Commentaries

Church Architecture in Ireland Today: At a Crossroads

September 04, 2007

BRIAN QUINN

St. Patrick in CastledergThe Roman Catholic parish of Castlederg in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, has a Web page that succinctly reports that is parish church, St. Patrick's, was built in 1846 and rededicated in 1997.  But those few words do a disservice to the Irish experience of Catholic liturgical architecture.

No doubt built with pride and great personal sacrifice, St. Patrick's Church replaced an earlier "substantial, commodious, though plain church." (Fr. T.P. Donnelly, PP, A History of the Parish of Ardstraw West and Castlederg (unknown binding, 1978) 128.)  The new stone church was neo-Gothic, "in harmony with the architectural fashion of the time" (Ibid., 127) and was part of a wave of church building that swept Ireland in the nineteenth century as the Roman Catholic Church accepted its newly acquired freedom of expression.

St. Patrick and St. EugeneHowever, if you visit the parish you will notice another church building, now disused, that is not mentioned on the parish Web site.  It sits in the shadow of its predecessor on the other side of the small parish cemetery.  It was dedicated to St. Eugene in 1977 and was designed by one of Ireland's foremost church architects, Liam McCormick.  Like its predecessor, it was also in harmony with the architectural fashion of its time, built in steel and rendered masonry, focusing on the manipulation of space and light rather than walls, and recalling LeCorbusier's pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp.  Its silhouette expresses the disposition and importance of the spaces within.  Two unequal monopitch volumes back onto a circulation spine.  The main worship space is within the largest volume dominating the ensemble, consistent with Modernist architectural principles.  Other Modernist tenets are "truth to materials" and interior space formed by the function it contains.

Clearly, the parishioners were unconvinced.  Truth to materials, in honour of the liturgy itself, a space that was shaped to support the ritual within, failed to persuade the parish to embrace the new.  So in 1999, St. Patrick Church, which in 1977 "required...so much costly repairs and maintenance...that it had outlived its usefulness and was becoming a burden," (Ibid., 134.) acquired a new lease of life and was totally refurbished.  St. Eugene's became the elephant in the corner of the room, a headstone to join the others commemorating an episode in the life of the parish, which, like a departed but not particularly loved relative, has been committed to history.

So why in the 1970s would the parish forsake St. Patrick's for St. Eugene's?

St. EugeneAs in the rest of Ireland, the fundamental reassessment of church architecture that occurred in the wake of Vatican II, concluded that the old building compromised ritual and reinforced a hierarchical model of Church.  Separation of mensa from reredos to form a freestanding altar was an initial reaction to new regulations requiring incensation from all sides.  It was carried out in most Irish church buildings within a decade as a stop gap.  Once this was done, as it was in St. Patrick's, more satisfactory solutions could be explored and a deeper discernment could take place.  A solution in which the architecture would reinforce the liturgy rather than frustrate it was desired.  Added to this was the condition of the old buildings, which leaked due to years of neglect, and they were hard to heat and expensive to maintain.  Parishes were persuaded that a new building was required as it would comply with the latest regulations, both constructional and liturgical. 

Architects led the way in reconfiguring liturgical space.  Liam McCormick was at the forefront of this search, and his church of St. Aengus (Burt Chapel, Donegal) is rightly considered a prime example.

So why would the parish in 1999 forsake St. Eugene's for St. Patrick's?

St. PatrickThe new buildings were proving equally problematical with, in some cases, issues with the building fabric occurring soon after construction.  Disheartened and frustrated with an unfamiliar liturgy and an even more unfamiliar architecture, bewildered parishioners no longer accepted the new style and yearned for "traditional" churches, churches that looked like the churches and buildings with which they were familiar.  In the case of Castlederg, of course, the old and familiar was still there, literally on their doorstep, and like the prodigal son, the parish returned to its roots.

In a nutshell, this, then, is the experience of church architecture in Ireland since Vatican II.  The revised liturgy and the new church architecture were indulged for a time, but it has slowly and painfully become apparent that the challenge is much more than skin deep.  Irish church architecture finds itself at a crossroads, as it struggles to engage with the revised liturgy.  Is it to persevere with the challenge of expressing the revised liturgy, or does it relapse back to tried and trusted symbols in a gesture of appeasement?

Tower of St. Patrick's ChurchIt is encouraging to report that the deeper discernment is ongoing, as it has become clear that even now we are only beginning to comprehend the liturgical implications of Vatican II.  The first phase of that discernment in Ireland placed its trust in architecture as a language for realising the revised liturgy.  However, as can be seen from the Castlederg experience, we have found this to be inadequate on its own.  Architecture, of course, has a role to play, but centre stage now must be the people, the local faith community.  From them the fullness of the liturgy will be realised and it is to them that architects must look for inspiration in clothing the liturgy in bricks and mortar.

Brian Quinn is an architect and liturgical consultant and a partner with Rooney & McConville, Belfast.  He is a member of the Advisory Committee on Art & Architecture to the Irish Episcopal Commission for Liturgy, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland.

Photo credit:  Brian Quinn

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