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RTE celebrates Burt ‘masterpiece’ 23.03.07

THE LATE Greencastle architect Liam McCormick created a “masterpiece” of Irish architecture when he designed St. Aengus church in Burt.
That’s according to Co. Derry-born architect Sean Harrington who travelled to Inishowen recently to do a feature on the 40-year old chapel for RTE Radio One’s ‘The Architect’s Eye’.
Starting out at Grianan of Aileach where, on a good day, you can “see five counties”, Harrington outlined the history of the seminal building that was designed by McCormick between 1964 and 1965 and completed in 1967.
“It’s one of the few works of architecture in Ireland you could truly call a masterpiece,” he explained.
“It encompasses the spirit of its age yet it’s timeless. That is a much overused word but when you see (the church) you can see why it’s timeless.”
Harrington, who is based in Dublin, explained how McCormick, who practised in Derry, created the building “in dialogue” with the ancient ringfort further up the hill, achieving an organic structure that “looks like it has grown out of the field it is sitting in”.
“There is a real dialogue, a connection between the two formally, in other words, they look like each other, they are both stone circles,” he said.
McCormick, whose widow Joy still lives in Greencastle, was commissioned by the Bishop of Derry around 1963 to build a chapel for the local village.
St. Aengus Church at Burt
He persuaded the bishop to change the proposed location and built the church slightly out of the village to avail of the most architecturally advantageous and spiritual site.
The final location was sited next to the Presbyterian Church to one side with the Church of Ireland on the other.
Such a siting – in closer proximity to the ancient ringfort – allowed him, says Harrington, “to make the connection and turn it into a 20th Century masterpiece”.
The Portstewart-born architect, accompanied by ‘The Architect’s Eye’ presenter Liam O’Brien, went on to describe the beauty of both the exterior and interior of the circular chapel, which was named Ireland’s ‘Building of the 20th Century’ in the late 1990s. He praised the sweeping copper-covered roof…almost like a tent that is draped over the church and separated from the walls by a horizontal band of glazing. “That is visually very interesting, it disengages the roof from the walls so it looks like it’s floating above. Inside the effect is really beautiful.”
McCormick described St. Aengus as his ‘pagan church’ because of its close dialogue and referencing with the ancient ringfort nearby. He collaborated with a number of famous artists throughout 1965 and 1966 including Oisin Kelly whose sculpture outside the front door marks the history of the site.
Ireland's 'Building of the 20th Century' The cobblestones used on the outside were salvaged by McCormick from the Derry docks when, during a renovation project, they were going to be “thrown into the Foyle”.
“He put them to one side and then reused them in many places within the church which was a great recycling of materials,” said Harrington.
Moving inside the building, Harrington admired the off centre roof light above the altar, the beautifully curved plastered ceiling and the stunning stained glass designed in the Cubist style by Helen Maloney.
He said the circularity of the church, with its reference to the ‘circle of life’ made it equal all around and all-inclusive, to give the congregation the feeling they were in Mass together.
He said this was an interesting response by McCormick to Vatican II, which was designed to encourage more participation on behalf of the laity to church services.
And were the colours, shape and modernism of Burt chapel a culture shock to the local community in the 1960s?
Harrington explains: “In an international sense it captured the spirit of its time in 1965, 1966.
“One would imagine in this part of Donegal at the time it was a culture shock, but interestingly, I don’t think the church looks in the least bit dated. I think even if it had been built last year you would think it was remarkably modern on the one hand and also it would feel comfortable.
“That essence of timelessness, is a rare achievement for any architect or artist…designing something that is both in the spirit of its age and also something that will last forever…something that is appreciated by your peers, by other architects, but also something that is immediately appreciated by lay people, people who are not architects.”
He added: “So to be able to capture that essence in artwork, where something that is both contemporary and timeless but has huge popular appeal and something that is appreciated by other people in the field is a remarkable achievement and it happens very rarely. Some architects never achieve that. McCormick did in this church really incredibly well.”
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