The Unbroken Circle
It’s one of the most photographed churches in Ireland. Dr Paul Larmour, who lectured in architecture at Queen’s University Belfast, is the latest to publish a review of Burt Church in County Donegal. His 2022 publication Architects of Ulster 1920s to 1970s features 21 architects – Liam McCormick is the best known one. Paul states, “McCormick was eventually converted to the Modernist cause during a college trip to Paris in 1937 to see the World’s Fair. There he was impressed by the various national pavilions in modern style, notably those representing Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia. The most rewarding experiences of his Parisian trip, as he later recalled, were a visit to Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Suisse at the Cité Universitaire and a visit to Beaudouin and Lods’ school at Suresnes.”
He adds, “The church of St Aengus at Burt in County Donegal (1964 to 1967) brought unprecedented fame to McCormick. Its circular plan was a new and original concept in Ireland at the time, and it stands as a landmark not only in its physical setting but also in the development of modern Irish church architecture.” The building is high enough on a hillside off the Derry City to Letterkenny road to allow traffic to disappear into a fold in the topography like a giant haha. The isolation of the church is appropriate: St Aengus was famous for his love of solitude.
The ancient round tower, that most enigmatic of Irish structures, had long provided inspiration to ecclesiastical architects. St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Church in Jordanstown, County Antrim, by William Henry Lynn (1876) is a prime example with its 22 metre tall round tower next to the entrance porch. Liam McCormick looked to another enigmatic Irish structure and one to hand – the ancient circular fort. Grianán of Aileach was just such a fort, located higher up the hill from what become the site of Burt Church. As in his other Donegal churches, the stained glass is by Helen Moloney and the sculptures by Oisin Kelly.
In the 2011 Annual of the County Donegal Historical Society 2011 Liam McLaughlin writes, “The Church of St Aengus at Burt (1965 to 1967) is among the earliest of the new churches built in Ireland in response to the changes in the Liturgy initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Beautifully situated on an elevated site selected by the architect, it has panoramic views of sweeping countryside, Lough Swilly and the Inishowen hills. It appears at once bold and assured, and very much at ease with the landscape. This is achieved by its form and materials: the colour and texture of its natural stone wall of Claudy schist, rounded and battered in sympathy with the character of the ancient fort, and the spired copper clad roof that appears to float over a band of clerestory glazing encircling the building.” The white interior resembles a cave – again appropriate for the hermetic leanings of St Aengus.