In the Kingdom, there is a modern church that, although hard to find, deserves a moment of appreciation for the daring imagination of its architect and builders to meet the demands of a changing liturgy and a growing congregation.
Abbeydorney lies nine kilometres north of Tralee, Co. Kerry. The village derives its name in English from O'Dorney Abbey, which was the Cistercian Order Abbeydorney Abbey established in 1154. In 1966, the Church of Saint Bernard, which had stood for 150 years, was demolished and Tralee-born architect Daniel 'Dan’ J. Kennedy (1932 - 2013) was approached by the parish priest, Fr Denis McCarthy, to design a modern church dedicated to St Bernard.
Kennedy had studied architecture in UCD graduating in the mid-fifties and worked for Thompsons Architects in Limerick, Belfast, and London before setting up his own practice in Tralee. Kennedy’s family were Building Contractors (and Undertakers – which was apparently part of building contractors’ business in those days, presumably because making coffins was a fruitful occupation for carpenters when building work was slack).
A prolific architect, Kennedy would go on to design Our Lady and St Brendan’s Church, the Kerry Library HQ, Killarney Library, Tralee Fire Station at Tralee Castleisland, Kerry College of Further Education, the extension to Kingdom Tubes factory, Tralee, as well as primary and secondary schools and housing estates throughout Kerry. He was also consultant architect for Bishop Eamonn Casey’s pet project, the reorganising of St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney.
The striking roof of St Bernard's is just visible from the road behind the trees. The church is boldly Modernist on an asymmetrical, staggered plan, built simply in exposed grey bricks and concrete bands. The roof comprises five pitched overlapping, copper-sheeted roofs rising in height towards the chancel, with the highest section topped with a narrow copper spire, a spirelet even. The timber and steel roof of the church is carried on reinforced concrete frames and by means of a series of steel portal frames, concentrating the light on the main altar.
The east elevation that fronts the aptly named nearby stream, the River Brick, also has six-bays, stepped in the same rhythm as the roof. Concrete structure members frame the concrete bricks here and the single-storey flat-roofed aisles on the east elevation. The church site is bounded by the original short, concrete brick wall which opens to Bridge Road and a side entrance for those who cannot manage the steps.
Stepping inside, the roof makes perfect sense as the hull of a boat is revealed. The clerestory windows between roof sections rising towards the altar allow for light to enter the double-height space. Daylight is also ushered in by the narrow, timber-framed, vertical windows on the side elevations. The timber boarded ceiling bounces this natural light around the space. The new church was designed with the Second Vatican Council’s decrees on the liturgy in mind, placing the altar in the centre of the open plan church, save for tapered concrete columns at the edges.
The baptismal font designed by Br Benedict Tutty of Glenstal Abbey (1924 – 1996) is made of Galway limestone standing boldly in the body of the church. He also designed the sacristy lamp and the filigreed copper cross breaking through a coating of liquid glass which hangs over the high altar. The stations of the cross, which were displayed at the Oireachtas exhibition (July – August 1968), were designed and sculpted by Paul Meehan of Dublin.
The only antique feature of the church is its Gothic Revival style organ dating to 1880 and restored in 1997. The instrument came from St Joseph’s convent in Portland Row, Dublin. It was built by William Telford (1809-85) the leading Irish nineteenth century organ builder. Among the other instruments he built are the Trinity College Dublin Chapel, (1838) and Dining Hall (1839) organs, and the Christ Church Cathedral organ, (1832).
The new £80,000 parish church of Saint Bernard was officially opened and consecrated on Tuesday 25th June 1968 by the Bishop of Kerry, Dr Denis Moynihan according to the limestone dedication plaque. The contractors for St Bernard’s Church were Messrs. Fitzgerald Bros and the Structural Engineer of the church was Mr Maurice Walsh of Cork. Quite rightly this unusual yet attractive church is on Kerry’s Record of Protected Structure.
One of the most laudable features of this church, apart from its striking and innovative design, is that it is stepped back from Brick Road and its concrete concourse, reached by five shallow steps, is an open space that it gives back to the village. Contemporary buildings should be more mindful of this gift.
The author would like to thank Tom Kennedy and Frank O’Donovan for their kind assistance with this article.