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

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St Michael’s Church Creeslough Donegal + Liam McCormick

A Response to Place

Really, it’s the ultimate expression of architecture as sculpture as terrain. The design of St Michael’s Catholic Church in Creeslough, County Donegal, owes as much to its humpbacked Muckish Mountain backdrop as it does to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp and abstract art. It is one of seven churches in the county designed by Liam McCormick in the second half of the 20th century.

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.

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Rathmullan House + The Tap Room Rathmullan Donegal

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


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


“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.


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


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.


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


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.


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