over the last decade, the streets nearest the Liffey – Capel St, Westmoreland Street, Dame Street, Parliament Street, Temple Bar generally and the Quays – are becoming black spots of lower-order shops and fast-food restaurants with cheap, garish shopfronts and signage.
With time, there are fewer and fewer people making signage in the city, or engaged in the act of signwriting. While Capel Street has consistently been highlighted as a street where ugly signage reigns supreme, the 3.5 meter LED Pantibar sign was a welcome addition and landmark to the street when it went up in March 2015, becoming a frequently photographed resident. Still, the sign has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons, following complaints and a City Council refusal of an application for the retention of the sign.
Niall Sweeney, the designer of the sign, has rightly pointed towards signs like the ‘The Happy Ring House’ and ‘Why Go Bald?’ in the city, pointing out that:
Any current “old favourite” was once a contemporary upstart. They speak of their time (they never looked back). They cause the working faces of their buildings to come alive in the present. Their considered crafting, quality and vision transcends the ages, approaching the sublime — no matter how simple or how complex their construction or message. They are part of the cultural, social and economic fabric of the city we live in.
The sign, Pantibar have argued, is “a perfect example of 21st-century Irish signage and craftsmanship.” Indeed, the sign was physically made right here in Dublin, by a firm with more than four decades of experience in the field, something to celebrate in itself.
Do signs like this one add to the city, or take away from it? If one stands right under the sign, and looks across the street, the hoardings around the site of the Nirvana headshop, set ablaze in 2010, are surely more unsightly than the sign above their head? Strolling up Capel Street, there are evidently much more problematic shopfronts than a bar that has brought nothing but custom and community to the street. Capel Street has great history, character and potential.
Good quality signage and shopfronts in the city are something we’re losing rapidly. Surely then preserving the old, and adding interesting and well-crafted additions like this sign, should be the aim. When Kevin Kearns wrote his classic study Dublin Street Life and Lore, one of those he interviewed was an aging Kevin Freeney, who told him that:
For along time handwritten signwriting on pubs and shops went out of fashion and plastic signs came in very popular. The authorities should never have allowed plastic to creep in the way i did in the fifties and later on.Oh, you’ve only to look around St.Stephen’s Green now, that’s destroyed with plastic. I’ve often seen an old building maybe being demolished and they take down the plastic sign and ‘lo and behold’ there’s a lovely job underneath!