Five Churches - December 2016

Five Churches
in Derry, Meath, Antrim and Galway

Liam McCormick
1975 – 1987

Photographs – Kevin Dunne for Tegral

In October we marked Liam McCormick’s centenary by featuring his renowned St Conal’s Church at Glenties in Co Donegal, but we could not let this anniversary year pass without highlighting some of the other striking churches designed throughout the country by the ‘father of modern church architecture in Ireland’.

Liam wasn’t a religious man but he thoroughly enjoyed designing churches, building 27 in all and imagining many more, including one he designed, as a diversion, from Altnagelvin Hospital, in what he expected (wrongly) would be his deathbed. He described designing a church as ‘the last free expression. It is totally you. With other types of buildings – commercial buildings, factories, offices – there is an element of you in all of them, but the church is all of you.’

William Henry Dunlevy McCormick (1916–1996) was born in Derry to one of the few prosperous Catholic families of the time. Up until 1968 he was in practice with a school friend, Frank Corr, but following a bitter disagreement over the design of his masterpiece, the chapel of St Aengus at Burt, he formed a new partnership and went on to complete his trilogy of Donegal ecclesiastical masterworks with St Michael’s at Creeslough and St Conal’s at Glenties.

Our Lady of Lourdes, at Steelstown in Derry (by Liam McCormick & Partners, 1975–76), was commissioned the year after Glenties was finished. Located in what was a new housing area on the outskirts of the city, the tent-like design dispenses with sidewalls altogether, giving architectural primacy to the fibre-cement slate roof. The gables are not of masonry, but timber- and slate-clad, respectively. The budget was restricted to a degree Liam had not previously encountered but would henceforth become familiar. A simple steel framework on concrete haunches supports a roof that ascends in three parallel planes, each separated from the next by a full-height roof light, originally of corrugated plastic. There are no gutters; rainwater cascades freely into an ornamental pool, as at Glenties. Steelstown was commended in the 1978 RIBA awards. Reviewing both churches in March 1978, the Architectural Review suggested that their pitched roofs, sweeping almost to ground level, could be taken as a salute to the medieval past.

The sense of Gothic assurgency is even more pronounced in St Mary’s, at Julianstown, Co Meath (McCormick Tracey Mullarkey, 1979–82), which – employing a comparatively traditional plan of the type used at Glenties and Steelstown, together with a vast fibre-cement slate roof and low-level glazing, here without a reflecting pool – breaks the skyline with extremely tall and thin gables to the porch and a transeptal window, their soaring forms looking for all the world like capirotes, the pointed conical hats associated with the celebration of Holy Week in parts of Spain. Another striking feature is the life-sized carved group in teak of a mother and two children, mounted above the main doorway (echoing a motif that Liam and the artist Oisín Kelly had developed together at the Holy Rosary church in Limerick in 1950), for which the sculptor Peter McTigue chose as his models the architect’s own family – Liam’s wife Joy and their children Finn and Aisling. The beautiful stone portal came from the post-Penal church that was replaced.

Liam had received the commission for Julianstown while attending the opening ceremony nearby at Laytown, Co Meath, of his Sacred Heart church (McCormick Tracey Mullarkey, 1976–79). Laytown displays pronounced Postmodernist characteristics, in particular an almost surrealistic juxtaposition of the oval-planned roughcast church with a High-Victorian Gothic brick entrance gable retained from the previous church on the site and repurposed as a bell tower, its formerly interior surfaces clad in fibre cement. Divided by a shallow moat, exterior and interior are connected by an acrylic-glazed barrel-vaulted gangway. Liam had been offered a new site but preferred the original’s seaside location. Inside, the ceiling stops short of the walls, creating a halo-effect. A full-height window behind the sanctuary overlooks a large and simple wooden cross, planted in the dunes outside, and the view out to sea.

With St Nicholas, at Carrickfergus, Co Antrim (McCormick Tracey Mullarkey, 1980–81), Liam provided an interesting elaboration of the circular plan. The church itself, with the deep fascia of its truncated conical slate roof separated from the warm brick wall by a thin strip of glazing (as at Burt), occupied only a part of the circle. The wall swept past, extending well beyond the church, to shelter a courtyard garden, a miniature landscape providing a backdrop to the sanctuary and its window wall, creating a contained world within the enclosure. Conceived as a defensive gesture – vandalism having hastened the end of a previous church here – Liam’s elegant solution was not misplaced. But nor did it suffice.  His church was completely destroyed by arson in April 1997.

Liam’s last Irish church, St Brigid’s, at Ballybane, Galway (carried out as consultant to O’Riain and Yates, 1986–87, after he had ‘officially’ retired), saw a return to some of his old themes: not here a tent in the wilderness with its wall-flap illumination, nor a cave revealed through its view of the world beyond, but a top-lit circular fortress of deep stone walls, set apart from the world by a moat and capped with a broad-brimmed protective roof projecting well clear of the wall – an inventive valedictory celebration of, among other things, Ireland’s climate and the rain that comes with it.

As Paul Larmour has concluded elsewhere, Liam was one of very few who brought international acclaim to Irish architecture and, perhaps more importantly, was ‘able to show that modern architecture in Ireland could have an Irish character.’