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Readers projects: Irish World Heritage Centre

17 September 2013
The new Irish Woirld Heritage Centre with its Donegal quartzite in Manchester.

Passengers on Manchester’s Metrolink may be slightly disoriented next month (September) when their Bury-bound tram makes its first stop at Irish Town, writes Claire Santry.

The new station, the first stop after Manchester Victoria, has been opened following the completion of the Irish World Heritage Centre, a £5million project that has transformed a derelict landfill site into a facility of cultural and historical relevance to the local Irish community.

Around 35% of Manchester’s population is estimated to have Irish ancestry and the new centre is designed to show off the best of Ireland’s natural materials, especially stone and timber, and the country’s artistic flair.

Michael Forde, Chairman of the Irish Diaspora Foundation, the charity which runs the Irish World Heritage Centre, always said he wanted to bring as much of Ireland into the development as possible.

“We wanted people to be walking on Irish wood and surrounded by Irish stonework and really retain that feeling of home in this important centre for the worldwide diaspora,” he told NSS.

It has taken 10 years to bring these hopes to reality.

Funding for the project came principally from the Irish Government and the sale of the Centre’s existing site, just a quarter of a mile away. But it was only when Manchester City Council agreed a 250-year lease of the 25-acre former waste ground at a peppercorn rent that the Foundation could start to focus on creating its new home.

Building began in October 2011 and the first phase of the development was completed in December 2012.

Phase Two of the project will see hotel and leisure facilities developed on the site, but for now, the Irish World Heritage Centre (IWHC) stands alone with its exhibition space, multi-purpose function rooms, a restaurant, bar, and a shop selling Irish brand products.

Its design takes its cue from the ancient ring fort, or ráth, explains Mike Giblin of Ellis Williams Architects (EWA), the practice (which is English) that designed the centre.

Mike: “These homesteads date back to the Iron Age and their remains can still be seen throughout Ireland today. They comprise a series of buildings enclosed by a roughly circular drystone wall or earthen bank, often as large as 60m in diameter.

“While the name implies some form of ‘fort’, these dwelling places were generally not designed for defence. Rather, the wall or embankment was to give shelter and security to the family, its livestock and their possessions. So the basis of the design seeks to echo the form of the ring forts and create a unique sense of place founded on Irish roots in the heart of Manchester.”

The 3,000m2 crescent-shaped Centre sits on the perimeter of a walled enclosure that is landscaped to reflect the Irish landscape and the history of its people, right down to a waterpool that visitors cross to access the garden, recalling the sea journeys that waves of Irish emigrants had to endure to escape poverty and discrimination in their home territory.

The principal entrance façade and the gable ends of the two-storey 11m-high Centre is finished in natural stone with areas of timber panelling.

McMonagle Stone of Mountcharles in County Donegal supplied 2,000 tonnes of gold and silver quartzite (70% gold / 30% silver) for use on the exterior of the building and a further 500 tonnes of it for the

2m-high perimeter wall that encompasses the open-air ring fort.

“The architect was looking for a native Irish stone that would not look out of place on a modern building in Manchester,” says Michael McMonagle.

“Colour and thickness were important considerations. When we made our presentation, the client knew immediately this was the right colour blend.

“But the architect also liked the fact that, although the stone is random, it has a level bed, which gives it a contemporary edge and a neat look. He wanted a flat layered effect; he didn’t want large stones and he didn’t want a completely random, totally uncut finish.

“So our quartzite ticked all the boxes in terms of colour, shape, strength and durability. We also advised the design team that experienced stonemasons would be required because they would understand the nature of the material and make greater progress.”

The stone’s hardness was confirmed by Sean Nolan, whose team of seven masons arrived from Ireland in mid-July 2012.

“It’s a very hard stone to cut, which is why it’s supplied machined,” he says. “It would have taken far too long to install if we’d had to be doing a lot of shaping on-site to achieve the look the architect wanted. As it is, the job took the best part of four months.”

The stone comes from two quarries, both owned by McMonagle Stone, near the wild Atlantic coast of Donegal.

The Gold Quartzite originates from the Largybrack Quarry in Glencolmcille, which the company has been operating since 1973, while the Silver comes from nearby Lagunna, where operations date from 1982.

Michael describes the silver stone as a “hard, very tight material”.

“It’s difficult to quarry because it lies at an awkward angle to the hill and there aren’t many seams or natural veins running through the rock. It’s all taken out by rock hammer in one to two tonne blocks. We don’t blast. The Gold stone is found at less of an angle, making it easier to get out of the face.”

He says the company was delighted to have worked on the IWHC.

“It’s a significant building for Irish culture so we were very proud to be involved. And it’s an interesting project. The original Irish World Heritage Centre dates back to the mid-1980s when it was a club for Irish immigrants. But, over the years, it’s become much more than that and it reaches out to many different cultures locally – especially through its education programme – so it’s nice to be able to show off a bit of Ireland to them.”

Although McMonagle exports stone on a regular basis to the UK, Japan, France Germany and elsewhere, this was one of its largest projects on the UK mainland.

In Northern Ireland, the company supplied Donegal Slate to Erin Hospital in Enniskillen, which was the largest building project in the province in 2012.

And as a result of the IWHC project, McMonagle’s quartzite was specified for a restaurant outlet in Manchester. Used as decorative internal wall cladding, it has the same random finish as the IWHC walls but was all Gold Quartzite and only 30mm thick.

Back at the Centre, there was still more natural Irish stone destined for the interior.

The Bar – such an integral part of any Irish communal space – has been designed in a series of soft smooth curves and concentric circles to echo the shapes of the ring fort, which can be viewed from the floor to ceiling windows, with the skyline of Manchester as a backdrop.

The interior is a feast of Kilkenny limestone from Threecastles Quarry and a variety of Irish timbers, with a 5,000-year-old bog oak sculpture by Idris Bowen rising up from a table that has been made from a variety of Irish timber.

Glenn Wood of Tullamore selected and sourced the materials for the bar as well as taking on the entire fit-out from plumbing to painting, and from the stone and timber to the installation of sculptures.

Barney Glennon, MD and founder of Glenn Wood, says the stone specification was straightforward. “We wanted to create a modern look that retained a sense of age and warmth and looked Irish. Well, you can’t get more Irish than Kilkenny blue limestone. It’s a most sought-after Irish stone and famous for its quality.

“We also chose a selection of Irish timbers – oak, elm, sycamore, beech, walnut and ash. These lighter shades of wood give a fresher look than the dark oaks usually chosen by American Irish bars.”

Nearly 45m2 of Kilkenny blue limestone, supplied by Ballyroan Stoneworks of County Laois, was used on the interior.

There are 16m2 of flamed limestone floor tiles that designate the entrance area, with the rest being used on the bar counter and the wall behind in a mixture of honed, flamed, brushed, bush-hammered and chiselled finishes.

It’s a striking space that is already proving popular among visitors to Irish Town.

Irish World Heritage Centre credits:

  • Client: Irish Diaspora Foundation Ltd
  • Main Contractor: Wilmott Dixon
  • Architect: Ellis Williams Architects
  • Stone supplier, external: McMonagle Stone, Co Donegal
  • Stonemasons: Sean Nolan Ltd, Blacklion, Co Cavan
  • Interior Designer: John Duffy Design Group, Monkstown, Co Dublin
  • Internal fit out: Glenn Wood, Tullamore, Co Offaly
  • Stone supplier, interior: Ballyroan Stoneworks, Co Laois



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