I can well recall the total astonishment and indignation when the new Catholic Chapel was being built in Creeslough, County Donegal almost 50 years ago. For years after it opened whenever we drove past, my father would say – ”Just look at that! How can that be a chapel?” (We never actually referred to a Catholic ‘Church’ in this part of Donegal. The word ‘Church’ implied a different denomination, so we had ‘Chapels’) We knew what a real Chapel looked like and this new building was not remotely like anything we had seen before.
Many churches constructed in Ireland after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 were imposing, cut stone buildings with high ceilings and sometimes even with soaring elegant steeples reaching heavenward. Frequently visible from a great distance, they were instantly recognizable – you just knew what you were looking at. The more modest church buildings without lofty steeples, at the very least ‘looked holy’. And so, when Doe Chapel was to be demolished and a new Chapel built in Creeslough there was some bemusement at the design of the new building.
The village of Creeslough is nestled under Muckish Mountain, a mountain that dominates this area and villages for miles around. This new building was to be in the image and likeness of the mountain. To add to the dismay, the name Muckish, or in Irish, ‘An Mhucais’, had the meaning of ‘pig like’ or ‘the back of a pig’. To say that there was a level of consternation in the local discourse would have indeed been an understatement.
Church architecture has changed dramatically in the last half century and what looked strange to our eyes then, is quite acceptable nowadays. I have since learned that the Creeslough Chapel was designed by Liam McCormick, (1916 – 1986), who has been described by the Irish Heritage Council as “one of the most important church architects of his generation”. So while back in the area on holiday this year, I decided to take a closer look at this strange looking chapel, this ‘hulk of a building’.
The Presbetery or ‘The Parochial House’ as we in Donegal would call it, was designed by the same architect, Liam McCormick. He was born in neighbouring Derry but had strong Donegal family connections. He had his early education in Greencastle and has many iconic buildings and churches to his credit, including several in Donegal and the headquarters of the Met Office in Glasnevin, Dublin.
In the adjoining grounds, there is a very nice metal Cross, incorporating a Crown of Thorns – One of the few clues as to the purpose of the building! From this viewpoint too, approaching from the car park, there is a water feature to the side of the building with what resembles a primitive cross as a backdrop.
Near the door stands a chapel bell– I like to think that this is originally from the old chapel in Doe, although I could not make out either the date or the foundry on the bell. This bell may have been heard by generations of worshippers in the parish, ringing the Angelus, celebrating marriages or pealing in mourning .
A very interesting feature of the building is this group of 6 very small windows. Apparently McCormick drew inspiration for his design, not only from Muckish, but also from the many vernacular cottages in this part of Donegal, mostly whitewashed buildings with small windows.
The true joy in this building is inside! The doors lead into a semi circular auditorium with large windows at one side framing a view of Muckish and filling it with natural light.
The colourful medal-shaped Stations of the Cross are unusual and sit well with the most spectacular stained glass windows I have seen in a long while. These are set into the 6 small windows and funnel vibrant light through the thick walls. They are the work of Helen Moloney (1926 – 2011) who worked with McCormick on a number of his churches. They have to be seen to be really appreciated.
Passing through the heavy doors on the way out, you just know you will be back to see this wonderful creation again, with its many exciting parts – a truly spiritual work of art! If you are passing, why not drop in?
*** It would be very nice to see the architects and artists credited in church sites such as this. This is a tourist attraction in itself, in the same way as the great cathedrals across the world, so what would be amiss about adding information about the design, the architect and artists whose work is here and having a donations receptacle for the upkeep of these great works of art on site?
Note: ‘Dander’ is an Ulster word meaning ‘wandering’ !