100 Buildings: Athy Library – an ode to cheerful architecture

One of the best ways to conserve a building to ensure its continued use is often by repurposing the building, as with the Athy Library, which began life as a house of God.

Dominican priests have celebrated Mass in the town of Athy, County Kildare, since the 13th century. The Dominican Priory was once Riverdale House near the River Barrow, the private residence of the Mansergh family. It was purchased by the Dominicans in 1846 and adapted for use by the Dominican order between 1846 and 1850.

While Prior of St. Saviour’s Church in the City of Limerick, Father Philip Pollock (1914 – 1978) met and commissioned local architect and civil engineer John Thompson (1917 – 1988) to design a dedicated chapel in Saint-Martin-de-Porres. Thompson had established his practice as John C. Thompson & Co in 1947, which is still going strong today as Thompson Architects. Their association was renewed when Fr. Pollock came to Athy and set about planning a new church to replace the small Gothic building which had served as the Dominican church for the previous 150 years. The two men traveled much of post-war Europe to find inspiration for a modern church that would express the principles of Vatican II. Father Pollock worked tirelessly to raise funds for the new church and made many fundraising trips to America.

The result of their travels was the construction of St Dominic’s Catholic Church at the end of Convent Lane – a building so remarkable that it has become an Athy landmark. The most striking feature of this church is its roof, which showcases the remarkable plasticity and strength of concrete, sometimes referred to as “liquid stone”, and which may well have seemed to some early parishioners that it was held in place. by the hand of God. The free-standing parabolic roof meets the ground and rests on a wedge-shaped plane. Its summit culminates at 75.96 m at one end and 69.15 m at the other with a span of nearly 48 m between the abutments. The walls were built after the roof was completed as the roof was expected to rise and fall with changes in temperature.

The colorful, abstract stained glass is by George Campbell RHA (1917-1979) of Abbey Stained Glass Studios. He was one of the founders of the Irish Living Art Exhibition in 1943 with high profile commissions such as the Galway Cathedral stained glass window (1965). Two years after the design phase, the Dominican Church opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1965. The Irish Times of March 18, 1965 claimed that yesterday Athy took its place among the most modern towns world when his state-of-the-art Dominican church was blessed and opened.’

Image from a church booklet, published in 1965
(source: Thompson Architects)

The interior of the space is wide open, devoid of pillars, partitions and barriers separating worshipers from the sanctuary. The light from the stained glass window reflects off the white painted wooden ceiling. The lighting was originally a series of a trio of brass pendant lights with white conical shades. The altar panel depicting the Deposition was created by Cork-born artist Breda O’Donoghue Lucci.

The floor of the church was delicate, in small floor tiles while the sanctuary is in checkered marble. Unusually, the seats were individual fiberglass seats mounted on metal frames which also had central heating rather than wooden benches. Another unique feature is that the Stations of the Cross, also by George Campbell, is a continuous frieze, the porous surface of its travertine stone giving a weathered look with warm earthy tones of ivory and cream veining. The simple crucifix was executed by the sculptor Bríd Ní Rinn (b. 1936).

On Sunday, November 22, 2015, the Dominican Church celebrated its last mass. The building was then deconsecrated, but did not remain idle for long as it was adapted to become the municipal library of Athy. Reddy Architecture + Urbanism carried out the renovation which included new staff areas, public restrooms, storage areas, a communications room and a meeting area. The contractor was Duggan Lynch Ltd. Floor tiles were replaced with carpeting and lighting updated with lights hanging in a ring like a congregation of halos. As a secular building, the figure of Jesus was removed from the crucifix which still remains in place. The church is reborn as the Athy Community Library, with the official opening on May 3, 2018.

This building, with its extraordinary roof, is placed on the register of protected structures in Kildare. Like a church, a public library is a civic space, and whether you are spiritual or not, the arts and crafts in this building are joyful and should be celebrated.

Special thanks to Finola Thompson and Thompson Architects for more information on the architect and the church.

Images: Ste Murray

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