Woodcut Engravings from Ballad Sheets, 19th Century


Woodcuts are images cut into blocks of wood. When inked and used for printing, as they have been in Europe since about the 15th century, the blocks produce a reversed image which is black where their surfaces have been left uncut and white where they have been cut into. Woodcuts were used as a means of visual communication in their own right at a time when most people were illiterate, and also in conjunction with moveable type as an enhancement to printed text on sheets and in books. Even when more modern kinds of image printing were introduced, woodcuts continued to be traded amongst printers for use in cheap media such as ballad sheets.

A medium first imported into Ireland from Britain in the 17th century, ballad sheets were printed here from about 1700 until they became obsolete in the mid-20th century. As in Britain, sheets consisted entirely of text or of a woodcut followed by text. The chief function of the woodcuts was to catch the eye of the potential buyer, especially of the semi-literate buyer. The heyday of the Irish sheet ballad was the 19th century, and it follows that most Irish ballad woodcuts belong to that century. They need not all have originated in Ireland however; there is evidence of importation from the print trade in Britain.

The woodcuts presented here from original ballad sheets in the collections of the Irish Traditional Music Archive are typical of their kind: they cover a range of visual styles and probably periods, are relatively crude in execution, and have evidently been recycled from other works of fiction. This selection contains more examples of images generally appropriate to the subject-matter of their songs than would normally be the case. They have a distinct character and a genuine charm, and enliven the sheets on which they appear. It is not surprising that they were often collected and sometimes treasured.

NC & ÁNB, 1 October 2013

Woodcut Engravings from Ballad Sheets, 19th Century