Aherlow View - March 2018

Aherlow View, Galbally, Co. Limerick

O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects
1999 – 2002

Photographs – copyright Ros Kavanagh (1 and 4-6), courtesy of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

O’Donnell + Tuomey is marking 30 years in practice, 1988-2018. This social housing scheme, which falls roughly midway along that timeline, is “one of the most controversial things we’ve ever done,” says John Tuomey. 

Sheila O’Donnell was of a similar mind when talking to Gemma Tipton in The Irish Times in late 2014: “We thought we were building the most low-key, contextual project,” she said of these two terraces. Opposition centred on an absence of traditional features – dormer windows, projecting eaves and so on. She remembers bringing a group [of objectors] out into the street to show them that none of these ‘traditional’ elements actually existed there. 

Galbally (the town of the foreigners) lies at the foot of the Galtee Mountains at the western approach to the Glen of Aherlow. The village, originally settled by the Normans, takes its character from the 19th century, when it became a station on Bianconi’s national coach network. Each exit from its triangular square is an important routeway. In 1994, it was judged the prettiest town in Ireland in the Tidy Towns competition.

“We hadn’t been there before,” says Tuomey. “Pretty much all we knew of it was a photograph in Kevin Danaher’s book, ‘Ireland’s Vernacular Architecture’. We loved that little book from the moment it appeared in 1975. The photo shows a thatched farmstead. Beside the front gate is a stone bench made out of the thickness of the wall. Before we did anything, we responded to that vernacular element – the stoop, a place to sit outside and greet the neighbours. The Milk Bar on Montague Street in Dublin, with its cast-in-situ terrazzo seat and threshold, became the experiment for that.”

They helped the County Council select a sloping site close to the village square for a small social housing development of six three-storey family houses and five single-storey houses for old folk. The houses were thought of as an extension of the existing urban form, two plain terraces, repetitive and stubborn, rendered and slated in traditional materials.

“It seemed like it offered an opportunity for the town to close back on itself,” says Tuomey. A second phase could have provided seven more houses. “Given the sloping ground conditions, we chose to tilt the two pitched rooflines counter to one another and to step the porch thresholds with the contours of the site, like they do in Welsh mining towns or in the north of England. It’s a see-saw of terraces with continuous roofs.” 

Tuomey recalls the controversy when councillor John Gallahue objected to the tilted line of the roof, saying it was “sinking like the Titanic,” “unsafe for senior citizens” and whoever approved it “should have their eyes tested”. In January 2002, The Limerick Leader quoted Gallahue blaming “architects from Dublin who shouldn’t have anything to do with houses in rural Ireland.”

There followed a public meeting in the village hall, at which the local canon asked, “Would the architects not agree that it is a basic principle of optics that the human eye seeks the horizontal?” “The councillors were giving out stink,” says Tuomey. “I said, ‘Let’s go out on the street.’ We showed them the silent gutter details and how every single thing we were doing had its roots in our observation of the local.”

The entrance to each house has a seat, planting box and threshold cast in terrazzo within a compressed, recessed porch – an in-between social zone between house and town – inspired, in part, also by the memory of a little terrace “under a low eaves” in Ballymascanlon, outside Dundalk, where Tuomey grew up. 

In an echo of Le Corbusier’s Unités, differently coloured porch walls identify the houses within the terrace. Each recess has two earthy colours, different on each side wall. “We were thinking of Irish town colour, particularly in the rural towns of Munster,” says Tuomey. This is how it was photographed for publication, with the terrace front left plain and unadorned, and colour cut-outs highlighting each individual house – analogous to the painted doors of Dublin’s plain Georgian squares.

But the entire scheme was painted before it was occupied. “Gerry Naughton, the county engineer, was a great ally. The residents formed an association and wrote to say how much they appreciated the design,” says Tuomey. “We had hoped it was to be the first phase of a larger scheme. It was a special privilege to make this small social housing cluster, simply sloping terraces setting a spatial boundary at one end of the neatly planned town of Galbally.”