Dr McCormick said in 1978, “I like to go and absorb the characteristics of the site, to steep myself in the quality and the character of the place and pick up some element which will give me a clue for the building.” The rugged landscape was clearly the clue to designing St Michael’s.
In place of the traditional cruciform layout, St Michael’s is an innovative fan shape, physically drawing the congregation together into one democratic space. The architect was particularly adept at capturing light in unexpected ways. Cue an idiosyncratic wall-to-window ratio and relationship. For example, a cluster of small windows filled with stained glass by artist Helen Moloney on the northeast elevation contrasts with great expanses of white rendered wall on the south elevation.
The single storey flat roofed residence next door to the church is surely by Liam McCormick as well. Its simple form and punched window openings, a reinterpretation of the vernacular cottage, would make a good prototype for contemporary dwellings. In the early 21st century MacGabhann Architects are keeping the torch lit | carrying the mantle | upholding the tradition of thoughtful design in County Donegal.
Meekness and majesty, mistiness and mystery. Clinging onto the Atlantic coast, notwithstanding its tonal contextualism, this villa with the mildest of butterfly roofs, an angularity at odds with the contours of its setting, is a reminder that modernism once reached the furthest corners of the earth.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.