It’s not the most likely place to come across a 1960s architectural masterpiece. But then rugged County Donegal, ever by the sea, is full of surprises. A few kilometres north of the lively town of Buncrana, on a wild and windy and windswept road, a Celtic corniche eventually leading to Dunree Head, stands Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in the otherwise little known townland of Desertegney. Indeed, on an especially inclement day the white architecture merges with the swirling white clouds and almost disappears.
Our Lady of the Sea is by name and nature nautical. The long low main building with its western bell end shape and high porthole like windows is reminiscent of a boat come ashore. This was the architect’s direct response to the site which overlooks Lough Swilly on a clear day. The modernist minimalist bell tower linked to the church by a glazed vestibule is a daring concept of geometry, a clever combination of solid and void, a religious lighthouse. Liam McCormick was a great yachtsman.
The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, County Donegal, 2014, states, “Church architecture did not evolve again until well after World War II, when a response was required to reflect the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) with its renewed emphasis on the collective experience of the faithful. Nowhere in Ireland was this achieved more successfully than in Donegal by Liam McCormick whose church designs broke completely with earlier conservative models. While his buildings make reference to the past in their use of familiar vernacular forms and textures, they also respond to place and the Donegal landscape. In several cases the sites were selected by the architect and the manipulation of both the building and it is a precious part of their impact that is sometimes overlooked.”
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.