Two Houses - August 2019

Two Houses, Scilly, Kinsale and Millstreet, Co. Cork

Neil Hegarty

1966 – 1970 and 1970 –1972

Photographs – Neil Hegarty (1970s) and Shane O’Toole (2019) 
“Maybe we could meet in Kinsale and see if the house is still there,” said Neil Hegarty, former Cork City architect. One bite and I was hooked. Lunch seemed in order. Searching on Google Maps wouldn’t be half as much fun. Thus the story of not one, but two, Dillon houses unfolded over fish pie in The Spaniard. 

“I was teaching in the school of architecture at the Crawford School of Art”, he says, referring to the short-lived Cork school of the 1950s and ’60s. He had been part of the first cohort of students admitted in 1956. It was a three-year Part 1 course. He finished in 1959 and like most of his classmates, went on to Oxford Poly for his Part 2. But he delayed a year in order to concentrate on qualifying for the Irish sailing team at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, where Nervi’s work left the greatest impression on him, apart from walking behind Ronnie Delany and the flag at the opening ceremony. In Oxford he observed Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College under construction. He spent his honeymoon traveling across the eastern United States on a $99/99-day Greyhound Bus pass, following an itinerary prepared by his Cork classmate Gerald McCarthy, then working for Kevin Roche at Eero Saarinen’s. It included an afternoon spent chatting with Philip Johnson at his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.

When he got back to Cork, Neil persuaded his father to develop and build Dundannion Court in Blackrock (1964–68), now inscribed on the Record of Protected Structures and which won the RIAI Gold Medal for Housing for the period 1968–70. I have seen the medal. It is gold. It may be unique, as every other Housing Medal I have seen is silver. He was off sailing again in 1966, for two months in Sydney, chosen as one of 20 crack Europeans to race 505 dinghies against the best Australians, who were developing a team to compete for the America’s Cup. The hosts threw in a free round-the-world air ticket, with stay overs at Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tahiti and the Bahamas. He got to tour the Opera House building site while down under.



As soon as he returned, he picked up his first independent commission. The client was Irish, married to an Englishman, a medical doctor retiring from the NHS. Margaret Dillon was a famous classical singer, well known during the war. She taught singing at the Northern College of Music, where the soprano Pauline Tinsley was one of her students. When she arrived in Cork, she began teaching in the Cork School of Music, also part of the Crawford complex. “Diarmuid O Donnabhán was the front of house for the institution,” says Neil. “He was much more than head porter. She approached him and said she had a site in Kinsale and wanted a young architect to design her a house, and he recommended me.

“At that stage I had only built one house [in Glounthane in 1962, since demolished for apartments], while still a student. Dundannion was on site, but I had nothing else. She had a grand piano for teaching students at home. Right in front of the elevated site was a terrace of social housing, so you couldn’t see the sea from ground level. I decided to provide a big room on the ground floor for the piano, with a glass front so it could be seen as people approached, and place the living rooms on the first floor, with cutaway corners for the views. Halfway through the build Dr Dillon got a heart attack and work on site was stopped because they thought there would have to be a redesign, but when he was fit again, we restarted building as planned. His doctors told him that walking up and down the stairs would be a good form of light exercise. He was a very quiet man, who walked two paces behind her.

“In those days I used to get some of my better students to help out with the working drawings. The one on this job was Jim Barrett [future City Architect of Limerick and Dublin]. Margaret was very forward-thinking and wanted a modernist-looking building, but she also wanted a sense of Kinsale about the house, and that’s where the slate-hanging came from. It’s a local tradition for weathering walls. After she sold the house, she passed its new German owners on to me. The original house [as shown in the photos] was limited in size because of the retired owners’ needs. The boiler house and garden store propped up the first floor. There was no money for a garage, but you could park under the house. It wasn’t really suitable as a family home and needed to be extended, which I did in the same idiom in the late ’70s. It was more bedrooms that the new owners needed.” 

I ask about the stovepipe chimneys: “I used that as a stamp – at least that type of chimney developed into a stamp for me. I became obsessive about wind directions and checking that the flue provided adequate draw, because that didn’t work on my first house.” And Millstreet? “Their son, Dr Stephen Dillon, was finishing medicine in UCC. He met a nurse from Millstreet, whose family had a site. I worked on that house with another student, Ciarán Barry, whose father was a builder from Skibbereen. It’s a modern interpretation of a traditional farmhouse grouping, maybe also a little inspired by houses I saw in the Caribbean in 1966. 
“I was beginning at that stage to train tradesmen to do things in the way I wanted. If I’m building in Millstreet, what are they good at there? Plastering came up. I was trying to integrate myself as an architect in rural Ireland – so as not to embarrass the new family doctor too much, even though it was a bit of a shock in the town. I was trying to deliver things more simply than at Dundannion, yet make it easy for people in the area to build – to deliver something a bit better than what was already being done. The techniques were all the same, only the result looked different.”

And what about Margaret? I’m glad to report her house is still there and her memory lives on, both through her book, Simply Singing: An Introduction to Teaching Singing, published by Cumann Náisiúnta na gCór in 1996, and the many annual awards that still exist in her name, including Feis Maitiú’s Margaret Dillon Memorial Perpetual Award for vocal in Cork and Dublin’s Newpark Music Centre’s Margaret Dillon Prize for best performance of Lieder.

Neil is in the Azores, messing around with a boat.