Soaring heavenwards


ESSAY:As an architecture graduate, former minister LIZ McMANUSworked for Liam McCormick. She welcomes a celebration of his pioneering church architecture

LIAM McCORMICK died in 1996. One of Ireland’s most outstanding modern architects, he lived and worked in the northwest all his life. Had he been based in Dublin, I suspect he would have been better known – although, in 1999, his church at Burt, in Co Donegal, was voted in a national poll to be the best Irish building of the 20th century.

His work deserves to be celebrated. In 2008 Paul Larmour and Shane O’Toole produced North By Northwest,a welcome and comprehensive account of his life and work. Now Carole Pollard has gone a step further in writing a series of eight short books under the title Liam McCormick: Seven Donegal Churches(Gandon Editions, €33).

McCormick designed a wide variety of building types, including 27 churches. The seven churches he designed in Co Donegal are his outstanding architectural achievement. In what is clearly a labour of love, Pollard has ensured that the books about the Donegal churches, which I recently launched, are as meticulous, in design and in detail, as the buildings themselves.

McCormick drew his inspiration from the landscape around him and the sea that he loved with a passion. In a 1977 interview for BBC radio he described the view from the top of Crockaulin, the mountain above Greencastle where he lived: the vista sweeps over Lough Foyle to the city of Derry and beyond to the Barnesmore Gap, the River Bann and Slemish Mountain. “This arc of land holds nearly all my personal history,” he said. “It has provided me with all of my inspiration. It has moulded my personality and my outlook as it has moulded so much of my design and of my work.”

Yet he was never insular. His vision was expansive. He went to Paris and he trained in Liverpool, where he absorbed the influence of architects such as Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For him, the universality of modern architecture sprang from the vernacular, the indigenous environment, and he strove to produce buildings that were “correct” and “right”.

His Donegal churches are an expression of that philosophy, and out of his fecund imagination he fused the textures, forms, whorls, patterns, planes and light of the natural world into a memorable architecture. The seven Donegal churches show the development over time of his work: at Milford (completed in 1961), Murlog (1964), Desertegney (1964), Burt (1967), Creeslough (1971), Glenties (1974) and Donoughmore Presbyterian (1977).

He also helped to drive a new school of modern Irish church art by commissioning Irish artists and craftspeople to contribute to the furnishing and decoration of his churches. One of the books in this series, entitled Architect + Artists,explores his close relationship with a wide range of artists, including Helen Maloney, John Behan, Colin Middleton and Imogen Stuart.

As a nation we are blessed with the architectural legacy that Liam McCormick has left us. Long after the memory of the man has faded his buildings will, thankfully, endure.

I’m conscious that those of us who worked with him have been doubly blessed by the experience. In 1969, as a raw architecture graduate, I applied to work in the McCormick practice. I was ignorant of his work and my reasons were purely personal. In those days I was so Dublincentric I envisaged a small office in a quiet provincial town. Shortly before my arrival the city of Derry erupted in flames, tear gas and barricades, and it became obvious, even to this city girl, that life in the provinces would not be dull. I found a flat in the Bogside and started work in the office on Butcher Street. So began one of the happiest times of my life.

They were all gifted men, Liam McCormick, Joe Tracey and Tom Mullarkey, and yet, unquestionably, Liam was the genius of the enterprise. He would arrive at work wearing a magnificent Donegal tweed suit, his eyes sparkling at stories or opinions about the world in general and architecture in particular. He whistled incessantly while he worked and was known for sketching on any paper he could find: napkins, menu cards, whatever came to hand. Immensely sociable himself, he encouraged architects such as Flemming Rasmussen to come from abroad to work in the office – no mean feat when the world’s media were showing Northern Ireland torpedoing into conflagration.

In this series of books each Donegal church is profiled separately. Carole Pollard provides the carefully written text, and she has sourced an impressive range of photographs and drawings. An architect herself, she collated her material with a professional expertise and is the first to acknowledge that her task was helped enormously by having access to archives in the care of Liam’s wife, Joy McCormick, and others.

Anyone with even a passing interest in modern architecture will find the books fascinating. I can only hope that they will inspire people to visit the churches and see for themselves the work of a great architect, of whom Seamus Heaney wrote in tribute, “He cut a broad swathe and left a rich harvest.”

Liz McManus is a former architect, TD and minister for housing and urban renewal. A writer of short fiction and a novelist, she is studying for a master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin