Liam McCormick

Father of modern Irish church architecture

Liam McCormick is recognised as the father of modern Irish church architecture. He designed some 27 churches, breaking the mould of the steadfastly Hiberno-Gothic-Italianite, and creating something altogether different - something new, something modern. No mean feat in the Ireland of that time.

William Henry Dunlevy McCormick (1916 - 1996) was born in Derry to one of the few prosperous Catholic families of the time. In an interview with Niall Kiely for The Irish Times in 1976, McCormick recalled his home town:

'It was the capital of the north west. Many Donegal people worked in it and it was the important supply and distribution centre for the entire north west of the island, down as far as Sligo. A famous Derry ships chandlers McMichaels used to travel the coast every few weeks, supplying the fishermen. The border stopped all that and Derry suffered enormously. It was then that loyalties took religious lines.'

McCormick, who was a pupil at St Columb’s, left to study architecture in Liverpool. Upon qualification he returned to Derry working for the Derry Corporation and then for Ballymena Council. The young architect then suffered a long bout of TB, an illness which was to prompt his first foray into church design. - It was during his convalescence in Greencastle, Co Donegal that McCormick and Frank Corr entered a competition to design a church for Ennistymon, Co Clare. Their submission won and so began an illustrious career.

In 1948 McCormick set up private practice in Derry’s Ferryquay Street working on Ennistymon church, Lahinch church, Pennyburn school, Creggan school, churches in Milford and Southampton and of course Burt church in Co Donegal winner of the triennial Gold Medal in 1970 and nominated the ’Building of the Century’ by a national poll.

Up until 1968 McCormick had been a partner with Frank Corr. After this McCormick formed a new partnership and went on to design St Michael’s Creeslough, St Conal’s Glenties, St Patrick’s Clogher, St Nicholas Carrickfergus, Sacred Heart Bettystown, Donaghmore Presbyterian Church, Acension of the Lord Balally and Wayside church of Peace Fossa.

Corbusier, Gropius and Alvar Aalto were among McCormick’s stated influences. He particularly admired Aalto’s sense of scale, location and economy. When asked by Niall Kiely, in an 1976 interview in 1976, about the sculptural look of his work McCormick answered:

'I wouldn’t say it’s studied. My resolution of problems tends to have a 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.'

Through his friendship with many artists McCormick secured commissions for them to place art in the interior of his churches. Evie Hone, Oisin Kelly, Patrick and Nell Pollen, Helen Moloney, Ray Carroll, Michael Biggs and Ruth Brandt have all contributed liturgical art to his churches.

McCormick was a founder member of the North West Architectural Association and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, a committee member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. He was also a trustee of the Ulster Museum. In 1977 he received an honorary doctorate from Coleraine University and was created a Knight of St Gregory in 1984.

The architect retired in 1983 giving him more time to indulge his love of sailing. As a flag officer of the Irish Cruising Club, he won several awards for extensive cruises in Irish waters and aboard Manannan Mac Lir he and his family sailed the waterways of of Western Europe. He died on 28 August 1996 and is survived by his wife, Joy, son Finn and daughter Aisling.