John Meagher obituary: Architect of considerable craft and taste
The Man in the Linen Jacket graced many a table and soirée with his sharp wit and humour
Meagher relished telling a story about how an Irish property developer’s wife burst into tears when she saw one of his early villas in Ibiza as she realised then that ‘her husband had been building nothing but rubbish for years’.
Born: Dublin, May 15th, 1947
Died: March 30th, 2021
John Meagher, who has died at the age of 73, was a great architect as well as being an incomparable aesthete, art collector, Porche enthusiast and legendary bon viveur.
The Man in the Linen Jacket, usually white or light blue, graced the tables of good restaurants and dinner parties with his erudition, wit and glorious sense of humour. He was brilliant, incorrigible, inspirational and generous to a fault.
He grew up in Dublin and was the eldest son of Theresa and the late Gerry Meagher, a civil servant who rose to become secretary of the Department of Local Government. John was educated at Blackrock College and DIT School of Architecture, graduating in 1971 and then spending a year at Helsinki University of Technology’s School of Architecture – an early indication of his life-long passion for travel.
After working in Germany and in the United States with Venturi Scott Brown, he returned to Dublin and established de Blacam and Meagher Architects with Shane de Blacam in 1976. They entered architectural competitions to win work, including Catholic churches in expanding Dublin suburbs such as Firhouse and Rowlagh, with Meagher later serving as an art and architectural adviser to the archdiocese.
He understood the different roles that a church played in Ireland at that time, as Gerry Cahill noted in an Architects Journal feature on de Blacam and Meagher in 1984. So it needed to be a building of contrasts: “It should be able to accommodate the woman who wants to walk proudly up the aisle in her Easter bonnet and the one who wants to be in the church in the shadows,” as Meagher put it.
His masterpiece is probably the Chapel of Reconciliation at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo, set in the ground with a square-columned portico and large cubed lantern; it was the first Irish building to be shortlisted for the EU’s Mies van Der Rohe Prize for Contemporary Architecture. Another is surely the highly distinctive mixed-use building at number one Castle Street in Dublin, beside St Werburgh’s Church.
One of his most precious gifts as an architect – recalled by Shane de Blacam at his funeral – was that “drawing was his way of thinking”, and he knew instinctively how to resolve design issues and communicate his ideas compellingly, to inspire colleagues as well as clients. “He had a special genius for the design of houses and his own house . . . is a master work of domestic architecture.”
He designed numerous houses in Dublin, for the rich and famous and also “spec-built” for sale by developers, always capturing as much natural light as possible – most recently for Bartra, headed by his close friend Richard Barrett, formerly of Treasury Holdings. To have a home designed or reimagined by de Blacam and Meagher became as much a badge of honour as a selling point.
Meagher relished telling a story about how an Irish property developer’s wife burst into tears when she first saw one of his early villas in Ibiza because she realised then that “her husband had been building nothing but rubbish for years”. More villas followed, each one tailor made for its site, and he set up an office there to cater for the demand, living on the island for much of the year.
His works include Matt the Thresher’s fabled pit stop in Birdhill, Co Tipperary, done for the late Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, who became a close friend, with Denis O’Brien as project manager; he also became a close friend and later commissioned Meagher to design his Esat Digiphone headquarters on Grand Canal Quay in Dublin. One of the bars in Matt the Thresher’s is called Meagher’s Bar.
The last major building he did in Dublin was for Denis O’Brien – the Portland stone-faced Aercap offices on a site previously occupied by Canada House at the southeastern corner of St Stephen’s Green. He also designed O’Brien’s 11-storey sun-shaded Digicel headquarters on Ocean Boulevard in Kingston, Jamaica, as well as villas for the Irish billionaire both in Ibiza and the Algarve.
He worked for Tony Ryan on the restoration and embellishment of Lyons Estate in Co Kildare, including its main house and outbuildings on the Grand Canal, all dating from the late 18th century, and for Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary on his mid-19th century Gigginstown House, in Co Westmeath, as well as designing an unbuilt terminal for Ryanair at Dublin Airport on the site that became Pier D.
He enjoyed doing the interiors of private jets for Ryan and O’Brien and was commissioned by the Ryan family to design Dublin City University’s Tony Ryan Academy for Entrepreneurship, a curious building with egg-shaped elements tacked on to a cool Miesian glass-and-steel box. It was intentionally built in Citywest Business Park, although the academy relocated to DCU’s main campus in 2019.
Meagher was responsible for the restoration of Islandmore House near Croom, Co Limerick, the 1820s centrepiece of a stud farm run by Sue Ann McManus, daughter of JP McManus, and her husband Cian Foley. He also left his mark on several villas in and around Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera, working for Angela Cavendish, who runs a high-end property business there.
He had a consuming interest in art and served on the boards of Rosc, which promoted contemporary art in Ireland, as well as the Municipal Gallery on Parnell Square, Dublin Graphic Studio, Irish Museum of Modern Art and Black Church Print Studio. He was also an avid collector of pictures, books, furniture and oriental rugs, often having to be dragged from shops and galleries by friends.
A great mentor
Meagher loved dining out, so it was inevitable that he would turn his attention to restaurant design, converting the lofty Engineers Hall on Dawson Street into the elegant Cafe Klara in 1989. He also designed Town Bar & Grill on Kildare Street for restauranteur Ronan Ryan, transforming a brick-vaulted basement into a leading venue for Dublin’s “movers and shakers” in the Noughties.
He’s remembered by many younger architects as a great mentor, and was an inspirational tutor at the UCD School of Architecture for several years along with Shane de Blacam, when it was headed by Prof Cathal O’Neill, providing what Paul Keogh recalls as “an intellectual powerhouse for the emergence of a new generation of architects”, several of whom later achieved international acclaim.
De Blacam and Meagher also won international recognition for their work, ranked by Architects Today in 2004 as being “the godfathers of contemporary Irish architecture” along with O’Donnell + Twomey. They represented Ireland at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010 and won the Outstanding Contribution to Architecture accolade in the 2019 Building and Architect of the Year Awards.
John Meagher is survived by his mother Theresa, sister Anne (Gavagan), brother-in-law David, nephew Gareth and nieces Emma and Keelin, and predeceased by his father Gerry and brother Barry, for whom he designed a unique house on Bessborough Parade, Rathmines, with a barrel-vaulted copper-clad roof, accurately described by Colm Toibín as resembling the upturned hull of a ship.