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Nature of nurture: school buildings in Rosmuc and Inis Mór, Ireland, by Paul Dillon Architects

Simplicity of materials and form characterise these school buildings in the remote reaches of western Ireland

Paul Dillon likes to feel needed. He runs his office mainly out of Maam Valley in secluded western Ireland, and marshals materials, labour and budgets with great deftness, producing buildings that become vital to the local communities. In terms of scale, Dillon describes the trajectory of his practice as happening ‘in reverse’. US-trained but back home in County Galway since the Celtic Tiger boom of the late ’90s, he started by designing large commercial structures, with a shopping centre and office park among his early work. In recent times, his focus has been small school buildings in rural locations, with two in particularly dramatic sites – in Rosmuc of the Irish-speaking Connemara ‘Gaeltacht’, and on Inis Mór, the largest of the mythologised Aran Islands.

The Rosmuc building is an extension to Coláiste na bPiarsach, a secondary school for fewer than 80 students serving a scattered population. It is 60km west of Galway city in boggy mountainous surroundings and is named after the Pearse brother martyrs of the 1916 Easter Rising, which led to the foundation of the Irish state. Patrick Pearse holidayed and learned Irish close by in a thatched cabin (now a museum), and saw Connemara as the locus of an ‘authentic’ Irish identity that might be recoverable by a deracinated population. The landscape is dotted with one-off 20th-century housing often among remnants of earlier cottages.

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Coláista na bPiarsach secondary school in Rosmuc, Connemara by Paul Dillon Architects

The extension creates a semi-enclosed courtyard

If thatch and whitewashed stones were once the vernacular materials, today breeze block and cement render are more typical. Since the original 1940s schoolhouse was built in Rosmuc, it was extended a couple of times to form a U-shaped assemblage with a tarmac play area open to the front. Principal Peadar Ó Loideáin expected the building to be constructed on a vegetated site to the rear, ‘sure we’ve plenty of land there’, he says, but the architect argued for it to adjoin the existing structures to create a semi-enclosed courtyard and run parallel to the road.

And there it is – a long, clean pebble-dashed concrete pavilion with a dark grey slate roof. It seems modest from the verge, yet far exceeds its bounds economically, spatially and functionally. It required some sleight of hand to get it built at all. A restrictive tendering system means this kind of public work is usually the purview of larger practices only. However, the client cleverly drew on a grant for ‘minor’ works from the Department of Education and Skills, limited to projects of under €500,000 and usually used for repairs or prefabs. In this case, it resulted in three classrooms, which are simultaneously a village hall, a shelter, a courtyard, an assembly space, generous outdoor seating and a play area. 

Schools in connemara and inis mór by paul dillon2

Schools in connemara and inis mór by paul dillon2

Coláista na bPiarsach secondary school in Rosmuc, Connemara: click to download

Classrooms follow the 49m2 Irish standard, with circulation through a trabeated concrete shelter that wraps around three sides of the building. The interior fit-out includes sliding partitions enabling its transformation from individual classrooms into one large assembly space. Although a simple solution, it has greatly affected students, teachers and the local community. Before it was built, notes Ó Loideáin, any activity that required the whole school to come together was usually weather-dependent, thus risky in this misty landscape where rainfall can be expected for two-thirds of the year. As Rosmuc has no dedicated parish hall, if an all-school meeting was absolutely necessary this involved bussing everyone to a hall 10 miles away. And now? The principal names some of the pedagogic and community uses this most hard-working structure supports: team teaching, group work, PE, school leavers’ Mass, public talks, workshops, parish meetings, plays, Christmas carols. As the architect explains, ‘I like a building to be addressing a range of needs day to day and throughout the year.’

‘Dillon emphasises order and geometry, while many of the local buildings are either decrepit or generic bungalow-bliss’

Dillon’s extension makes some formal reference to the hundreds of national schools built by the Office of Public Works (OPW) in the post-independence period. Designed by OPW schools architect Basil Boyd Barrett (1908-1969), these follow a very recognisable typology of single-storey gabled schoolhouse with large vertical windows, echoed by the fenestration at Rosmuc. Many of the earlier schools included a water tower and external concrete walkways and shelters, the latter also referenced at Coláiste na bPiarsach where the shelter offers access to classrooms and a togging-out and social area.

When viewed from the road, it also affords a sightline through to the courtyard beyond. As with the simple tiles and pebbledash at Rosmuc, Dillon prefers materials familiar to local builders and easily prepared on site. This was emphasised by the construction of his recent art room for Coláiste Naomh Éinne, the tiny secondary school on Inis Mór for which everything had to be transported some 10 nautical miles from the mainland. He says ‘we couldn’t get too much machinery out there, and mainly used a small hand mixer’, and you get the sense that even the pebbledash may have been a lot of trouble. Besides, the pared-down palette of materials and form seem right for architecture in this limestone landscape.

Inis mór early sketch by paul dillon tc

Inis mór early sketch by paul dillon tc

If the Coláiste na bPiarsach extension is a workhorse, the art room on Inis Mór and completed last year seems almost indolent – or at least luxurious. A stand-alone gabled building of 100m2 set apart from the bustle of the main school complex, the south-facing facade is glazed to sill-height and features a deeply sheltered seating area with a roof resting on slender concrete pillars. As well as protection from weather, this is intended as a place to socialise and observe art being made, and the school’s art teacher says it is also helpful for teaching perspectival drawing to students. Elevated above the Atlantic, it is as likely that the students find their subjects in the seascapes and landscape through the art room south windows. 

The north wall serves a wholly different function. As part of the brief for the art room, the principal Mícheál Ó Culáin asked if two handball courts could be included. A traditional Gaelic sport, the code played on the island uses a single wall as a court, easily accommodated against the rear of the new building. In the resourceful spirit typical of the islands, Ó Culáin encouraged the growth of the sport on Inis Mór. He has succeeded so well that the tiny school population of 56 now numbers four world champions among the students and hosted a major tournament in May this year involving 200 players from Europe and the Americas.

Schools in connemara and inis mór by paul dillon3

Schools in connemara and inis mór by paul dillon3

Art room for Coláiste Naomh Éinne, Inis Mór: click to download

Decrying much interest in theory, Dillon will always emphasise the economy of his arrangements, which to him means much more than a simplistic value for money. There is that of course, but it is also to do with the local – he likes to work with builders who are more used to constructing houses, where ‘local lads’ work together, and might be related to the buildings’ users. He avoids bespoke fittings, preferring standard windows and doors that domestic builders are used to, likening this way of working to ‘a kind of sustainability’. For the architect, one of the greatest compliments he has received is that his school buildings ‘look like they’ve always been there’, a sensibility that is of a piece with John Millington Synge, one of the great chroniclers of life on the Aran Islands early last century. In a Ruskinian reverie, Synge wrote about the ‘home-made cradles, churns, and baskets … being made from materials that are common here, yet to some extent peculiar to the island’ that ‘seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world about them’. Dillon’s work isn’t quite as romantic, but through breeze block, concrete and cement he has indeed managed to create an elemental architecture that looks almost monumental in this context and dignifies the everyday activities of learning, playing and coming together.

Dillon’s frugal structures may not offer the same formal excitement as other recent Irish schools (Donaghy + Dimond’s Inchicore Model School in Dublin and St Angela’s College in Cork by O’Donnell + Tuomey come to mind) but his approach could be emulated by other small practices who want to become ‘part of the local system’ as he puts it. Working in a wild setting, Dillon emphasises order and geometry, while many of the local buildings are either decrepit or generic bungalow-bliss. As he continues his buildings in small villages and rural sites, he is, he says, ‘having an impact which you mightn’t have with a one-off school. I like the idea that I’m needed; the architecture is extra.’  

School buildings in Rosmuc and Inis Mór

Architect: Paul Dillon Architects

Photographs: Ros Kavanagh

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today