Galway prides itself on being a medieval city. Thanks to some good development during the past 30 years or so, much of our ancient city landscape has been highlighted. Yet compared to Kilkenny, we are only at the tuppence-halfpenny stakes when it comes to physical history. But one new building in particular has done more than anything else to highlight the beginning of commercial Galway, and the growth of the town. I am referring to that deceptively simple projection of a 13th century Norman hall into the public domain at Druid Lane, off Quay Street. Designed by Michael Cadden at the Office of Public Works, using clean-lined modern architecture, the archaeological site is left as it was unearthed, and is presented behind a large glass wall. Uniquely the public is offered total immersion. Not only can we view the site, but there is provision for a public walkway over the site. But more of that in a moment.
The site is part of the old Galway Custom House, which had asked in 1996 for the building to be enlarged to accommodate the Revenue office. An archaeological dig, carried out by Gerry Walsh and Dominick Delaney, prior to the new building, revealed the remains of the medieval hall of the Red Earl, Richard de Burgo. It was the administrative hub of the growing town, and a symbol of Norman power, with probably a castle attached. The hall was the meeting place where all taxes, tithes, and debts were handed over; and where justice was administered. It’s interesting that customs and revenue have been carried on at this site through the centuries, mirroring the original objective of the hall. Yet, in its recent development, due to the frustration caused by the delay (due to the archaeological findings ), delays in granting further planning permissions, the noise, and the rocketing cost has, in the end of it all, driven the Revenue from the building. It now holds court at the Fairgreen.
Once the discovery was made the original contract price for £500,000 jumped to £2,300,000, * and there were interminable delays in construction. At first the city planning authorities did not like the glass wall idea, and rejected it. It was agreed eventually, on appeal, providing it was also agreed by every business in the Lane. But even now, eight years later, despite this imaginative and practical presention of our history, the public can view the site through the glass; but access to the walkway is still mysteriously closed. Nevertheless, it is a magnificent achievement for Michael Cadden and the OPW. It says as much for his patience as it does for his skill. Using glass in this innovative way (he also worked in four iron pillars found on the site, made by the long extinct foundry ‘Stephens of Galway’ ), Michael has successively made our past part of our future.
When it comes to buildings there appears to be a strong conservative streak both in our planning department, and with the general public. I am always afraid that the city centre will end up as some sort of Disney toytown, as it appears that only in the rarest of occasions will some modern design get built. In my view inordinate protection is given to very mediocre buildings, many of which should be just pulled down. I hear developers are often afraid to submit modern designs because they know either City Hall or some of the many so called ‘guardians of good taste’ will object to such extent that the cost of delay could be ruinous. Yet at the interesting Open House exhibition and tour last weekend, I was surprised to see that so many modern buildings have found their way into our city. What a good idea, to display these buildings, to allow the public question the architects; and, best of all, have a conducted tour through them. I believe that modern architecture must reflect our values and vision. It’s not a frill. It is essential that each generation leaves its mark on the physical landscape. What a fine statement the new GMIT building (Murray-O’Laoire architects ) makes on the immediate approach to the city. It says clearly that Galway is not lost in some Celtic twilight haze, but we are a forward looking and youthful community, ripe for investment.
The organiser of Open House, Pat McCabe, (partner with Simon J Kelly ), says that his favourite new buildings in Galway include the Civic Museum, the Custom House extension at Druid Lane (both projects designed by the OPW ), the Grammar School extension (Atlantic architects ), and the Born Building at Newtownsmyth which he designed himself! “ Yeah, I am its proud designer. It’s great to have a coffee by the river every morning.”
Pat agrees that there is a strong Conservative element in the city that inhibits modernity. But the university and the GMIT have ploughed ahead with some magnificent buildings. “ The discovery of the sea and the river will be an exciting development over the next 20 years. A new city will arise in the station/docklands area, embracing the sea, giving opportunities for imaginative design.”
An oasis of calm
I was, however, both moved and impressed with the chapel at the new Bons Secours Hospital, Renmore. Designed by Murray O’Laoire/Brian O’Connell architects, it is a sacred space, rather than a chapel. You sit in front of a large s-shaped glass wall (more glass! ) painted by the renowned artist Hughie O’Donoghue, depicting, in deep rainbow colours, the liturgical cycle from left to right. It moves from a deep mulberry starry night, Advent, the nativity, palm fronds, the entry into Jerusalem, towards a large diffused cross at its centre. You can make out writing:“ Lay not up for yourself treasures upon the earth - But lay up for yourself treasures in heaven.” The real magic of the place, however, is that it’s positioned to catch the sun’s rays which light the wall from behind at different angles from dawn to dusk. The altar and furniture are simple, and people sit there entranced. In the middle of a busy hospital it is truly an oasis of calm.
NOTES: A horrendous price to pay for an historic discovery! It’s enough to put developers off announcing that they have discovered something worthwhile; and I believe this has happened on several occasions.