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Design Excellence: Learning from Dunganny

  • By Cooney Architects

Article By Sean Ó Laoire 

(Sean Ó Laoire was founding Director of Murray Ó Laoire Architects (1979 – 2010), and is a former President of the RIAI. He is currently a consultant to MOLA Architecture)

The Meath vs. Dublin clashes of 1991 are now part of G.A.A folklore. It took four games, over five hours and 40 minutes, before the “Royals” edged the tie on an aggregate score line of 6-44 to 3-52, – an epic sequence, witnessed by around 240,000 people, excluding television viewers in Ireland and abroad.

It was on the Friday before the ultimate decider that my engineer friend, Pearse, a proud son of St. Margaret’s, North Dublin, removed his “junior infant” daughter from a National School in Ashbourne, in frenzied anger at the temerity of her teacher to instruct her class in the making of paper hats in Meath colours. Such is the passion of tribal rivalry. The child never returned.

No doubt similar passions drove the men of Meath and Louth in what is generally accepted to be the first reported match of an antecedent form of Gaelic football, played in Slane in 1712. Teams of between 25-100 men engaged across swaths of the Meath landscape in proxy warfare.

Fast forward to 1884 – Michael Cusack, caricatured by James Joyce, as the bigoted “Citizen” in Ulysses, co- founded the G.A.A. Cusask was, among other things, a passionate lover of cricket – perhaps the quintessential English sport. Cricket spawned a distinct architectural typology – The Pavilion, with a myriad expression of scale and style over time and place.

In Ireland, Handball, codified and subsumed in to the G.A.A, spawned the “Ball Alley” a ubiquitous and eloquent expression of an indigenous sport, – marking a place and creating a space for community sporting and social engagement. Ball alleys are particularly Irish vernacular Structures, evident throughout rural Ireland, where the “mental map” of a county or community was, certainly until the mid 20th Century, navigable by building types with a distinctly Irish accent, notably Churches, creameries, pubs, National Schools, and yes, G.A.A grounds.

The landscape of Slane today would be unrecognizable to the men who took part in the battle of 1712, just as it would be to our ancient ancestors who bestowed their mystical imprint on the Boyne Valley. County boundaries, the territorial and tribal vessels of the G.A.A, belie the radical transformation in our islands population distribution, its economic base, settlement patterns and landscape. Dunganny today, in the Boyne Valley, is testimony to the reality of the transformation, and frames the challenge of colonizing a pastoral landscape with a new Irish building typology – a G.A.A “Centre of Excellence”.

The expression of an archetypal G.A.A ground was and is a complete and honest expression of generations of community and voluntary endeavor – the soul and heart beat of a unique organisation, which has singularly demonstrated a capacity to regenerate and adapt to radical societal change. The dedication of the Dunganny “Centre of Excellence” to the Children of Meath is testimony to the G.A.A’s, and Coiste na Mí’s mission and vision.

Until recently, the G.A.A has been, for a variety of reasons, an “architect free” zone.

That being said, my esteemed friend and colleague, Des McMahon, in the service of the vision and ambition of the G.A.A, singularly demonstrated what a talented architect would contribute to a building type that had heretofore been seen as the sole province of the engineer. His work – Croke Park, – the Cathedral of the G.A.A, is total architecture, where form and function fuse magically and memorably, to present one of the great stadiums of the world, with a unique communal patron, the G.A.A, as design champion.

The spirit of that communal patronage and ambition is evident in Cooney Architect’s approach to the design of Dunganny’s “Centre of Excellence”.

The generator of the building plan, a courtyard, is a form with strong cultural and historical resonances, be it formally in medieval monasteries, or less formally in the farmyards of Co. Meath.

The pigmented plaster, which unifies the buildings expression, to me testifies to the architects appreciation of how, for instance, a 19th Century material, corrugated iron, often painted with “red-lead”, insinuated itself into vernacular architecture, in an inevitable, harmonious, and organic manner as a roofing and walling material for farm buildings.

In short, the architects have informed their design, with sensitivity for Meath’s landscape heritage, and the layers of history which have formed it.

In doing so they have resisted overt historical references to design a Centre, which is at once an elegant resolution of a complex brief and an essay about building in the Irish landscape – one of our many challenges as a society.

On the edge of Europe, wide skies and ever changing cloudscapes orchestrate the play of light on our buildings and landscapes. Cooney Architects have celebrated this unique interplay in their use of light, skillfully adapted to service the needs of the diverse components of the complex.

The diversity of functions and the various users of spaces, will share a communal dining space and a sheltered courtyard, where it is easy to imagine six-year olds mingling with their heroes, Managers meeting journalists, and visiting teams and rivals conjoining in post match banter.

Michael Cusack would have had more than a passing acquaintance with Cricket Pavilions. We can but wonder how he would respond to this legacy of his vision for Gaelic sports – I suspect he would rejoice.

I submit with conviction that Dunganny’s “Centre of Excellence” will become a benchmark, for similar projects elsewhere, and indeed a qualitative reference for similar buildings in similar landscapes.

I further trust that its quality will embolden the family of the GAA, to place excellence of design at the heart of its vision and mission.

As landscaping matures, and built form and landform further fuse, there is a part of me, that hopes that future generations may view the building and its attendant pitches through a foreground of golden barley, as I did.

The GAA, Coiste na Mí, the Architects, the Design Team, the Contractor and all associated with its realisiation, can be rightly proud of their achievements.

Beir Bua is Beannacht.