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Rathmullan House + The Tap Room Donegal

Aalto Pitch | Lucid Camera | A Play on Words | Studium et Punctum

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“The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both,” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

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“Ireland is a staging point beyond Europe and the New World,” Professor Finola O’Kane of University College Dublin told us. Nowhere does it feel more so than in Donegal. A place of wild geese: the constant iterative of land carries a long shadow. A depth of field. Like its distant neighbour Castle Grove, Rathmullan House has been a hotel for more than half a century now. The house was originally built in the 1760s by the Anglo Irish Knox family (really Scots Irish as they hailed from Scotland but the term Anglo Irish is liberally applied to Plantation settlers). Anglo Irish: aristocrats | no portmanteau | universally accented | no translations. Rathmullan House later became the country retreat of a Belfast merchant family. The Batts doubled the size of the house in 1870.

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Its long Victorian stuccoed façade is anchored by a central canted bay window and one at either extremity. This proliferation of projections is rivalled only in the Province by Benvarden House in Ballymoney with its two bows and two canted bays. At Rathmullan House they act as framing devices, freezing the corrugated surface of Lough Swilly below the tattered theatre of a thundery sky mid afternoon. Honeycomb punctured vertical bargeboards peek out from the side elevation dormers, silhouetted against a sky turned powder blue. All changes again with the descent of a crimson tinged sunset: bloody inland.

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“Every photograph is a certificate of presence.” Roland Barthes

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An enfilade of five antique filled commodious yet intimate rooms stretches across the façade. “Almost all the furniture was auctioned when the Batts sold the house. There are just two original items. My grandmother bought the tub chair and the painting of Charlotte Sarah Batt was bought by a lady who discovered it was too big for her home so returned it to Rathmullan House!” says Mark Wheeler who runs the hotel with his wife Mary. “Henry McIlHenny bought much of the furniture for Glenveagh Castle.” Luscious plasterwork, some polychromatic, adds richness to the rooms.

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In 1966 the first generation of the current hotel owners, Mark’s parents, employed the architect Liam McCormick to add a dining room extension with tented ceilings. “Liam was a great sailor,” explains Mark, “and the ceilings are hung with the silk used for yacht sails. Their shape was inspired by the Indian arches in the Rajah Room.” The dining room is formed of interlocking octagons, pagoda-like structures taking the Victorian chamfered bays to their logical geometric conclusion. “The hotel is a popular wedding venue for architecture students,” smiles Mark, “ever since Liam McCormick’s Burt Church won building of the year!” He also designed a smattering of cuboid holiday pavilions in the wooded grounds.

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Such is the Photograph: it cannot say what it lets us see.” Roland Barthes

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Rathmullan House was a departure from his oeuvre. Before his death in 1992, Liam would complete 27 churches in Ireland. Each is recognisably by his hand: with one sweep he felled the cluttered gothic norm with a spare modernist form. Abstraction wasn’t Dr McCormick’s primary goal, “I wouldn’t say it’s studied. My resolution of problems tends to have a sculptural end. I grew up in a physically dramatic countryside; this sort of background inevitably comes into play when I design, and the churches have nearly all been in a rural setting.” The stark white shapes are as integrated into the Donegal vernacular as whitewashed cottages, their outlines as distinctive as Muckish Mountain. The closest of Liam’s seven Donegal churches to Rathmullan are Donoughmore Presbyterian to the south and St Peter’s Milford Catholic to the west.

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Enough waxing lyrical taxing diction. Pizza awaits us in the vaults of Rathmullan House. A stone oven baked base piled high with wild and exotic mushrooms, fior di latte mozzarella, marinated friarielli, garlic, parsley and aged Pecorino to be precise. And then a moonlit walk along the two mile beach at the end of the garden. A rare curlew’s forlorn and faintly human sound assumes an eerie resonance across the still sand. The freedom of the country, far away from the London vertigo.

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“Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” Roland Barthes.

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