Architects Architecture Art Design People

St Aengus Catholic Church Burt Donegal + Liam McCormick

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.

Many, many circular churches in Ireland would follow, some by Liam, some by lesser mortals. Liam McCormick was a pioneer of indigenous design.

Architecture People

St Patrick’s Memorial Church Saul Down + Henry Seaver

Saints and Scholars

St Patrick's Church Saul Grounds © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Saul Church, also known as St Patrick’s Memorial Church, commemorates the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is built on the reputed spot of his first sermon and subsequent church in the country. When he came to Ireland in 432 AD, strong currents swept his boat along the southern tidal narrows of Strangford Lough. He landed off the River Slaney a couple of miles from Saul. Dichu, the local chieftain, converted to Christianity and gave him a barn or sabhal (pronounced ‘saul’ in Gaelic) for holding services. St Patrick famously used a shamrock from the fertile Saul soil to explain the Holy Trinity. He died in Saul 29 years after landing in Ireland and is buried in nearby Downpatrick.

St Patrick's Church Saul Downpatrick © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick’s Jordanstown designed by William Lynn in the 1860s is the first Northern Irish church to embrace the Celtic revival with aplomb. Saul Church designed by Henry Seaver in the 1930s is the last. Both have a round tower. Henry was a prolific architect who designed many red brick bay windowed villas in the Deramore area of MaloneBelfast. He was also architect of St John’s Church on Malone Road. His brother was rector. St John’s is conventionally gothic. Saul is more Romanesque with its semicircular arched windows.

St Patrick's Church Saul Avenue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Grotto © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Cemetery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Tombstone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

When the Anglo Irish singer Chris de Burgh penned the words to “In a Country Churchyard” he might have had Saul Church in mind. It couldn’t be any more romantic in both senses of the word. A yew lined avenue leads to this tiny place of worship, spick and span, in contrast to the wild garden around the gravestones and remains of St Patrick’s Abbey. Its hilltop setting allows unbroken views across the rolling countryside of County Down. Unsurprisingly the church is popular for weddings led by members of the clergy from far and wide, including the Reverend Andy Rider of Christ Church Spitalfields. A dedication from St Patrick,

St Patrick's Church Saul Organ © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Go forth, traveller | In the Name which is above every name | Be of good courage | Hold fast that which is good | Render to no man evil for evil | Strengthen the faint hearted | Support the weak | Help the afflicted | Honour all men | Love and serve the Lord | Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And may the blessing of the Eternal God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you in your going out and your coming in.”

St Patrick's Church Saul Memorial © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley