A celebration of Ireland’s Modernist heritage

A new book explores how the State forged its own postcolonial architectural identity

Exploring Ireland’s postcolonial archictural identity: architect John McLaughlin and academic Gary Boyd. Photograph: Alice Clancy

While a Modernist revival arose during the Tiger's cub years, fostered by the new breed of architecture, Ireland is not often associated with the original Modernism of the early part of the 20th century. Yet it is there – often writ large – in infrastructure buildings, a form that is often overlooked, hidden even, says architect John McLaughlin, "unless it is new or broken".

When Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas curated the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, he themed part of it 'Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014', saying that while styles used to be distinctive to each country, now there is a global style: "Architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity." Skyscrapers, for instance, dot the planet.

Ireland took part in this pan-global knitting of architectural styles while, ironically, building its own postcolonial identity post-colonialism, stitching European and American forms and technology into its infrastructural buildings.

McLaughlin, a former director of architecture at Dublin Docklands who runs his own architecture practice, teamed up with Gary Boyd, reader in architecture at Queen's University, to look at Irish infrastructure that grew with the State, from 1916-2016. The collated work from various experts made up the exhibition they took to Venice and the subsequent book Infra Eireann – Infrastructure and the Architecture of Modernity in Ireland 1916-2016.


Independent Ireland's first century spans an era of communications from the proclaiming of the State in the General Post Office to accommodating data clouds which, despite the fluffy moniker, are actually sheds, many dotted around Dublin on the M50.

Ireland’s path from post-boxes to inboxes has been a story of growing networks, from electricity through public transport and roads to hardware for software.

In 1913 Pádraig Pearse foretold the route to modernity: “Ireland has the resources to feed five times her population; a free Ireland would make those resources available.

“A free Ireland would drain the bogs, would harness the rivers . . . would nationalise the railways and the waterways . . . would foster industries, would promote commerce. . . would beautify the cities.”


And so it came to pass, starting with harnessing the Shannon river in the late 1920s at Ardnacrusha, using German know-how and goods from Siemens-Schuckert, facilitated by an Irish engineer called Tomas McLaughlin who went power-plant spotting in Germany and Poland. The use of a German company so soon after the war was "very much two fingers to Britain – a case of my enemy's enemy is my friend", says John McLaughlin.

When the TB sanatoriums were built in the 1930s with Sweepstakes money, Irish designers again looked abroad for inspiration, resulting in new landscapes of white Modernist buildings.

Another Irishman, Tom Kennedy, architectural adviser on the Hospitals Commission, was, writes Ellen Rowley in the book, "A confirmed member of Ireland's modernist architectural intelligentsia" (as was his predecessor Vincent Kelly). Kennedy and fellow architect Gerald McNicholl cycled from Stockholm to Venice in 1936 photographing modernist buildings.

One of the biggest influences on Irish hospitals was Alvar Aalto's Sanatorium at Paimio in Finland. Minister for public health Sean T O'Kelly referenced it in a speech to the RIAI in 1933 saying: "Some of the striking architectural triumphs of modern times have been achieved by the smaller nations."

Some sanatoria – in Dublin, Cork and Galway – were designed by New Zealander Norman White, of the Department of Health,who had studied architecture at the AA in London and once again brought overseas influence to bear.

Next, chronologically, came bus depots and stations – including Busáras in central Dublin by Michael Scott who had travelled abroad and brought Modern architects to Ireland, including Walter Gropius in 1936. He was not afraid to try new ideas and in Busáras, Ireland got its first concrete frame and cantilever building, in 1953.

Michael Scott's office went on to design the RTÉ studios using American influences, notably Mies van der Rohe under whom Scott's business partner Robin Walker had spent a year studying in Chicago – the city at the forefront of steel-frame buildings and plate glass. Although, says Gary Boyd, RTÉ differed in that it was designed to expand: after all, who knew where television would go? "The main RTÉ building has been expanded six times since – taking the face off and adding in behind it – and you can't see the joins," says Boyd, who fondly recalls a visit to Ronnie Tallon six months before he died, during which he drew the details of the RTÉ scheme he designed in the 1960s.

As Ireland reached to the US – in architecture and culturally – America listened: Kennedy came to visit and Time magazine put Sean Lemass on its cover in 1963 with a leprechuan behind him pulling back shamrock-pocked curtains to reveal a new world behind, with the coverline: "Ireland – New spirit in the ould sod".


Pearse’s predicted bog draining happened at Shannon airport, which began as a sea-plane station built on a marsh at the end of the 1930s. While the Modernist Dublin airport went up in the early 1940s.

Boyd points out that both Aeroflot, en route to Cuba, and Pan Am refuelled at Shannon, putting neutral Ireland at a "tangible interface between world powers".

The 1970s saw the growth of RTCs (Regional Technical Colleges) and Community Schools to train students for an industrialised world. Birr Comunity School, by architects Peter and Mary Doyle, was developed by the Department of Education as a prototype building.

Its concrete portal frame borrowed from factory design using a system building method. Like the RTÉ building it was adaptable and extendable, being “open-ended as to what it could become”, says McLaughlin.

“It was designed to look like a tractor shed,” says Boyd, “but it is amazing how human a building it is.”

In the 1980s an advanced telecommunications system was imported from France. "France's Minitel," says McLaughlin, "enabled the Celtic tiger."

Bricolage architecture

Meanwhile the Rosleven Telephone Exchange in Galway was designed in a Modernist style in the 1970s by Noel Dowley who had trained with architect Louis Kahn in America. Dowley used what author Brian Ward calls "bricolage architecture" using found objects such as sections of large drainage pipes as porthole windows.

Advanced networking and infrastructure continued with road building, associated art projects and bridges such as the cable-stay bridge over the Boyne near Drogheda, a structure that was symbolic after the Good Friday Agreement, says McLaughlin: “Like an umbilical cord reconnected after rupture at the beginning of the State. Mary McAleese was president at the time enabling lots of pictures of her at the bridge that was named after her.”

Buildings need to be more than beautiful, says McLaughlin, whose brother Niall will be representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale next year. Architects need to think about systems and integration, such as using the heat generated by data centres dotted around Dublin’s M50 for other purposes.

He gained experience in discussing design with architects when he headed the architectural department in the Docklands. He recalls the fanfare when Kevin Roche (who had worked on Busárus with Michael Scott) unveiled his scheme for the Docklands conference centre, complete with Tricolour rolling down the glass drum at the end of the presentation to the thrill of the audience.

Might, McLaughlin suggested to Roche, the rest of the building – beyond the tilted glazed drum – be more open? But Roche was having none of it.

McLaughlin tried again with Daniel Libeskind with the theatre at Grand Canal Dock. In its original form it looked like a medieval visor with slits in it. McLaughlin suggested opening the building more where it faces the dock. Libeskind obliged and that facade is much more glazed than the original plan.

Openness and a willingness to look forward is what McLaughlin is hoping for in architecture: “This year we are looking back to the Rising, but we should also look forward to the next 100 years,” he says.

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in architecture, design and property