North by northwest, a celebration of Liam McCormick

mccormick_liamLiam McCormick, regarded as the “father of modern church architecture in Ireland”, was a giant of Irish architecture throughout the second half of the 20th century and one of only a handful of Irish architects to attract an international reputation. During his long career he built more 30 churches, including three in England. Liam McCormick was born in Derry in 1916 to a political and seafaring family and grew up in Ulster’s princely county, Donegal. Apart from brief excursions to the outside world, he found no good reason ever to leave the northwest. Its myths and landscapes fired his soul to create some of the most lyrical and most loved modern architecture in Ireland.

John Hume, former leader of the SDLP and one of the architects of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland will launch North by Northwest: The life and work of Liam McCormick at the Irish Architectural Archive next Tuesday, April 22.

John Hume knew Liam McCormick, who designed a home for the Hume family, as a friend and neighbour for almost 30 years. North by Northwest is the first book and exhibition devoted to the architect of Burt Church, which was voted Ireland’s ‘building of the 20th century’ in a national poll organized by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and The Sunday Tribune in 1999. The premier prize for architecture in Northern Ireland, awarded by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects every second year for the best new building in Ulster, was named in his memory around the same time.

Liam McCormick’s masterpiece, the iconic and timeless Church of St Aengus at Burt, Co Donegal, overlooking Lough Swilly, was built in 1967. It has thick circular stone walls that echo the barrel shape of the Grianán of Aileach, the prehistoric ring fort on the hilltop above the church, and is topped off with an elegant and dramatic copper roof that rises like a breaking wave towards the heavens.

North by Northwest, the 300-page book accompanying the exhibition, is published by Gandon Editions for the Irish Architectural Archive and the Irish Architecture Foundation. Both the book and the exhibition are sponsored by Harcourt Developments and the RIAI. The authors of North by Northwest are Paul Larmour, Northern Ireland’s leading architectural historian and Reader at Queen’s University Belfast, and Shane O’Toole, the award-winning architect and critic from Dublin.

According to Shane O’Toole, “Liam McCormick was a romantic at heart. He believed that architecture is an emotional art and he was not wrong about this. People respond emotionally to his buildings, which is the rarest and highest praise any architect can receive.”

Paul Larmour adds: “Beginning in the 1950s, Liam McCormick’s patronage of artists led to the creation of a whole new ‘school’ of Irish church art and a flowering of native creativity and artistry that calls to mind in its focus and range both the golden age of early Christian art in Ireland and the heyday of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement in the early 20th century.”

Educated at Liverpool University in the late 1930s, Liam McCormick was one of the first Irish architects exposed to the new international trends in modern architecture, yet speaking towards the end of his career, he said: “I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to work from the two places where I grew up and where my roots are. Being part of a community is a strength and a useful mirror in which to measure oneself: the success is always put in correct perspective.”

McCormick lived for most of his life by the sea in Greencastle, Co Donegal. His office in Derry attracted many talented assistants, including several from Scandinavia – all drawn by his unique ability to create low-cost, world-class architecture in one of the most remote corners of Europe. If he always remained close to his northern roots, McCormick sought international inspiration for his revolutionary buildings – in particular, his series of beautiful churches – by regularly visiting Scandinavia and continental Europe. These summer trips were mostly made by boat. He sailed to Denmark and Finland in the 1950s. In the 1970s he sailed with his young family from Greencastle to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower – and deeper inland to visit Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, the pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haute at Ronchamp, near Basel in Switzerland, which was built in 1954.

During the 1970s Liam McCormick assumed roles and responsibilities and took stands on issues that in the normal life of a busy architect would not arise. He served as High Sheriff of Derry in 1970, only the second Catholic to hold the position since the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century; the first had been his grandfather, in 1901. At the invitation of William Whitelaw, the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, McCormick commissioned a report into discrimination against Catholics in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. After Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, McCormick’s complaints to English MPs about the British Army’s actions in Derry on that day were immediately brought to attention of the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and read into the record of the parliamentary debate in Westminster by Merlyn Rees, Labour’s shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland.

McCormick’s office on The Diamond in Derry was firebombed later in 1972. Almost all of his drawings and records were lost, which makes the new exhibition and book all the more important.

Among those contributing to the book are former SDLP Leader, John Hume; former Supreme Court Judge and first President of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Donal Barrington, who was one of McCormick’s sailing partners; actor Liam Neeson, who narrated a UTV documentary on Liam McCormick in 1977; poet Seamus Heaney; and Most Reverend Edward Daly, the retired Bishop of Derry. Former employees who shed light on what it was like to work for McCormick in Derry during the Troubles include Labour TD Liz McManus and Hugh Murray, founder of Ireland’s largest architectural firm, Murray O’Laoire. Other contributors to the book and exhibition include the artists Imogen Stuart and Helen Moloney, who worked with him on many churches and Robert Ballagh, who painted his portrait for the Ulster Museum.

The exhibition North by Northwest will be open to the public free of charge at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin 2 from April 23 until July 4. The exhibition will be shown in Belfast next October at the Golden Thread Gallery which is housed in the Switch Room in the city’s Titanic Quarter. Opening hours for the Dublin exhibition are 10.00 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Friday only. The Irish Architectural Archive is closed on Mondays.