The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word dolmen as “The French name, used by some English authors, for a cromlech, a prehistoric structure, consisting of a large flattish stone supported upon two or more smaller upright stones.” This traditional grouping appears in various forms throughout the works published by the Dolmen Press, usually as an image on the colophon at the end of each volume. Founded in 1951 by Liam Miller, the Dolmen Press was an Irish fine print press that ran from 1951-1987. Liam Miller was trained as an architect; he also designed sets for the Abbey Theatre and founded the Lantern Theatre. In 1951, with his wife Josephine, he opened the Dolmen Press in response to the need he saw for Irish poets to have a place to publish their work in Ireland. Though the press later expanded to include prose as well as a developing a printing branch, some of its best known work is of Irish poetry.
The first book printed by the Dolmen Press was a collection of ballads limited titled Travelling Tinkers by Sigerson Clifford. The Burns Library holds a copy of almost every title printed by the Dolmen Press in its Dolmen Press Collection and this particular copy of Travelling Tinkers is one of 100 copies from the initial run signed by both Clifford and Miller. Miller described his approach to printing and design in an interview with Kevin Casey in 1976:
My interest in typography was not really an interest in typography, I think it was an interest in order. My architectural training—how to sharpen a pencil and that kind of thing—had given me some sort of design discipline, and my approach to printing a book was to do something simple and honest and four-square and straight which our first book, may I say, wasn’t at all. (25)
Indeed, the title of Travelling Tinkers is off-centered (it lists to the left) and the type varies in how heavily it has been inked, but for all its imperfections the hand-sewn book sold out in a few weeks. Miller claimed that, “Had we not succeeded with our first book, my wife and I would have perhaps given up and gone into something else at that time” (Casey 24). Thankfully for Irish literature and the Dolmen Press, the book sold well and Dolmen was able to continue publishing.
The Press was unique in that Miller “believed in the idea of sustained, mutually satisfying relationship between the writer and the publisher…Many who published a book with Dolmen had the rare experience of collaborating with a skilled and imaginative craftsman seeking to match design, materials, and literary content” (Harmon 11). Louis le Brocquy, who illustrated Thomas Kinsella’s translation of the Irish epic The Tain, one of the Dolmen Press’s most well-known works, claimed that “Liam Miller belonged to that small band of wholly disinterested enthusiasts who enrich our lives. He was an artist enraptured by a vision of perfection for its own sake, by an overriding concern for the thing itself “ (20-21). Rory Brennan, in his essay “Dolmen: Bound and Unbound” echoes this idea of the thing itself, when he said, upon picking up a collection of Padraic Colum’s work Ten Poems, “The book was the thing; the way it handled, the way the page sat open, the pattern of the print, all seemed to enhance the memories it contained” (88).
The books pictured here are all from the first ten years of the Press’s history. They include slim volumes of poetry and one of typography—a Gaelic alphabet that Miller felt very strongly about maintaining in the face of the Romanization of Gaelic type. The paper is thick and heavy with uneven edges (in the early days of the Press the Millers—and often the author whose work they were publishing—would cut pages with a kitchen knife) and the books are hand sewn into various types of covers. Poems, Thomas Kinsella’s first collection of poetry is one of fifty copies signed by the poet, bound in “quarter buckram with marbled boards” (Dolmen XXV 26) and features a lovely wood engraving by Elizabeth Rivers on the title page. A Gaelic Alphabet is an alphabet cut and designed by Michael Bigg, accompanied by a note on Irish lettering by Liam Miller. These volumes barely scratch the surface of the beautiful and important work for Irish literature, authors, publication, and printing that the Dolmen Press accomplished during its thirty-six year history. Hopefully, these selections give a sense of the care and effort that went into each volume. If you would like to explore other volumes in the Dolmen Press Collection, please email or call the Burns Library at email@example.com or (617)-552-4861.
- Rachel A. Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Assistant & Ph.D. student in the English Department
Brennan, Rory. “Dolmen: Bound and Unbound.” The Dolmen Press: A Celebration. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001.
le Brocquy, Louis. “The Thing Itself.” The Dolmen Press: A Celebration. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001.
Casey, Kevin. “Two Interviews with Liam Miller.” The Dolmen Press: A Celebration. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001.
Harmon, Maurice. “Introduction.” The Dolmen Press: A Celebration. Dublin: The Lilliput Press,2001.
Miller, Liam. Dolmen XXV: An Illustrated Bibliography of the Dolmen Press 1951-1967 Compiled by Liam Miller. Ireland: The Dolmen Press Ltd., 1976.