Innishmore - March 2020

Ballincollig, Co. Cork

Neil Hegarty, Senior Executive Architect, Cork County Council 

1982 – 1985

Photographs – Neil Hegarty (3–6) and Shane O’Toole


“When I joined the County Council in 1975 my first project was in Ballincollig,” says Neil Hegarty. “I spent three months walking around out there looking for ideas. It was a massive flat field, probably part of the original flood plain of the River Lee. The Royal Gunpowder Mills were there. It had also been where the cavalry trained. The wide open spaces were ideal for practising manoeuvres.

“Then they decided to allocate me to the western area of the county. The county was divided into three – north, south and west, each with an assistant manager.” Michael Conlon was the County Manager, the youngest ever and one of the greatest, appointed in 1960 when only 33. He promoted industrialisation. Seeing the need to build houses for the inflow of workers, he set about creating a series of dormitory towns around Cork city. Beginning with Ballincollig, a few miles west of the city boundary, he fast-tracked the building of housing estates around the old village that once played a role in the Napoleonic wars by manufacturing gunpowder. Under his plan, the sleepy hamlet of a few shops and pubs rapidly became Ireland’s fastest growing town, and the largest in Cork by 2016.

“I was moved back from west Cork to south Cork in 1982. It was by far the biggest area, stretching from Bandon to Youghal. I regretted being moved out of west Cork, my favourite place in the world. I was asked to build big housing schemes then. I was happy to get back into Ballincollig, where there was still nothing. But it was a challenge: more than 200 houses in a single scheme, and after what I had been saying during my time in west Cork…? [BOTM February 2020] So now I was designing the largest scheme I tackled – even though I had been preaching small is beautiful for six years! Architects should resign their commission when their client requests something to which they are opposed. But it’s difficult to resign your position from the public sector. 

  
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“One of my ambitions for Ballincollig was to get rid of the cars,” he says. “That was one of the first things I thought about, so I grouped them all together within the back gardens, so that the fronts would be okay. I was thinking of the two places I regularly visited in Dublin then Merrion Square for monthly RIAI council meetings, and Belgrave Square, Monkstown, where my brother Frank lives, and how they worked. I was also trying to give the advantage of the semi-d, with direct access to the garden without going through the house. Then there was the wind. People were saying, ‘This is a place where you’d get pneumonia’. It was a huge flat area, exposed to the westerly wind. I arranged the houses to protect the gardens. I put mounded landscaping into the corners to stop the cold moving up the street and not be a wild windy place.” The scheme comprises seven blocks of two different types, arranged around three local greens, all railinged.

In 1982 the Department of the Environment had published a memorandum on procedures to be followed and standards to be applied in providing Local Authority Dwellings. “It was full of a great deal of good sense.” says Hegarty. “However, there was a list of materials not to be used, which I considered to be a very simplistic approach to the control of costs in housing. These included no whole-brick fronts, no Tegral slates, no roads front and back – anything at all that was even slightly more expensive than the most basic option. There was a new Fine Gael-Labour government. They wanted to build a huge number of public houses, which they did. But by the mid-’80s, when there was a lot of emigration, public housing was being overbuilt. Then there were not enough people to put into the houses.

“The Department’s circular challenged me to build housing I would be happy to live in myself, while using all the materials which they considered expensive, and a lot more besides.” There are roads front and rear to control the car. Access points (two per block) are to the lee of each block. Private gardens are internal, within each block, sheltered from the wind. “I put south-facing roofs on all the houses,” he says. “Every house has a south-facing roof slope. The ambition was that they would each be fitted with a solar cell. That’s how I persuaded the Department to allow me use Tegral slates, because they were lightweight, so the structure could take the additional load. It hasn’t been done yet, but there’s nothing stopping it! They are putting them on new builds today, but not retrofitting existing houses. I thought it would happen somehow, but it hasn’t.”

The 21 different house types means there are no north-facing living rooms and no south-facing kitchens. Precise modular coordination means there are no cut bricks. There are only five basic window types throughout. Pipework was designed to eliminate the need for boxing in. Staircases were simplified. Eaves feature a combined wall plate and window lintel of tanalised timber. This sort of relentless drilling down permitted the specification of full-brick fronts from Castlemore, and front boundary walls designed to double as planters. One of the most interesting aspects was the building of a local estate office, funded by the County Council, the Southern Health Board and the building contractor and material suppliers, who gave labour and materials at cost. This was the first attempt in the country at providing for the management of an estate locally.

“We need architecture to build community, not for itself,” says Hegarty. “The first group of tenants in Ballincollig were great. I talked with them about the philosophy of the project. Then when the government brought in a £5,000 grant to encourage tenants to move out of local authority homes, it emptied the best people out of every scheme. Ballincollig became open to vandalism then. The first tenants were very good. I think the landscaping would have survived. Those were the knock-on effects of not realising that they had been overbuilding. But there is one other nice thing I remember about Innishmore. When I was about to move to Cork City, in 1985, the late Pat Dowd, Cork County Manager then, was overheard to say after a visit: ‘Neil Hegarty is leaving us a present’.”

A spin-off scheme, Brook Lodge Square, was built at Glanmire, later in the 1980s, after Neil had left for the Corporation. Neil wishes to acknowledge two architects, without whom Innishmore would not have happened: project architect now Cork City Architect Tony Duggan and Gus Cummins, the former Principal Advisor (Housing Division) at the Department of Environment and Local Government.