Architecture People

Dunree Head + Fort Dunree Donegal

Whistling Down the Wind

The museum café boasts of having “the best view in Ireland”. It might well but only for at most 364 days a year: for much of today any view can only be measured in metres not kilometres. A swirl of fog and mist and rain blows in from the Atlantic Ocean. There’s far flung and there’s Dunree Head – next stop Malin Head, the most northwesterly tip of Ireland meriting a mention on the Shipping Forecast. And after that, next stop Iceland. Dunree Head juts into Lough Swilly, one of County Donegal’s many waterways.

In Irish “Loch Súilí” means “Lake of Shadows”. It is one of three glacial fjords in Ireland and is flanked on both sides by hilly peninsulae: Fanad to the west, Inishowen to the east. Dunree is in the Parish of Desertegney, Inishowen. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “Lough Swilly, though not the most frequented, is the best and safest harbour on the north coast of Ireland. It is, from its conflux with the ocean to Ballyraine Bridge, by the ship’s course, about 23 Irish miles and a half long. Mariners allow that it would afford secure anchorage to the whole British Navy. It is encumbered with but few rocks without the tide mark and these, except Swilly Rocks, are out of the ship’s course in and not dangerous. The bottom from the very entrance is clean sand. It holds well and ships may anchor almost anywhere within it, but the most secure anchoring places are Buncrana Castle or off the river in (according to the size of the vessel) from two to eight fathoms, or at Rathmullan.” One of the most significant events in Irish history occurred on the opposite side of the lough at Rathmullan. In 1607, the Flight of the Earls marked the end of the Gaelic order in Ireland and paved the way for the Plantation of Ulster by English and Scottish settlers.

Lough Swilly continued down the ages to be the setting for high drama on the high sea. Fanad Lighthouse was built following the wrecking of HMS Saldanha. In 1911, this Royal Navy frigate struck rocks near Fanad Head, at the northwest tip of Lough Swilly, and ran aground at Ballymastocker Bay. All 250 or so men on board drowned including the 29 year old Captain William Pakenham. Six years later, SS Laurentic, a British ocean liner of the White Star Line built by Harland + Wolff (the greatest shipyard of all time) in 1908, the same year as Titanic, stopped off at Buncrana to allow a number of passengers with yellow fever symptoms to disembark. The Laurentic had been converted to an armed merchant ship at the beginning of World War I. It was bound for Halifax, Canada, and carried 479 naval officers and a secret cargo of gold, payment for munitions from Canada and the United States. She departed Buncrana for Fanad Head amidst a storm. Captain Reginald Norton sailed on regardless, despite the weather and reports of U boat sightings in Lough Swilly earlier that day. The Laurentic struck two German submarine laid mines and sank within the hour. Out of 475 passengers, 121 survived including Captain Norton, many rescued by local fishing trawlers. Over the rest of the 20th century, salvage operations recovered some of the bars of gold but an estimated £2 million worth remains in the watery grave of the wreckage, 40 metres beneath the waves.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “Dunree Fort is strikingly situated on the coast of Lough Swilly immediately opposite Knockalla Battery. It stands on a little rocky peninsula whose isthmus is a mass of rocks having a natural arch below, through which t sea flows, and a chasm 25 feet deep by nine feet wide. The fort occupies the whole of this peninsula and is inaccessible except by a drawbridge thrown over the chasm. It is an irregular four sided figure measuring about 650 feet round the inside of the walls and parapets, and presents a fire of nine 24 pounders on traversing carriages, and three others can be mounted in embrasures if required… A company of men and officers can be accommodated in the barracks with all the usual requisites for infantry soldiers, and the fort possesses a fine spring which issues out of the rock. Dunree Fort was built in the years 1812 to 1814 under the superintendence of Captain Spicer, Royal Engineers… Its present garrison is a master gunner and seven artillerymen detached from Buncrana. Mr Edgar of Buncrana contracted for the building of Dunree and the other five forts in Lough Swilly.”

Fort Dunree marks the spot where Wolfe Tone was captured by the British army in 1798 and subsequently sentenced to death. He died a short time after in prison, likely by suicide. Wolfe Tone was a Protestant revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, a Republican organisation that rebelled against British rule in Ireland. In the 19th century the fort was rebuilt. Control of the fort was transferred to the Irish Free State just before World War II. Fort Dunree Military Museum opened to the public in 1986 and includes a military museum and underground bunkers within the walled enclosure. Timber buildings – the gunners’ canteen, officers’ mess, gymnasium and so on – are scattered across the hillside of Dunree Head, gently crumbling in the wild weather. The museum café “with the best view in Ireland – except for at least one day a year” is going strong.

Architecture Art People

St Patrick’s Church Murlog Donegal + Liam McCormick

Fragrant with Myrrh and Aloes and Cassia and Lavender

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Old Church Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Henry Mulholland, 4th Baron Dunleath, may have been referring to musical events but his erudite musings could easily apply to Murlog Church: “Excellence is not an exclusive right of the metropolis, quality is not necessarily governed by quantity and mood need not be dependent on magnificence.” Dedicated to St Patrick, this rural building is the epitome of restraint, of architecture and art pared down to elemental presence. It’s the second – and largest – of acclaimed architect Liam McCormick’s seven County Donegal churches. Two decades of building starting in 1955 produced Milford, Murlog, Desertegney, Burt, Creeslough, Glenties and finally Donoughmore.

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Old Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Liam’s patron at Murlog was Parish Priest Anthony McFeely, later Bishop of Raphoe. In 1959, prior to commencement of design, they set off on a mini Grand Tour visiting new churches in France, Germany and Switzerland. As a consequence, Ireland’s most northwesterly county was blessed with Continental influenced state of the heart ecclesiastical architecture. Liam described Father McFeely as, “A client who was not just precise about the brief but one who having reacted against the gimmickry in much contemporary Irish church architecture, made a point of going abroad to see the best European churches and assessing their spiritual quality.”

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Roof © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Gable © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Bell Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Spire © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Stained Glass © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Roof Lantern © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Crucifix © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Baptismal Font © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A green apron of gradient slopes down to the site along the road between Lifford and Raphoe. Like all his other Donegal churches (except Burt which is stone faced), Murlog is painted roughcast plaster (once white, now custard cream). A covered entrance walkway links the bell tower to the main body of the church. The architecture has a distinctly Continental appearance, defined by geometry rather than decoration. A stone tower in the car park is all that remains of the Victorian church.

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Tabernacle Vestibule © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The layout is a variation of the traditional cruciform plan with splayed walls and chevron headed extremities drawing the congregation towards the altar. An octagonal roof lantern lights the crisscross of the nave and transepts. Liam selected six artists to work on the interior. Patrick McElroy, who designed the tabernacle and baptismal font cover, recalls, “He was like the conductor of an orchestra, and you had to fit in with his idea… he certainly wanted original works of art… you got your area where you were to work, and all the artists knew each other… and Liam became a great friend to us all. He was a great man for having a night out!” Patrick Pollen created the largest expanse of stained glass in any Liam McCormick church. The windows are chevron headed, reflecting the floor plan. Stripped of sensuous frills and casual thrills, the architecture and art work together towards a sacred Gesamtkunstwerk.

St Patrick's Church Murlog Donegal Tabernacle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley