Frank Gibney: A visionary Irish architect and planner. A new source for some of the finest midlands housing schemes. By Offaly History

The architect and town planner Frank Gibney (1905-1978) is today recognised as one of the most talented, influential and prolific housing designers of mid-20th c. Ireland.

Responsible for almost six thousand local authority dwellings in every part of the country, his deep concern for human scale and for good living standards delivered homes of a quality which have stood the test of time, while today many of their contemporaries have been altered or demolished.

Principal amongst his many achievements are the six Midland bog villages built in the 1950s for Bord na Mona workers, which were inspired by the aspirations of Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera for national self-sufficiency and which have been described by the Yale University Press/Royal Irish Academy volume on Irish architecture as ‘models for rural living’. These beautiful urban set pieces are  cherished by their proud present day inhabitants and beg the question as to why contemporary housing policies have not emulated their success.

Gibney designed housing estate at Clarecastle, County Clare

Gibney’s numerous and extraordinarily ambitious town planning schemes founded on Garden City and Beaux Arts principles, were less successful, being proposed at a time of cultural conservatism and financial stringency. His passion for plans based on aesthetic principles which would preserve the best of towns while creating new and beautiful public areas found little local response. Nonetheless, he was engaged by many Irish towns and cities including Waterford and Drogheda to chart their future and elements of his proposals are still capable of fulfilment today. 

An early proponent of sustainable development, he experimented with the use of natural materials such as clay and straw as building materials and the thirteen houses he constructed  in Avoca Co. Wicklow is still the only entirely timber housing scheme in Ireland. Seventy years later, his guiding principles of compact and walkable towns and the avoidance of urban sprawl are the bedrock of the recently adopted Irish National Planning Framework. 

St Michael’s, Westport

Behind all his town planning schemes was a concern for context which led him to prepare the first Irish Atlas- his extraordinary ‘Irish National Survey’ now in the Library of University College Dublin. Its 321 hand drawn maps describe every aspect of Ireland, physical, cultural, social and economic and even explore the relationship of Ireland with the growth centres of the European mainland – certainly a  visionary concept in 1942 in the midst of World War Two, but which was to have later echoes in the European Spatial Strategy.

The Gibney archway

In 1943 he proposed the very first physical plan for the entire island of Ireland on the then commonplace assumption that national reunification was only a matter of time. To offset the claims of Dublin and Belfast, he suggested the creation of a new ceremonial All Ireland capital  to be known as ‘The Virgin City’ to be located north of Athlone on the banks of Lough Ree. He followed this with a plan for Dublin which proposed a new cultural and administrative centre in the Phoenix Park acting as a central transport hub for the expansion of the metropolis around seven new linked neighbourhoods.

The tower at The Green, Lanesborough

Some of Gibney’s best work may be seen in the Midlands particularly his Bord na Móna villages of which Derrygreenagh Park, Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath and The Green, Lanesborough Co Longford are good examples of his style of strong axial vistas and prominent and unusual feature buildings.

Tullamore, Birr, Banagher, Ballinasloe, Portarlington, Portlaoise, Mountmellick and Durrow contain fine examples of his local authority housing schemes, but possibly the best known are St Mary’s Crescent, Westport, Co Mayo and St Michael’s Terrace, Clarecastle , Co Clare. These exhibit his two predominant styles of modest well designed single family housing in informal groups in contrast to the dramatic impact of sweeping geometrical terraces.

Many of his buildings including his own astonishing house ‘Sutton South’ are now Protected Structures or form Architectural Conservation Areas.

‘Ambition and Achievement – The Civic Visions of Frank Gibney’, Fergal MacCabe  (Dublin, 2018).

Fergal MacCabe speaking at the launch

This first overview of Gibney’s life and work is based entirely on original and hitherto unpublished material. Exhaustive research, interviews and access to family papers are supplemented by a comprehensive photographic survey of buildings and schemes. Beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated by plans maps and panoramic views, it was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2018.

Nominated by the Irish Independent as one of best non-fiction books of 2018, the volume has received extensive  favourable reviews:

‘MacCabe reveals a remarkable man and an epoch of our history, whose themes and challenges reverberate today, albeit in an Ireland that has radically transformed’   Irish Arts Review

‘Anyone with an interest in Ireland’s development in the mid 20c. will find it very revealing about how we felt our way towards a country we now inhabit for good or ill.Irish Times

‘..a significant achievement; a timely story told well. It is both accessible and informative, amassing a formidable and excellent record of the prolific output of one of Ireland’s most important planners’    Architecture Ireland

‘Ambition and Achievement-The Civic Visions of Frank Gibney’ by Fergal MacCabe is available from Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore and online at www.offalyhistory.com   Normal price €40. Reduced to €17.99 to promote distribution .