Seven decades of LP covers in Ireland
Curated by Dr Ciarán Swan and Niall McCormack
This exhibition examines the Irish-printed album cover. Included album covers were all designed or printed in Ireland. The work was completed for Irish groups, who worked at home or abroad, as well as albums from abroad referencing Ireland or Irishness. The collection dates from the late 1950s to the present day, and covers a wide range of musical and non-musical genres.
Arising from the increase in popularity of the vinyl record, the Irish print industry saw an increase in companies solely devoted to album covers in the 1960s. This business flourished for two decades before declining along with the vinyl record in the 1980s.
Yet even with the decline in production and sales, the vinyl record and the album cover have both persisted, and have seen a revival of late. Despite selling in much smaller numbers than its heyday, the format has proven remarkably resilient and album covers continue to be designed in Ireland.
This exhibition is divided into five broad categories. These categories are not entirely chronological, but seek to make connections between disparate genres of music, drawing out commonalities of musical approach or sensibility. They provide a framing device for the album sleeves in the exhibition. Rather than supplying definitive answers these categories instead propose questions about genre, identity, authenticity within broader societal and cultural dynamics and how these work with and against those creating the music and the imagery of the album sleeve. As the exhibition is focused on sleeves printed in Ireland it does not include some Irish artists signed to international labels.
The album cover developed first as a means of protecting and promoting the various record formats, whether 7 inch single, EP or LP record. As the nature of albums changed so too did the album covers. For example, the compilation album, an album of songs not intended to be a single work, arrived in the 1950s. The concept album, a collection of albums expressing a theme or idea, appeared afterwards in the late 1960s.
Records inside album covers were usually held within sleeves – originally these were generic paper or plastic covers used to avoid scratches. By the 1970s however they evolved to specially designed printed sleeves, which would contain additional information and song lyrics.
Each iteration brought with it different requirements as well as cover sizes. As time progressed the demands of musicians and record labels saw considerable experimentation in the form of the cover itself. For example, gatefold was employed – an oversized cover folded to the record’s standard size, along with other innovations. This gave more area to experiment with artwork and text. The cover became a piece of art and design in its own right.
Subsections: Introduction • The Vinyl Record • The Album Cover • Printing albums in Ireland
Traditional & Classical
This section draws together a range of different musical areas, including ceili, traditional, folk and classical. These areas embody certain cultural connotations such as authenticity, longevity and prestige. As can be seen from the examples selected there are clear efforts to develop distinct visual styles in each. Yet also evident is an effort on the part of some of the styles to appropriate visual signification from other areas, as with traditional music labels which consciously sought to adopt the stature of classical and jazz through the use of modernist photography and design.
Subsections: 1950s • Ceili • Classical • Folk • Traditional Music and Modernity • Modern Traditionalism • Voyagers and Heritage
Political, Religious & Cultural Identity
This section considers a range of areas where identity is key to the album sleeves selected. The vinyl record was used as a means of communicating political, historical, religious and educational content in a period prior to the internet and where television was more limited in its reach and scope. RTÉ was at the forefront of providing these materials in this format but religious organisations were also involved in this process. The vinyl record was also seen as a useful tool to promote the Irish language and reframe it as modern and relevant. In sum these sleeves provide a snapshot of the concerns of the state and society and what messages they sought to promote within the broader society.
Subsections: Political • Religious • Tradition and Religious Identity • Language Education • Comedy
This section presents a range of popular genres from the showbands of the 1960s to country & Irish. The visual approaches found here range from hurriedly produced design through to sophisticated imagery. The concentration on groups and solo artists is evident, with the singers and musicians promoted strongly as individuals in their own right, as much or more so than the music. Also included is a small selection of commercial albums, used to promote companies, products or tourism. Notable is the emphasis on the interior of the Irish pub as a centre of everyday life and culture.
Subsections: Showbands • Pop • Country & Irish • Blues • Live & Festivals • Commercial • Tranquility
Fusion, Alternative & Experimental
This section offers an overview of a variety of underground or alternative musical styles that consciously set themselves apart from popular music. Notable are the albums produced by Horslips, which, across a decade long career, merged traditional with psychedelic rock and later new wave in striking visual formulations, that mirrored the evolving style of their music. U2, whose success belied their post-punk roots, spawned a series of emulators and critiques, both musically and visually. Also of significance here are small labels in the late 1970s and 1980s who, drawing on the inspiration of punk rock and new wave, adopted a DIY attitude and aesthetic.
Subsections: Horslips • Prog and Experimental • Punk • U2 • Early 80s Indie • Mid-80s
1990s & After: The Fall, Rise & Return of Vinyl
The 1990s saw the rapid decline of vinyl as the dominant format for music. Manufacture of records in Ireland ceased in 1992 with the closure of Carlton Productions in Dublin. Dance and indie labels both continued to use the format for much of the decade, sourcing manufacturing and printing in the UK and EU. The turn of the new millennium marked the low point for the vinyl album but the last decade has seen a significant revival with manufacturing again taking place on the island. A selection of vibrant contemporary album sleeves demonstrates the quality and diversity of Irish music and design.
Subsections: 1990s Indie • 1990s–2000s Dance • Contemporary
In their Own Words: Printers and Designers
Printers and designers share their insights into the process of creating record sleeves. With contributions from photographer Hugo McGuinness, illustrator Pat Musick and designers Steve Averill and Peter Wildbur as well as printers Michael Lynam, Alf McCormack, Michael Murphy and Billy Ryan.
Some stories from behind the covers including: the punk guitarist who also worked for the Garda Representative Association; the unexpected English warrior on the Wolfe Tones cover; the album promoting Wavin pipes; the black-and-yellow cover that came out bright blue; the print blocks kept in a safe…
Curators Dr Ciarán Swan and Niall McCormack
Installation Team (physical exhibition) Andrew Clancy, Ger Clancy and Nicola Zeidler
Editor Catherine McGuinness
Project Management Carla Marrinan Funder, National Print Museum
Print McGowans Digital Print / Smart Printing
Design Dr Ciarán Swan and Niall McCormack
Original Sponsorship MCD Productions
Special Thanks Curatorial Committee, National Print Museum
Web layout iCulture
If you would like to contact the Green Sleeves team for any reason, please click here. We look forward to hearing from you.
Alan Kinsella, Billy Ryan, Brian Hanley, Dara de Faoite, Dave Clifford, David Donohue, Eamonn Doyle, Eddie McGinn, Fergus White, Franc Myles, Garry O’Neill, Gavin Beattie, Iain Slater, Louise Gaffney, Joe Mooney, Mary Ann Bolger, Matthew Bolger & Emelie Lidström, Michael Knowles, Michael O’Connor, Neil Moxham, Niall McCormack, Niall Sweeney, Pat Musick, Paul O’Brien, Peter Maybury, Peter Reddy, Peter Toomey, Roísín Sheerin, Ruan Van Vliet, Robin Fuller, Sean Sills, Simon Roche, Stephen Kiernan, Steve Doogan and Terry Nealon
Alf McCormack, Bernie Furlong, Billy Ryan, Clare Bell, Eamon Carr, Freddie Snowe, Gerry O’Boyle, Harry Havelin, Hugo McGuinness, Irish Photo Archive, Jason O’Toole, Joe Mooney, John Swift, Lynn Sanders, Maeve Robinson and Deirdre White of Media and Photography Department, St. Kevin’s College, Crumlin with Sarah Nolan and Damien Long, Mary Ann Bolger, Michael Lynam, Michael Murphy, Michael O’Connor, National Print Museum Staff, Neil Moxham, Noreen O’Donnell, Niall McGuirk, Pat Musick, Peter Wildbur, Stan Erraught, Steve Averill, Steven Weekes, Students of Dublin Institute of Technology, Tim O’Neill, Tob Swift and Typography Ireland