If you see something today written in an “Irish” or “celtic” font, there’s a good chance you’re looking at the modern font known as American Uncial. Although we associate this font with Ireland & Irish culture, uncial lettering dates all the way back to both Latin and Greek manuscripts as old as the fourth century A.D. Forms of uncial fonts are thought to have derived from the Old Roman cursive writing.
The uncial form of script became more developed over the centuries, and the font style became more ornate. By AD 600, the ornate font appeared in more and more manuscripts. Uncial fonts carried forward in history to the ornate English lettering used in the Middle Ages.
The Book of Kells, the book of the four gospels written in 800 A.D., is lettered in a very early form of uncial script: insular majuscule, originating in Ireland. The Book of Kells is on permanent display at Trinity College in Dublin. This book is one reason why we tend to associate the font with Ireland or Celtic cultures. The script was particularly used for making copies of the Bible, and there are over 500 surviving copies of uncial script today.
The font does have a beautiful calligraphy all its own and there are several variations, including Hammer Uncial from 1923 and Solemnis from 1954. The American Uncial variation of the font was invented in 1943 by Austrian-American painter Victor Hammer, who was also a printer and typographer. Hammer was a professor in Vienna when he fled Europe in 1939 to escape the Nazis. When he left Austria, he left most of his tools—and his fonts—behind.
Hammer settled into a new professorship at New York’s Wells College, where he worked on developing the American Uncial font. Several years later, the American Unical was released commercially, and cast for Hammer by the Dearborn Type Foundry. In 1953, the font was re-released by the Klingspor foundry; they had released other of Hammer’s fonts, and this time, they renamed American Uncial to Neue Hammer Unziale.
The font is Hammer’s most famous font. He used it extensively in books he printed on his own presses. The font is truly at its most beautiful when used at larger sizes, which make its rounded style and thick and thin variations in stroke stand out more prominently. Hammer originally designed it as a uniface font, meaning both the lowercase and uppercase letters are the same size.
Today, the digital version of American Uncial is probably the most recognized uncial typeface in the entire world.