Art reference

Take a look at classic Irish tag art

What started as a hobby turned into something more serious for Niall McCormack when lockdown hit.

The Dublin-based illustrator and designer started collecting labels around 10 years ago as a sideline to another of his passions.

“Before that I collected Irish books for their covers, I was interested in Irish book covers from the first 50 or so years of the state,” says McCormack.

“A lot of my work is designing books and book covers. They were piling up and I was a bit overwhelmed with them and research.

“I came across some labels and was amazed at the quality and what was there.

“I started putting the book together around the start of lockdown, so I had some time and could just go over things.”

The result of McCormack’s passion is the book Grand Stuff: The Art of Labels from Irelanda beautifully presented collection of over 600 examples of Irish etiquette art from the 1890s to the 1990s.

Labels for Murphy’s Stout and Metropole Hotel in Cork.

The book has a foreword by Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins, known for her work with director Wes Anderson. She writes about how the collection reflects an element of Irish visual art that has been overlooked.

“Egan’s candy Lemon Crush colors and inverted arch block lettering on a Vesta matchbox are every bit as Irish as any moss green Gaelic letter postage stamp design,” she wrote.

McCormack says he wanted to get people thinking about design in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and how it was more dynamic, diverse and sophisticated than many might imagine.

“In Ireland sometimes the visual is taken for granted, it is not held in the same esteem as our literary or musical culture, or the craftsmanship, for which we are world class,” he says.

“It’s very hard to compete with that kind of reputation. Visual arts in Ireland, there are amazing things there and there always have been.”

McCormack says when people think of Irish design, especially in this era, it’s usually about Irish-American graphics, lots of shamrocks, shillelaghs, leprechauns, selling the idea of ​​the old country to an Irish-American audience. .

An advert for Hair Restorer by The Medical Hall, Castlepollard
An advert for Hair Restorer by The Medical Hall, Castlepollard

“I was trying to show that what we were producing most of the time was a pretty nuanced visual idea of ​​ourselves. I wanted to get away from this idea of ​​what you might consider an ‘Irish’ visual language that a lot of people have. ‘between us understand and know, but it’s not really true to what was going on.

The book features a range of solid bottle labels – from a time when publicans bottled their own black stuff – as well as a gloriously colorful selection of soft drink labels, many of which were only available in certain counties.

McCormack says there was a variety that disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s when local businesses closed or were swallowed up by conglomerates.

Labels for Taylor Keith and Beamish products.
Labels for Taylor Keith and Beamish products.

“I loved the regional variation in labels, which was much more the case back then. There are some early 90s elements in the book, but it really fades in the 70s, that’s because printing technology changes and labels become less interesting to me, that’s also the point where a lot of the companies are merged, these local soft drink/mineral water companies, Coca Cola are buying them up, and the smaller breweries are being taken over by Guinness.

Designers have tapped into vintage products over the past few decades as the appetite for retro design has grown.

However, McCormack says the book’s labels demonstrate how important an authentic connection is to such branding.

“As Annie Atkins suggests in her foreword, if you’re going to reference something from the past, it works best if you do your homework and base it on something real.

“You see a lot of retro-style design – I’m guilty of that myself – but it’s a pastiche, it’s almost like wallpaper or a pattern you’ve thrown over it, rather than having a real engagement with what the product is or what the story of it might be.

“But when you see it done well, it’s a really powerful form of branding.”

A label for Mitchelstown's Galtee cheese appears in Niall McCormack's book.
A label for Mitchelstown’s Galtee cheese appears in Niall McCormack’s book.

According to McCormack, the book reflects a time and place that is in some ways experiencing a resurgence, with a shift toward local business and industry.

“In a way, for example in craft brewing, we are back in a space where there is a lot more activity. The book takes us back to a world where you just saw every product stocked by the local store or everything that was advertised in the local newspaper.

“It comes back in an interesting way because people realize that local is important, your own story is really important.”

  • Grand Stuff: Label Art from Ireland by Niall McCormack, is available via