Every name here is a tragic story of loss and heartbreak. The Garda Memorial Garden, or Gairdín Cuimhneacháin an Gharda Síochána, is located in the heart of Dublin city. This memorial is a contemplative garden with large stone plinths and a lot of names and numbers. The list of names, this “roll of honor,” records individual police officers (gardaí) who have lost their lives violently and tragically in the line of duty since the formation of the Irish state in 1921.
This article offers insight into the creative thought processes I followed in designing a typographic solution for this memorial. I’ll discuss my choice of typeface, my detailed layout, the size of type, the materials, the process of engraving, and leaving open the possibility to add names in the future. My objective was to keep a sense of visual harmony throughout the design, while aiming for a certain consistency in the future engraving of names, regardless of language.
To my eye, the uneven white space between columns looked crude and clumsy. Harmony and regularity were demanded by the vertical and horizontal rhythm of the letterforms, the thicks and thins, the counters. It was important that the white space also have visual harmony. A lack of visual calm and harmony would detract from the overall coherence and stability — not a good vibe for a garden that needed all visual elements to be fully considered, that needed a thoughtful approach and that needed to be an oasis of visual order. These men and women died protecting Irish society from crime. Most died violently and in chaos. I didn’t want chaos in the typography. I wanted to create a calm and contemplative space. The typographic layout needed to be visually coherent, with a sense of structure and order. These people had made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives to protect others. The typographic design and layout needed to reflect the gardaí’s role of order and discipline in society, not the chaos that resulted in their deaths.
The task of laying out these names and numbers of different lengths in the allocated space in the limestone was complex. It presented the typographer with a visual riddle to be solved. I requested more time to explore these challenges on paper. Of course, allowing me more time came with a financial cost, but, happily, the architect understood the importance of typography and agreed with my arguments, giving me the green light.
Finding an effective typographic layout for the gardaí’s names and numbers called for a number of considerations to be made, such as the number of names, their varying number of characters, and the dimensions of each stone plinth. Eighty-three names (and ID numbers) were to be carved across nine limestone plinths of varying widths, each of which would allow room for ten rows of names across one, two or three columns.
To get more consistent margins and better balance, I advised that long names not be put on the same row across the three blocks. Long names sat best in the center block, with two shorter names on the left and right. The reverse (i.e. a short name in the center and longer ones on the sides) would work equally well.
For obvious reasons, not leaving any plinths blank was important. So, the 83 names were arranged across each of them, with space left below for names to be added in future (as will be needed, tragically). There is capacity to carve another 117 names into the plinths.
There was general agreement that the shape of the letters and numerals in the 1950s memorial reflected a sense of “Irishness,” particularly in the letterforms, which were calligraphic in style and had a slightly uncial quality commonly seen in the letterforms of the Irish/Celtic manuscript tradition of the 8th century onwards. The Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells and the Book of Lismore all contain calligraphic letterforms whose shapes are influenced by the angle of the quill head and the angle of the scribe’s hand. However, I felt that a calligraphic typeface was not suitable for this project. I wanted a face that was almost invisible, so that, when reading the names of the fallen, one would think of them and not of the typeface. I wanted a typeface that was neither difficult to read nor so full of personality that it drew attention to itself, but rather one that reflected the hand-drawn character of calligraphy, a human quality. Yet it also needed the uniformity, strength and regularity of form found in a print typeface.
It was important that the new memorial have a typeface that could be set and carved in dual languages, namely English and Irish. However, for the long term, given the increase in gardaí with names that are non-Irish, non-English and non-European, the typeface needed to be versatile, be robust and include all glyphs and accented character sets.
I knew that the typeface would need to be easy to carve. I didn’t want one that had thin serifs, counters, stems or terminals that could be easily misinterpreted by a stone carver, resulting in a badly drawn version appearing in stone.
The hunt for a suitable typeface was on!
After some research online and using atlases of type, I found three possibilities for the project: Optima, Zapf Humanist 601 and Exemplar Pro. Each had a beautiful visual rhythm and lovely numerals. They were also all available for purchase in OpenType format and — more importantly for typesetting — available in digital form. The faces could all be slightly modified if needed with accented characters (commonly found in the Irish and central European languages), customized letters and individual number spacing.