A Man of Letters: National Print Museum Keeps Its Craft Alive

Hannah Mullen
Posted January 11, 2013 in Features

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Alf McCormack’s life in printing has spanned over 60 years, affording him experience in every aspect of the niche world. He has braved the harsh conditions of a journeyman’s apprenticeship in 1940’s Ireland only to rise to one of the highest printing positions in Smurfit at a time of incredible historical and industrial change.

In the 1940’s, printing was a closed circuit. The ink had to be ready mixed into the blood of an apprentice journeyman. Somehow, despite having no family in the trade, Alf managed to wangle his way in, scoring an apprenticeship at the Monument Press in Bray. He was caught in the claws of responsibility and felt a duty to his poverty stricken family in post-war Ireland. For this reason he undertook the seven-year apprenticeship that forbade drinking and marriage among other things. They had little to eat and the weekly shop saw Alf rummaging on the beach after school, collecting tin of potatoes and curry.

“Things that were being brought to the forces wherever they were, but the ship would be sunk and this stuff would be washed up on the beach. I’d come home with big copper colored tins, full of small baby potatoes that had been washed and were in a saline solution,” he remembers, “it was great”. His family was not one that could afford to lose out on any of their already limited income, but that was what happened. One day, while
on a decorating job, Alf’s brother John, hit his head, knocking the retina from his eye. A surgical procedure involving silver clips had John down for weeks. “I happened to hear my mum saying to my dad, ‘I’m going to miss John’s few bob’. And me being a sixteen year old said oh god, mum is going to be short a bit of money, I better get a job. And I became a printer.”

He started in the October of 1947. In a North facing building with windows all along the back wall to allow natural light flood in, substituting for the lack of fluorescent. A 20-foot door stood open at the end of the factory to allow for dispatch, inviting in a howling gale that bit at the workers despite the many layers donned in a vain attempt at warmth. Even in the face of the bitter conditions, there was little room for printing error. In his early days, Alf printed one sheet of a job backwards. “The foreman came out and he was walking by and he picked up the sheet I had done incorrectly. He said ‘What the f…did you do? Get your cap and coat and get outta here!’…for one sheet! He assumed that the rest of the job was like that but it wasn’t. I was suspended for a week. I never backed a job up wrong again. I always made sure. I learned.”

Having spent nine years learning, Alf eventually decided it was time to move on. In search of new experiences, he went to England. Two weeks and an argument with the foreman came between Alf and London, only for Liverpool to take its place. For four years he was happy until a job in South Africa caught hold of him. Upon being offered the job, it was insisted on that Alf receive all the necessary injections for travel. Arriving home from the hospital, veins tinted with exotic disease, Alf received a letter from his mother. His dad had been taken ill. “I was to fly to Bulawayo on the 22nd June, which is my birthday, and instead of that I went home”. Rather than pine after ghosts of opportunities lost, Alf focuses on the opportunities he arrived home to. One of the transport men in his new place of work had clocked in an overseer. Upon the boss’ discovery, both men were sacked, opening up a shift foreman position. Alf was offered the job and from there, ascended through the ranks. Later, he was made Production Controller but not before a temporary redundancy that was later counteracted with a request and an offer to rejoin the ranks of Smurfit. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse so I went back again and again I ended up being the Production Director”.

Alf had been back a year, when, in 1969, he realised business was wavering. “We started to go through it (the records) and about 70% of the work we had done the year before wasn’t there anymore.” Smurfit had fallen victim to an age of computerization. His findings were brought to management and by the end of the day Michael Smurfit had set an ultimatum. The business was either to be closed or the staff would have to be reduced by half. The man whose hands such a job should have fallen into wasn’t believed to be strong enough to shoulder the burden and so it fell to Alf.

In one week, 200 jobs were slashed. Colleagues were pitted against each other in a survival of the fittest, with many falling by the wayside. An entire tradition and craft was cast aside without any sentimentality. When asked if he felt any nostalgia, Alf replied “No,
technology had taken over” and technological advancements do not afford an appreciation of what they leave behind. By this stage, Alf was Personnel and Training Manager and he had a duty to acclimatise to phototype setting and offset printing. He flew between England and Sweden, ultimately relearning his trade and reforming Ireland’s printing business.

Although Smurfit kept a small number of letterpress machines for letterheads and business cards, Alf’s engagement with the traditional craft was limited between 1969 and his involvement with the National Print Museum. At a retired printers’ dinner in Liberty Hall Alf was approached by a man named Bob Sharpe. He was told that ‘their’ museum needed more volunteers. Alf had been unaware of the existence of a print museum but in light of this new information, he attended an open day, demonstrating his craft on a small machine for the first time in years. Whilst working, a huge machine in the corner caught his eye. “No one can operate that machine”, he was told by the manager at the time, “nobody knows what it is”. On the contrary, Alf knew. “I said, Jesus that’s a Wharfedale!

So we had a look around and we found the belt was broken but we fixed that and I put the motor in the right position and started it up and it worked. Since then, when people come in, I do demos on that machine, it wakes everybody up!” That Alf came across the Wharfedale was a blessing. He is one of only two people in Ireland with the ability to operate it. It could have easily been lost to storage, never to be used again. Alf’s involvement has breathed life into an area that would have otherwise become destitute. The National Print Museum is now working to pass this trade on to a new generation before it disappears completely.

To understand the passion burning inside those involved, a person needs only to look at the romance and tradition associated with letterpress. “The keys that I used to open up by hand all have little electric motors,” says Alf, ”and as its being scanned the motors are opening or closing to adjust to the volume of colour from the colour bar. We hadn’t got that advantage, we had to use our skill and our knowledge. How much yellow do I need, how much yellow would I carry to get that shade of orange and how much red to get those tones in there,”. Technology has usurped craft and now, there is no technical need for letterpress to survive except that the quality of its produce is incomparable. The time, effort and expertise poured into a single sheet are apparent in each page.

What the museum is actually doing is saving a craft from extinction although it is not easy. Much of the materials once employed have been deemed unusable. The material that once covered the rollers of a printer is now said to be carcinogenic, an accusation Alf scoffs at, “you’d chew it. It was like lovely chewing gum. End of the day you’d spit it in the bin. I’m still here.”

It is a constant struggle to obtain the materials, skill and knowledge necessary to keep letterpress alive but it is one the print museum is happy to fight. Alf, along with the National Print Museum, is providing a platform for the resurrection of the letterpress, a trade that was once the sole medium to produce literature and is simultaneously a beautiful craft, one that changed the world.

Photos: Sean Conroy

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