Architects Architecture Design

Our Lady Star of the Sea Church Desertegney + Liam McCormick

Rend Collective Hit

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.

This is the third in a series of seven churches architect Liam McCormick (1916 to 1996) bestowed on this most northwest of Irish counties. Donaghmore (gable ended, almost domestic scaled, spirelet rising from roof ridge) is his only Presbyterian church; the rest are Catholic. Church of St Aengus Burt (circular plan, swooping asymmetric roof, stone walls) is his most celebrated, the recipient of endless awards. St Michael’s Church Creeslough (sculptural mound, irregular groupings of oblong windows) is clearly inspired by Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut. St Conal’s Church Glenties (triangular buttresses, huge monopitched roofs) is sharp angled. St Peter’s Church Milford (obtuse angled front, standalone bell tower) is his least radical design. St Patrick’s Church Murlog (large cruciform plan, splayed walls).

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.”