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A Printer's Anthem: Celebrating The Unsung Heroes Of The Book World


14-11-2012 09:00

The son of a printer (whose family firm was mentioned in Ulysses), Vincent Caprani is one of Dublin’s most distinctive poets - and in honour of the Dublin Book Festival, in this extract from his classic collection Rowdy Rhymes and Rec-im-itations, he explains how he wrote an ode to the family trade.

 

I have often wondered why the print industry has never produced a corpus of trade ballads analogous with, say, sailors’ sea shanties, farm workers’ harvesting songs, navvies’ ‘digging tunes’ etc. Even that nineteenth-century Dublin street ballad ‘Jack of All Trades’ (listing more than fifty different jobs, or occupations, and the city streets where they were plied) makes no mention of printers. The nearest we get is a bookseller:

 

On Ormond Quay I sold old books — in

King’s Street a nailer,

In Townsend Street a carpenter and in

Ringsend a sailor.

But printers have nothing bearing comparison with, or relationship to, the large body of Irish work ballads. It is a subject I once discussed with my late friend Frank Harte (1933—2005). Frank, as most readers and Dubliners know, had a life-long obsession with traditional Irish songs and had amassed a very large archive. He was a ‘storyteller in song’ whose knowledge and understanding of ballads was second to none. There were few singers who carried as many songs as Frank, or who sang them with such enthusiasm or enjoyment. He travelled widely, taking his encyclopaedic knowledge and his songs to France, Britain and America and turning up at almost every singers’ session in Ireland. Frank sadly passed way in June 2005 having just completed another splendid album, with his friend and collaborator Donal Lunny, entitled There’s Gangs of Them Digging — Songs of the Irish Labourer.

 

But to return to the subject of a lack of any ‘print industry’ ballads. In our pleasant discussion Frank drew a nice comparison with the old sea shanties. The shanties (sometimes spelled chanties) was the name for tunes sailors sang at work in the days of the old sailing ships. They served a very specific and useful purpose. The rhythmic ‘yo-heave-ho’ type of thing ensured united action in sheeting topsails, hauling ropes and weighing anchor etc. Songs such as ‘Blow the Man Down’ and ‘I’m Bound for the Rio Grande’ and the like, were sung in sets, each of which had a different cadence adapted to the work in hand. The shanties more or less disappeared from common usage when steamships replaced sail.

 

Could mechanisation be the answer to the print trade’s dearth of melodies? Concentration on setting type from different hand-written copy, allied to what Leopold Bloom described as the ‘racket’ and the ‘clanking’, must have militated against any hopes of melody-making. ‘Hell of a racket they make,’ Bloom mused as he passed through the pressroom of the Freeman’s Journal in chapter seven of Ulysses. The ‘racket’ referred to was the noise of the rotary presses in operation, along with the ‘clanking’ Linotype machines producing galleys of metal type. Such a cacophony could never be conducive to inspiring ‘chanties’. No, we print workers really didn’t have a chance. It would seem that what was required for such work ballads was the near-silent, almost monotonous repetitiveness of canal digging, rope hauling, railtrack laying, scythe-working etc.

 

‘Still, Capper,’ Frank smiled. ‘That shouldn’t stop you from having a bash. You’re a printer and a rhymester aren’t you? Go on, give it a lash.’

 

Okay, and this is for you, Frank, God bless your memory.

 

A Printer’s Anthem

We learned to shape the letters from the writings of the monks,

From the shards of Roman pillars strewn about as shattered chunks;

Then we moulded bits of metal for to make our alphabet

And we learned to pick the pieces so a sentence might be set;

Then we probed Old Masters’ colours, and how painters learned to think

As they pondered on their pigments — thus we made our printers’ ink.

From shreds of rags in water, we wrought each woven page

To take the first impression — and so record the age!

From dawn to dusk in ‘devilment’ we were daubed in inky mess

As we hauled the heavy handles that heaved the mighty press;

And gathered up the scattered sheets, and folded as we took …

And cut the page, and sewed the spine, and glued the growing book.

Then we made the metal muscles, and the rods that rarely miss

And we manufactured Missals from the molten metal’s hiss.

And made the hymns for holy folk, and printed prayer for priest,

And penny sheets of ballads for the lowly and the least;

And from the hand-made paper, that we measured out in reams

We gave the world each masterpiece — and mankind all its dreams!



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