A new documentary and exhibition delve into the fascinating world of a 165-year-old print business in Youghal, writes Marjorie Brennan
WE TEND not to pay attention to how the streetscapes of our childhood have altered — most of us are too busy and distracted to mourn the passing of the shop with the jars of hard-boiled sweets dispensed by the quarter-pound or the hardware shop/pub where the owner would sell a box of nails at one end and pull a pint at the other.
However, not all traditional shops have fallen prey to rampant development and the relentless march of online retail. One such example is Field’s Printers and Stationers in Youghal, which has been trading for 165 years.
The shop and its proprietor Bill Field is the inspiration behind the documentary The Printer, which is showing in conjunction with an exhibition at the Triskel in Cork.
It reflects on the dying art of handcrafted setting and printing processes and showcases artefacts from Field’s workshop as well as archive posters from the 1930s and 1940s.
Highlights include the original premiere poster for Moby Dick and another advertising a travelling circus featuring the Wonder Midgets — billed as “the greatest troupe of Lilliputian artists of all time”.
“I’m fascinated by these family businesses that seem to survive despite recessions and development, says Michael Twomey of Complete Control Films, who made the documentary.
“Field’s is a particularly interesting case, it has been there since 1850 and very little is different in there, it’s got a Victorian and Dickensian aspect in a lot of ways.
“My colleague Kieran McCarthy and I thought this would be a beautiful subject for a film. In TV and film there’s constant noise and over-dramatisation of everything. I was looking for something that would give us space, something that would be reflective and impressionistic, and it fit the bill perfectly.”
As Twomey intended, the beautifully filmed piece speaks for itself, with Bill Field providing a subtle narrative presence, musing on the past and future of the business.
“When we went to shoot, it was way more than I expected — the typefaces, the metal and the wood, and so on were all beautiful subject matters for composition. It was a dream, really, we didn’t have to do anything but shoot. I love the dynamic between the mechanical rhythm of the printer and the long silences,” says Twomey.
“The craftsmanship of the lettering, and the prints it produced, along with the time invested is in sharp contrast to our current gravitation to disposability. There is a haunting quality in such longevity and the stories the prints reveal. I was also determined to film Bill at work before the art of printing in this way is lost to us entirely.”
Bill Field was an only son and he inherited the printing business and shop from his parents. As the last in the family line, the future of the business is uncertain.
There is a poignant moment in the documentary when he talks about what will happen to the printing presses when he is gone, if they will end up in a museum or if they will be sold as part of his estate.
It is a moment that leads us to reflect on what we are losing due to technological ‘gains’.
“Handcrafted art is becoming less and less visible in the materials we use now. Most of those materials are now manufactured by robotics or on conveyor belt, so we see less and less individually made work and the detail that goes into that,” says Twomey.
“There are new skills involved in technology but we’re tactile by nature, we need to be thinking and doing, not just one or the other. Technology is turning into just thinkers, we’re subservient to the work that’s done for us. That’s a real danger because artisans become artists. It’s becoming specialised, it’s almost a symbol of your difference to everybody else.”
Twomey says that making the documentary has led him to reflect on the preservation of shops and businesses such as Field’s.
“Bill hadn’t thought about the future, that’s his nature, just to keep going without having to think in the long term — but for Youghal and its heritage it would be crucial to keep it in the town because it’s part of its social history. You learn about where you live from what’s left behind, what you inherit from the past.”
In the film Bill Field comes across as a quiet and humble man, not given to introspection; what has he made of the project?
“He’s a very shy man and when we asked him to do this I think he was surprised. He didn’t see what he was doing the way we did but he was very open once he got to know us. Once he understood what we wanted to do and we were careful, it was grand,” says Twomey.
The filmmaker is also delighted with the reaction to the project in his hometown.
“I can’t believe how this has captured the imagination. I think people have a fondness for Field’s because it was the only stationery place in Youghal for years and generations of school kids would have gone there.
“You’re not aware of that fondness for a place until you do something about it and then people engage with it. When it becomes something particular, a book or a film, then everyone buys into it because it evokes these great memories.
“I’ve been blown away by the reaction. I’ve learned there are really beautiful stories to be found everywhere, in little towns, and people who seem insignificant to us.”
In the symbolic closing shot of the film, Bill Field pulls the blinds down on the shop as children play around outside on the footpath.
“They are completely oblivious to what’s going on inside,” says Twomey. “Here are these people walking by and nobody knows what’s in there. And that’s probably true of Youghal as well, people don’t know the beauty in there.”
The Printer is screening at Triskel Project Space in Triskel Christchurch, Cork, with an accompanying exhibition until March 19
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