Ambition and Achievement by Fergal MacCabe: Rescuing architect Frank Gibney
A revealing book for anyone with an interest in Ireland’s mid-20th century development
St Michael’s, Westport
Ambition and Achievement: The Civic Visions of Frank Gibney
Castles in the Air Publications
The most famous Gibney in Irish architecture was Arthur Gibney, partner of Sam Stephenson in designing the ESB headquarters on Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Street (recently demolished), the former Central Bank on Dame Street (currently being renovated) and the first phase of the Civic Offices at Wood Quay.
But there was another Gibney, not even distantly related to Arthur, who left his mark far and wide, including instantly recognisable Bord na Móna housing estates, which were commissioned to provide homes for turf-cutters in the midlands, just as the Pembroke Estate in Dublin built characteristic cottages for its workers.
Frank Gibney has now been deservedly rescued from relative obscurity by retired architect and planner Fergal MacCabe in a copiously illustrated book that documents his hero’s often radical plans to reshape numerous provincial towns in Beaux-Arts style, complete with axial vistas and Garden City housing estates.
Gibney was also involved in “Project X” to provide a new town next to Shannon Airport’s duty-free industrial zone – the first such effort to build an entirely new settlement in Ireland since the northern planter towns of the early to mid-17th century. MacCabe believes his plan would have produced “a magnificent urban ensemble”.
But it was all too much for the Department of Local Government to swallow, and Gibney resigned from all commissions in Shannon after being informed by Brendan O’Regan, dynamic chief executive of the development company, that the plum job would go to other architects who “had no civic design ambitions”, as the author notes.
MacCabe first encountered Gibney’s work at the age of 10, when he observed the construction of new canal-side housing on Clontarf Road in Tullamore, replacing a run-down terrace of thatched cottages known locally as “Tinkers’ Row”. It was the rhythm and grandeur of the new houses that inspired him to become an architect.
As he writes, Gibney’s reputation as “a singular figure” in Irish residential design rests primarily on the six-estate village schemes he completed for Bord na Móna in Kilcormac and Bracknagh, Co Offaly; Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath; Lanesborough, Co Longford; Cloontuskert, Co Roscommon, and Coill Dubh, Co Kildare.
Influenced by the English arts and crafts movement, their formal layouts, with the use of feature gables and arches, made these charming model villages as distinctive in the landscape as the curved concrete cooling towers of Bord na Móna’s first-generation peat-fired power stations, all of which are gone – only the houses survive.
Inevitably, many of the residents – owner-occupiers now – have replaced original doors and windows with aluminium or PVC alternatives. But MacCabe notes that the original design character of the schemes has generally been maintained, and he suggests that they should all be architectural conservation areas.
Even though he lived in Dublin, in a remarkable house with a thatched roof that he had designed, Gibney sought to relocate the capital to a site outside Athlone, at the geographical centre of Ireland, with roads radiating out from it in every direction and a circumferential route to link all the second-tier cities together. It didn’t happen.
Like many of his generation, he was averse to traditional cities and the very idea of apartment living, which “destroyed individuality and family life, perpetuated class divisions, limited intercourse between family groups, divorced children from nature [and] resulted in a ‘Flat’ mind stunting the exuberance of living”.
Gibney had the “unsettling” experience of being on the jury for a 1954 architectural competition to design a new Catholic church for Clonskeagh in south Dublin, for which the recommended contemporary proposal was cast aside by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in favour of a traditional design by Jones and Kelly.
But Gibney’s airs did not endear him to some clients. As MacCabe notes, he would never address building workers directly, but rather through the clerk of works. He would also turn up in a Rolls Royce, “a most unusual mode of transport for an architect in the 1950s”, when many councillors were still going around on bicycles.
There is much discussion in the book about the political context of the time, the emergence of town planning as a profession and the ideas we imported, including “new towns” being built in post-war Britain. But it’s mainly about Gibney’s life and work, which included his active role as a polemicist for his own ideas.
Although his town planning schemes were “too adventurous for the times”, MacCabe concludes that Gibney’s Bord na Móna housing is arguably “the sole physical manifestation of the visions enunciated by Pearse and de Valera … of modest and traditional settlements in the countryside for those employed in local industry”.
Architects and planners will be fascinated by The Civic Visions of Frank Gibney, not least because it reproduces so many drawings and plans of his housing schemes. But anyone with an interest in Ireland’s development in the mid-20th century will find it very revealing about how we felt our way towards the country we now inhabit, for good or ill.