Church Architecture and Irish Catholicism

Second Reading
Chruch architecture and Irish Catholicism

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Talleyrand, a french bishop in the 18th century, who had lost his faith, spent one Easter Sunday trying to avoid saying Mass. ‘Aubade’ he refers to religion as “that vast, moth-eated musical brocade/created to pretend we never die”.
Yet Larkin was fascinated by churches. He had a habit, when cycling around England, of visiting old ones when no one was looking, and taking off his cycle-clips in ‘awkward reverence’. Wondering why this ‘special shell’ was built, he concludes that churches are places where significant rituals are celebrated and dignified.
“A serious house on serious-earth it is, in whose blent air all our compulsions meet, are recognised and roved as destinies and that much never can be obsolete since someone will forever be surprising. A hunger in himself to be more serious and gravitating with it to this ground which he once heard, was proper to grow wise in. If only that so many dead lie around.
My thoughts here on the specific subject of Irish church architecture are prompted by the death recently of Richard Hurley, a leading church architect for over 40 years. He won several awards for his work, most recently an RIAI one for his design of St Mary’s Oratory in Maynooth College. He also wrote a study of Irish Church architecture in the era of Vatican II,  a beautiful compendium that is both a scholarly work and an adornment to a coffee table.
In the book he makes the point that the stock of Roman Catholic churches in Ireland is of relatively recent provenance. By the 18th century the marginalisation of Roman Catholics in Ireland culminated in the Penal Laws which prohibited public catholic practise.
Catholic warship was mostly confirmed to Mass houses which were little more than thatched sheds with clay floors.
As the catholic community emerged from this somewhat catacomb existence and began to build churches again. It had no accessible architectural heritage to guide it. Most of the early churches were cramped and impoverished in design and materials.
The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave a tremendous psychological boost to the community. In the century that followed 24 cathedrals and over 3, 000 churches were erected. There was nothing however indigenous in their design.
Up to the 1870’s many of those buildings were influenced by the Gothic revival. Gothic architecture expressed a theology of church which was then dominant. An exclusively hierarchical organisation, a priest who controlled all proceedings and an uninvolved laity. The long Gothic nave and remote sanctuary provided the setting for a priest who offered Mass on behalf of a congregation who participated in silence.
Many of them, whatever about their madness,  liturgical deficiencies are beautiful buildings, a great achievement given the difficulties under which architects and builders laboured. There was little tradition in Ireland of erecting large buildings. There was a shortage of competent artisans and most catholic parishes were poor.
By the start of the 20th century the Gothic style had been largely replaced by the Hiberno Ramanesque, one of which St Patrick’s Church in Newport is a prime example. This style harked back to the 12th century when small chapels like Cormac’s are in Cashel were in Vogue.
There was some hope that a distinctive Irish mode of church buildings might emerge in the new century. A school of architecture had been set in the newly founded University College, Dublin.
However, architectural conservatism dominated in the first half of the century, apart from the modernist example of Turner’s Cross Church in Cork. Clerics generally were interviewed to change. They preferred continental copies to Irish innovation. Michael Scott’s creative design for a church in Lettermore in County Galway was binned by the parish priest.
This did not really change until the second Vatican council. In line with its theological and liturgical insights. The people  were now seen not as pious observers of exalted rituals but as participants in their creation. New churches were expected to reflect this revolution. Hurley argues that Irish architects rose well to the challenge, creating a body of work that remains with the best produced in Europe in the last half century.
He rightly accords Liam McCormick, the accolade of the most important Irish church architect of his generation. He designed several memorable churches, mainly in Donegal and Derry. He had a natural instinct for the wonderful possibilities of the Western landscape which shaped his architectural designs.
His masterpiece is St Aengus’s Church, overlooking Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle, which won the award for the most distinctive Irish building of the 20th century. In its shape, construction materials and artistic embellishment, it is a magical creation. If you find yourself in Donegal, whether you are a believer or like Philip Larkin, you wonder what it is all about, go and see it.