Described by William Butler Yeats as ‘the drunken man of genius’, architect William Alphonsus Scott was mentioned here earlier this year, with regard to his designs for the model village of Talbot’s Inch, County Kilkenny (see An Act of Philanthropy « The Irish Aesthete). Born in 1871, Scott was the son of an architect who established his own practice in Drogheda, County Louth; after finishing at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, Scott worked for a time in his father’s office, and then in that of Thomas Newenham Deane (where his father had also once worked). He spent a further six years with his father and in 1897 the two men won a commission to design the new town hall in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Scott then moved to London for several years, where he absorbed the influences of the arts and crafts movement, being particularly inspired by the work of Philip Webb and Charles Voysey (the latter apparent in his houses at Talbot’s Inch). Returning to Ireland, he spent a further brief time with his father before establishing his own practice and in 1903 was asked to design a new country house, Killyhevlin on the outskirts of Enniskillen. It appears to have been in consequence of this that Edward Martyn, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, heard of Scott and so recommended him to Martin Morris, future second Lord Killanin, who was seeking an architect to design a new Roman Catholic church in Spiddal, County Galway.
In 1950 Martin Morris’s nephew, the third Lord Killanin, published a long article in The Furrow about St Enda’s church in Spiddal, where his family owned a property. Until the start of the last century, this little town overlooking Galway Bay was just an impoverished hamlet. Nevertheless, as elsewhere across the country, the local Catholic people were determined to have their own decent place of worship; by the 1990s, the existing church was not only too small but in a bad state of repair. The parish priest embarked on a fund-raising campaign, with some £2,725 coming from parishioners, another £1,160 from supporters in the United States and almost £1,300 from the Morris family. Work on the site began in 1904 and was completed three years later; the eventual cost of the building was just over £5,580. As Bridget Hourican has noted in her entry on Scott in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the architect’s designs ‘were simple, sparing of decoration, boldly executed, and often had a heavy monumental quality.’ These features are certainly apparent in St Enda’s. Constructed from granite with limestone used for the window dressings, the church draws influence from the early Irish Romanesque style, as is especially apparent in the door and window openings, but it is influence not imitation: Scott has borrowed elements from the likes of Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel without copying them. As was noted in an obituary following his early death in 1921, his ambition was ‘to strike out for himself a fresh and original type of design.’
Unlike many other Irish Catholic churches subjected to needless alteration in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, St Enda’s still retains much of the appearance it had when first finished 115 years ago. Writing even before that date, Robert Elliott in Art in Ireland wrote of the building ‘Mr. Scott, with his knowledge of good work, took into consideration I fancy (for I have not cared to ask him), the landscape, the material and the type of the people who will worship in his church; who tell beads, and pray simply rather than desire garish light to read bulky manuals of devotion. Necessary walls with a roof and a tower for bells, and a gallery for singing…’ Like Loughrea Cathedral, County Galway, where Scott would design many of the furnishings, St Enda’s is a repository of early 20th century Irish craftsmanship, with the stained glass windows designed in An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), the cooperative established by Sarah Purser in 1903. The finest of these is one dedicated to the memory of Col. the Hon George Morris (father of the third Lord Killanin), killed in France in 1914 while commanding the Irish Guards. The Stations of the Cross, unusually in opus sectile, were designed in 1915 by Ethel Mary Rhind, also of An Túr Gloine. Since the church is in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) part of the country, the inscriptions beneath each station are in Irish.
It is likely that today the majority of visitors passing through Spiddal merely observe St Enda’s as another place of worship, such as are found in every town and village throughout Ireland. But it is something more than that: the church deserves to be seen and appreciated as one of the birthplaces of a new visual identity here, the manifestation of a wish to create a fresh and distinctive architectural language for the country. Whether that wish was ever completely fulfilled is a discussion for another time.