Friday 19 December 2014

Front elevation of St Lelia's Church, Kileely Road, Limerick by Andy Devane 

Every culture seems to have a festival around the winter solstice, the 21st of December, the longest and darkest night of the year. As I type this a Christmas tree is slowly taking shape in my living room which will soon to be adorned with lights and baubles. This daft compulsion to ostentatiously dress up a plant inside my house is inherited and unquestioned. A few cards arrive each year printed with pictures generally of reindeer, a snowman, a morbidly obese white man wearing red velvet and fur, etc. However there might be a lone one with the nativity scene on it; the reason for all the sparkle and ornament. Just as the winter solstice marks the threshold between the old and the new year I feel that my generation is at a similar threshold in Ireland's history as a relatively young state. We no longer blindly follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. Despite our secularisation we still retain our rituals of Christmas and this includes many of us going to a church on the 25th, perhaps our only visit in the year. If Ireland's secularisation continues our Christmas rituals will become wholly divorced from religious belief. However our Christian heritage will always be embedded in our culture. 
It raises the question of what will we do with buildings of worship if we longer have religion in our lives? 

Defining ourselves through architecture
Image taken from RTÉ.ie/archives
We cannot escape our Catholic identity which the government of the newly formed Irish State so enthusiastically went to great lengths to create and to a certain extent remains the same today with regards to our legislation and constitution. The Church's influential was felt in our hospitals, GAA County Boards, schools and third level institutions. This stronghold was felt no more strongly, in my opinion, than in Limerick which was once described as 'one of the most pious towns in Ireland.[1]This devout fervour was felt throughout Ireland culminating in the International Eucharistic Congress in 1932 which brought to Dublin representatives from all over the Catholic world [2]. The five day event culminated in the Pontifical High Mass in the Phoenix Park with an altar designed by John J. Robinson of Robinson & Keefe Architects (which would later become Robinson Keefe & Devane once Andy Devane became a partner). This seemed to confirm that whatever divided Irish people politically, they were firmly united when it came to their Catholic faith, or so that was the impression given. The Irish Press in their commentary of the proceedings stated 'The union of the Christian ideal and the national endeavour has been manifested in every great moment in our history[3].' 

Image taken from
The previous year had witnessed the completion of what could be described as the landmark of modern architecture in Ireland, Christ the King Church at Turner's Cross, Cork. Barry Byrne and J.R Boyd Barrett's church was revolutionary for its time and its use of reinforced concrete was an inexpensive alternative to the traditional church [4]. Byrne trained under and subsequently worked for American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Nevertheless Christ the King did not immediately influence and it would be almost another two decades before another church would express such an awareness of contemporary style. The church's staunch preference to the revived medieval Gothic style was holding strong with the famous anachronistic example being the completion of Galway Cathedral in 1965 (designed by John. J Robinson). The frustration from some quarters at the reluctance to let go of the previous century's architectural language was summed up by P.M Delaney in a paper read before the Architectural Association of Ireland (AAI) in 1961[5] in which he observed:
'Most of our churches have become confused collections of unrelated inaccurate and clumsy fragments taken without understanding from widely different sources usually copied, not from the original, but at fifth or sixth hand, from reproductions in turn based on other reproduction. There can be no reasonable or logical basis for this illiteracy, which merely created an impression that the church has no connection with the conditions of the present day, since its visible expression in its buildings is so deliberately archaic and out of contact with the daily life of its members.' [6]
Modern architectural education
The early 1930s also witnesses advances in architectural education in Ireland with many newly qualified Irish architects coming out of a university environment adopting the new style of building design, construction and materials. Ireland no longer had to rely on hiring architects from abroad as she was now producing home grown designers who kept an eye on developments in Europe. However the RIAI was obliged as late as 1939 to write to the Minister for Finance protesting against the Office of Public Works (OPW) advertising for recruitment of architects in the English newspapers [7]. Limerick is lucky to have Our Lady of the Rosary Church, one of the 27 churches designed by the father of modern Irish church architecture Liam McCormick (1916-1996) during his partnership with Frank Corr which lasted until 1968. It was their winning of the RIAI competition to design a church for Ennistymon, Co.Clare that brought them to the attention of the Limerick priest. Interestingly John J. Robinson was one of the competition assessors. McCormick, who has been described as 'close to being Ireland's Alvar Aalto [8]' trained as an architect at Liverpool University which was a pioneer with its student placement policy. Limerick's Andy Devane (1917-2000) bolstered his architecture degree from UCD with an apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright. This was in contrast with the previous generation's route to becoming an architect without third level education. For example Patrick J. Sheahan (1893-1965) was qualified as an Art and Mathematics secondary school teacher who completed his apprenticeship in various architectural firms in Limerick before setting up his own practice in 1925. 

Image taken from Corr & McCormick's article on  the church in
The Furrow (1951)
It can be assumed the Limerick priest wanted something similar to the concrete church that McCormick & Corr proposed for Ennistymon. A temporary steel-framed, timber church was erected to facilitate mass during construction of permanent church. However the temporary church was so popular the parish decided to use it forever more. Although the Ennistymon church was McCormick's first design it was not constructed until 1952-54 [9]. Therefore Our Lady of the Rosary was the first church in a modern style to have been erected in the post-war era. Similarly the national school next door, John F.Kennedy Memorial School (1964), was the only national school designed by McCormick in the Republic. 

Our Lady of Lourdes church (1962), Childers Rd Limerick by P.J Sheahan
Image taken by Emma Gilleece
RIAI Church Exhibition Committee
The annual liturgical congress in Glenstal Abbey, Murroe Co.Limerick from 1954 onwards brought to Ireland the big names in the European liturgical field and soon turned its attention to the influence which the liturgy should have on church architecture[10]. The first initiative for change in church architecture in Ireland came from within the architectural profession. Following the unsatisfactory outcome of an architectural competition for Clonskeagh's parish church in 1954 the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) organised a symposium on church design in Newman House in April 1955 which attracted immense public attention and criticism[11]. This was followed a year later by the establishment of the RIAI Church Exhibition Committee which organised seminars, exhibitions and lectures on church architecture and art [12]. The two most important exhibitions being 'Églises de France Reconstruites' at St Patrick's College Maynooth and 'Modern Churches in Germany' in 1957 and 1962 respectively. It was not only the Catholic Church in Europe who recognised the importance of modern art. The Protestant Institute for contemporary Ecclesiastic Architecture and Art was founded in Marburg, Germany in 1957 [13]

Second Vatican Council
Image taken from
By the mid-sixties the Catholic Church had made peace with modernity. The liturgical changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1967)[14] with the publication of 'Constitution of Sacred Liturgy' (1963) and 'Dogmatic Constitution of the Church' (1964), together with the need to keep down building costs brought about some dramatic changes in the approach to church design. Following this in 1965 the Irish hierarchy established an Advisory Committee on Sacred Art and Architecture which was composed of distinguished experts in their field such as McCormick and Devane. A year later the commission published a directive called the 'Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reorganisation of Churches' in which architectural matters of the centrality of the altar were discussed. New directives meant new churches which meant plenty of work for young architects. Likewise these new buildings of worship needed suitable contemporary works of art to fill them hence this was a great era for ecclesiastical commissions for artists such as Oisín Kelly, Evie Hone and Imogen Stewart. 

Architecture gave Ireland one of the only real avenues to express modernity. When one considers how heavily censored Irish writers were in these formative years and how controlled the image of this island that was presented to the rest of the world; that we were all living in this isolated Paul Henry landscape. Our advertising and branding with Lady Hazel Lavery as the 'Colleen Bawn' printed on our Irish pound notes. The fact alone that such debates and considerations happened during these conservative decades is monumental. The churches built during the thirties through to the sixties represent such a fascinating chapter in Irish history. So reader if you are going to a church over the Christmas period please take a moment to look around at the building, the artwork, note the period during which it was built and the craftsmen who brought it to life and appreciate it for its architectural and social merit. 

Shameless plug!

Limerick Museum & Archives publication,
part of the City of Churches project 
I was commissioned to research and write City of Churches edited by Jacqui Hayes and artwork by Jacob Stack It is a publication on the architecture of the buildings of worship in Limerick city of all denominations for the Limerick Museum & Archives project funded by City of Culture. Little did I realise that I would end up with an inventory of 67 buildings! It is priced at €5.00 and is available to order on O'Mahonys Booksellers site A short film was also commissioned as part of this touring exhibition, made by Paddy Cahill who also did all the photography for the book. In it I got to interview Randel Hodkinson who provided valuable information for the publication. He is third generation ecclesiastical decorator speaking about the traditional skills and the effects Vatican II had on his industry             City of Churches Exhibition Film

1 Frank O'Connor, Irish Miles (London, 1947). His impression of Limerick was written in 1939.
2 Dermot Keogh, Twentieth century Ireland's revolution and state building, (Dublin, 2005), p.71.
3 Irish Press, 20 June 1932. 
4 R. Kevin Seasoltz A sense of the sacred; theological foundations of Christian architecture and art, (London, 2005), p.265.
5 Published in Liturgical Arts, no.4, 1961.
6. Richard Hurley, Irish church architecture, 1839-1989 in '150 years of architecture in Ireland', (Dublin, 1989), p.80. 
7 John E. O'Reilly RIAI 1900-1945 in John Graby (ed) '150 years of Architecture in Ireland', p.24.
8. Frank McDonald 'Dream buildings, drawn in bed', Irish Times, 3 May 2008. 
9. Richard Hurley and Wilfred Cantwell Contemporary Irish church architecture in Ireland (Dublin, 1985), preface, p.i.
10 Paul Larmour, Free State architecture: modern movement architecture in Ireland, 1922-1949 (Kinsale, 2009), p.97.
11 Hurley and Cantwell Contemporary Irish church architecture, p.23.
12 Richard Hurley Irish church architecture in the era of Vatican II (Dublin, 2001), p.24
13 Wolfgang Jean Stock, European Church Architecture, 1900-1950 (London, 2006), p.149.
14 Matthew J. McDermott, Ireland's architectural heritage, an outline history, (Dublin, 1975), p.129.