Saving old buildings with new ideas

John Yates, Dip Arch MRIAI, will leave an indelible mark on Galway.

John Yates, Dip Arch MRIAI, will leave an indelible mark on Galway.

When it comes to planning applications in Galway, whether it is for a new building, or the renovation of an old building, modernisation or improvement, there are two strands of thought that can affect the decision from the local authority. I may not have all the technical jargon, but I understand that one side of the argument insists that pretty well every building that is a few generations old should be preserved. Any additional building must use the same or similar materials so that the addition appears to be a seamless add on.

The other side of the coin says yes, let’s preserve what we can; but let us also avoid the phoney or pastiche add ons. It’s far more honest to design a modern structure but adhering to the space and proportions of the original building, subject to the agreed planning laws.

A good example of my second point is the bold glass structure (designed by Atlantic Architects ), which accommodates the city transport unit of Galway City Council. It practically adjoins the refurbished Grammar School (built in the early 19th century, now Yeats’ College ), on College Road. Is the new structure a carbuncle close to the venerable Grammar School; or is it an honest modern building reflecting the job it has to do, providing an interesting contrast between the two buildings?

There is a concern that if Galway continuously refuses to allow new buildings (which is an impression that is out there ), then we have little or no 20th or 21st century architecture; and we are in danger of being left with a Walt Disney town reflecting ‘the good-old-days’.

Local architects, developers, and property owners have often claimed that the regulations are unclear, that there are contrasting interests among the powers who grant planning permissions, leading to misunderstandings and expensive delays. Yet these are the perimeters which dictate our built environment in our city and county. Can a satisfactory balance ever be achieved?

I was interested to see the approach adopted by John Yates and Associates when they were asked to ‘modernise’ St Joseph’s parish church, Presentation Road. Built in 1882, St Joseph’s is one of the principal Catholic churches in the city; but the layout of the altar, baptismal font, and other old remnants, did not conform with all Vatican II directives. It was also dark, with a musty smell from a large blue carpet, some dire religious art, and a plethora of contrasting colours. The walls showed water damage. Heating, lighting, and furnishings all needed updating.

But as the Augustinian community learned as they approached its recent renovation, you undertake a project such as this with great caution. A church holds a special place in the hearts of its parishioners. For all the faults you would expect to find in a building over 100 years old, worshipers generally like it as it is. St Joseph’s is also a protected structure, which means that every change will be scrutinised, and probably refused. It was a difficult challenge for all concerned.

The parish priest, Fr Martin Downey, and the parish council began as far back as 2003 consulting parishioners, and once the problems were identified, John Yates and his team also met them to outline their proposals. There was generally enthusiasm for change. Only two parishioners objected to the plan. Finally it was done, and was rededicated by Bishop Martin Drennan in March 29 last year, six years after the initial consultations.

A unique way

Walk into St Joseph’s today and you are assailed by light, a sense of newness, reverence, and space. It is still unmistakably St Joseph’s. Outside it stands, as a traditional Irish church building, with its local cut-stone. It still has a brooding presence beside the Presentation Convent, dominating the road. Yet, inside, it sensitively reflects the ‘new from within the old’, which many people in Ireland hope will be the way forward for the Catholic Church reeling as it is from a series of scandals in recent years.

John Yates, who has specially trained in architectural conservation, and who has had his own architectural practice in Galway since 1995, approached the challenge in a unique way. Accepting that the refurbished church must also have a strong appeal to young people, he encouraged two young architects in his own practice, Síle Walsh and Morgan Cowles, to take the lead, while he maintained overall supervision. There were a lot of battles with the powers-that-be over some of the stained glass, the spiral staircase to the organ loft, the organ itself; and the introduction of clean and bright Carra marble, and Juro limestone. But the overall effect is to allow light to pour in, in every sense. The colour scheme works very well. Before the renovations started there were at least 10 colours throughout the building. Now there are three: White, cream, and gold.

Local builders and artists were used. Purcell Construction was the main contractor; while Padraig Reaney restored the Stations of the Cross, Vicki Crowley designed the large and impressive new stained glass windows over the organ loft, which were made by Richard Kimble of Aria Glass.

Courthouse square

Before setting up his own practice John Yates worked for 12 years in partnership with Colm O’Riain, at a time when Galway saw a number of impressive local authority and educational buildings. O’Riain and Yates won the prestigious Town Hall Theatre/Courthouse renovations contract. Colm imaginatively transformed a run-down cinema into a magnificent theatre, that generously reflected the arts scene in Galway which up to that time, had delivered impressive standards of drama and concerts in ad hoc venues around the city.

John tackled the Courthouse which was in a serious state of dilapidation. Built in 1815, on the site of the original Franciscan friary in Galway, it was effectively the heart of British legal rule in the west. On the other side of the Salmon Weir Bridge was the prison with its high walls; while the original ‘Town Hall’ was also a court. The whole area was a busy place dispensing English law. In the early 1800s some 200 offences were punishable by death. But in fact the Irish jury was often surprisingly merciful. Knowing the penalty for a verdict of guilty, it sometimes (against all the evidence ) found the prisoners not guilty.*

Such sanguine legal dramas do not generally happen today, but on the day John walked into the courthouse, it was all a bit of a mess. There was a Victorian court in all its physical severity, with its immovable wooden benches, and stark walls, and high windows. The acoustics, sanitation, heating, and accommodation left much to be desired. There was no privacy, or facilities for barristers to meet clients. All consultations, between legal representations and clients, were held in the main hall. The place buzzed like a railway station. Furthermore, shortly before renovation took place, the county council had offices on the top floor, the county library was situated on the second floor, while in the basement the Quinn family, the caretakers of the building, had resided for nearly a century**.

There was a lot to do; but today, Galway Courthouse dispenses the law in probably the finest building in the city. By linking the courthouse with the Town hall theatre, through a pleasing arrangement of trees, cobblestones, and stone, an attractive square has been created. The pedestrian is drawn to the movement and noise of the river close by at Woodquay; and on a warm summer afternoon, to see the spray rising from the weir.

‘Finest arts venue’

Galway has been blessed with having many good architects, but what distinguishes John is his enthusiasm for architectural conservation. His pioneering work in this highly specialised field has allowed him to ‘tread softly’ through the contrasting ideals which attempt to guide building design today. He is particularly valued for his appreciation of old church buildings. He is the diocesan architect for this Church of Ireland diocese, and has worked on numerous ecclesiastical buildings including Spiddal’s beautiful St Enda’s church and mausoleum. Other similar projects include Clifden town hall, Templejarlath, Tuam, Claregalway castle, many shops and private homes. It’s worth stopping at Ballinasloe to admire his riverside walk and housing scheme, and his superb conversion of Lady Augusta Gregory’s town house at 47 Dominick Street, described at the time by The Irish Times as the ‘finest arts venue and display space in the country’.

I was sorry to learn that next month John is stepping back from his work , to spend more time with his wife Mary, to travel, and to continue his interests in our built environment.

Indelible mark

John Yates was born in Dublin but brought up in Enniskillen and Belfast, where his father was senior engineer on the Lough Erne drainage scheme and on the MI. His father was a Tipperary man, the son of Rev John Yates, a noted Trinity College mathematics scholar. His mother was a Clare woman, and sister of the late Rev Robbie Ellis, Dunmurray, a highly respected ecumenical figure in Belfast; and father of Justice Catherine McGuinness, Judge of the Supreme Court.

John married Francoise Le Bolay, from Lorient, Brittany; and they moved to Galway in 1982, where he worked initially at the Bowman Quaid office. Francoise was a great promoter of the Galway/Lorient twinning, and was an unofficial ambassador to visiting groups from France. She initiated the Trans Celtic Ocean Race. Both she and John were prominent in the emerging arts scene in Galway. They had two children, Killian and Alison; but sadly Francoise died after a brief illness in 1997.

Three years ago, to the great joy of their friends, John married Mary Flynn who shares his passion for heritage, building design, architecture, and travel. John has left an indelible mark on his adopted city; his unassuming knowledge, his total commitment to his profession, and gentle kindness will always be appreciated. John admirably succeeded in finding satisfactory accommodation between the two ideals that govern much of our development in this city.


* Judge Fletcher was famously presiding over a case of two highwaymen, when to everyone’s astonishment they were found not guilty. The judge, aware he had to travel to the Ennis assizes later that day, urged the jailer to hold the highwaymen for at least two hours to allow him to get a healthy head start on the road, before releasing them.

**Martina Quinn, now a teacher in Trim, Co Meath, filled me in on the history of her family, the last occupants of the courthouse basement. Her grandfather, Pat Lardner, born in 1870, lived in Eyre Street, worked as a clerk for the County Council, with offices at the top of the Courthouse. He was asked to be caretaker of the building while its incumbent Capt Seymour, was called to duty in World War I. He remained as caretaker after the 1916 Rising, and married Nora (also a clerk with the Co Council ). They had four children: Mary, Paddy (or Lobby ), Peter and Joe. Mary stayed on as caretaker, married Joseph Quinn. They had three children, Anne Marie, Philomena, and Martina.

It was an interesting place to live. The living quarters was five feet underground. There was no garden, and clothes were dried in the actual courthouse when hearings were over. It was also haunted. Their dog regularly dug up human bones. Once, when their parents were out, the three girls saw a man, dressed in a hat and a turned up cloak (like the old Sandeman port advertisement ), come down the stairs, and enter a windowless room. When their mother returned they told her what happened; but the figure had mysteriously vanished. The mother sent for Fr John Bosco, a Franciscan from the nearby abbey. He told them that the costume they saw was the habit worn by Franciscans in the Middle Ages. The courthouse was built on the site of the first Franciscan abbey in Galway.

The Lardner family had a continuous link with the courthouse from 1889 until their removal in 1980.

Next few weeks

I am going to look at two local incidences during the Land War 1870s - 1890s: The Maamtrasna Murders, and the riots at Woodford 1887. Coincidentally, the Maamtrasna murders occurred in 1882, the same year as the foundation stone for St Joseph’s parish church was laid.


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