Rural Ireland: where a salute or a nod is fondly reciprocated simply for sharing the same stretch of road at a moment in time. The journey from Cork City to Knockanure is not often travelled. Any conceivable route between the two prioritising national roads goes so far afield before redirecting that they are not worthwhile. To take the direct route is to embark on a pilgrimage of quiet country roads leading from one small town to the next. You zigzag across the Cork, Limerick and Kerry countryside, only encountering signs of modernity for fleeting moments, before reaching your destination. The roads are narrow and winding, taking you through the heart of many conventional and repetitive towns that are somewhat indistinguishable from one another. It is this pilgrimage that best prepares you for the surprise at the terminus and the reason for my travel one Autumnal Saturday. For at Knockanure, buried deep in rural County Kerry, is a gem of modern Irish architecture: The Corpus Christi Church.
Designed by Michael Scott & Partners (Scott Tallon Walker today) in the early 1960s the church is an exercise in restraint and minimalism. Concrete tiles of 800mm by 800mm form a podium upon which sit two monolithic walls of concrete brick. 15 concrete T-Beams span the 14-tile wide gap between them to form the roof with small rectangular windows inserted to seal the gaps between T-Beams. The two gable ends are fully glazed and save for a steel bell tower in the corner of the podium I have now described the external image of the church in its entirety. In designing a place of worship the church allowed Ronnie Tallon, the partner in charge, to express his study of Mies van der Rohe. Corpus Christi Knockanure compares favourably with van der Rohe’s IIT Chapel in Chicago.
Initial research for the project only revealed the necessity of a visit to the church. Both online and print information on the church were relatively scarce – the same brief descriptive paragraphs and photos would repeat themselves and only served to fuel the mystery surrounding the building. The church stands in isolation just south of a crossroads that a dozen or so other buildings cluster around. The exact name of this community I am still unsure of. Though you would assume it would be termed Knockanure, it has also been labelled Moyvane and Gortdromagownagh seemingly interchangeably. This only serves to add to the layers of obscurity around the project. As I enter the Church, its glass (but heavy nonetheless) doors swing shut behind me, sealing the interior space. By the time I had arrived that day Mass had already been said and the church, as well as the village, was eerily quiet. My visit was unannounced and I was unsure whether anybody would be present in the building.
The radical departure from tradition expressed externally is continued inside. Rather than the sacred preservation of the central axis found in most churches, at Corpus Christi the axis is immediately broken by a large wooden sculpture depicting the last supper. The sculpture, by Oisín Kelly, is over two metres tall and sits as an object in the volume. It forms one side of the confessional and through its placement creates a spectacular foyer. The sunlight is rigidly divided by the glazing of the gable end and pours through emphasising both the rigidity of the concrete elements as well as the subtleties of the wooden carving. Behind the confessional is the main space containing two rows of wooden benches and a simple altar backed by a minimalist crucifix on a white wall. As with the sculpture, the wall does not reach the ceiling and therefore emphasises the sanctity placed by Tallon on the monolithic walls and roof. Behind this is a small area with a few more partitions which create chambers more than they create rooms. These serve as the sacristy and auxiliary areas.
For the entirety of my visit the church was empty and I was continually struck by the disbelief of such a small place housing such a masterful execution of minimalist architecture. The mystery and intrigue that initially surrounded the church is still with me to this day but once the building is introduced into your life stories relating to it reveal itself. Speaking with my tutors, a phone call to the parish priest or the chance encounter with somebody from the locality would uncover further undocumented snippets of information or stories about the building. Anecdotes such as how Michael Scott visited the community to convince them of such a radically different design or that for years after its completion Ronnie Tallon believed the initially cambered T-Beams had not flatted correctly, despite Ove Arup’s insistence, are told if only the question is asked. Rather than being fully documented somewhere the history of this building is gathered in the collective memory of the local community and architects of Ireland. It leaves me with a conflicted feeling in writing this piece as perhaps the stories of Corpus Christi Knockanure and how it became a forgotten relic of Irish modernity are supposed to be earned and not easily accessible. But I have no doubt that this text is an incomplete description of Corpus Christi and that elements of this minimalist building are still shrouded in a cloak of mystery.