The 1970s was a decade of contradictions, with austerity measures introduced after the promise of an abundance of cheap materials and even cheaper oil. It was also a decade of architectural experiment, with postmodernism ousting modernist principles, high-tech futurism exploring geometric design, efforts to deconstruct buildings, and, especially in housing and civic architecture, further examples of brutalism. Brutalist architecture tends to be thought of as urban, but in a forest in Roscommon you will find a Brutalist tower that still holds the power to divide opinion.
By the shore of Lough Key, in Boyle, is the concrete viewing tower called the Moylurg Tower set within 350 hectares of parkland and forest. It was designed by James 'Jim' Fehily (d. 2020) of Fehily and Associates. Fehily obtained his BArch from the UCD School of Architecture in 1954. In 1966, Fehily was commissioned by what was then Bord Fáilte Eireann to prepare plans for the development of a forest park on a site owned by the Department of Lands.
Rockingham House was designed for Robert King, 1st Viscount Lorton, by the famous English architect John Nash (c. 1752 – 1835) in 1810 (with an extra storey added in 1822). Destroyed by fire in 1863, it was then rebuilt. The celebrated landscape gardener and architect John Sutherland (1745 – 1826) was commissioned to lay out the park.
The mansion still retains its servants’ tunnels, with its basement redeveloped as a sunken garden indicating the original floor plan. We also find impressive cast iron entrance gates, elegantly curved railings, and hand-carved stone pillars, which open onto a half kilometre avenue.
The Moylurg Tower rises from the north-west corner of the ruins of Rockingham House which was destroyed by fire on 10 September 1957. The fire broke out in the lower basement of the house and was discovered by a footman. Five fire stations attended the scene, while the estate workers, people from Boyle, and surrounding areas carried furniture and paintings to safety. Unfortunately, the fire became out of control. The ruins of the house remained vacant before being auctioned off in 1959. The State eventually took over the land and the remaining walls of the house were demolished in September 1971.
The reinforced concrete tower is six-storeys in height and 150 ft tall, originally serviced by a staircase. However, budget restrictions prevented the tower from being built to Fehily’s specifications. The tower is visually exciting. Its finishes dance from smooth render to a fluted finish, demonstrating the plasticity of concrete in addition to the gravity-defying projecting balconies. However, the proportions of the tower were compromised when the lift shaft was added in the mid-2000s.
The viewing tower offers spectacular views of mature landscape and Castle Island, formerly ‘The Rock’, which was built as a folly (locally attributed to Nash) during the King family’s reign as one of the largest landowning families in Ireland. Today, Lough Key Forest Park is managed between Coillte and Roscommon County Council.
Fehily did not give into the allure of pastiche, but rather created a tower of its day. It is unique in being a brutalist tower in a rural context. This tower stands as a monument to man-made technology, not in competition with its bucolic surroundings. Moylurg Tower allows us to survey parklands that are now in public ownership. Does this building deserve the title of ugliest building in Ireland?