Brendan’s gargoyles are St Columb’s crowning glory

Brendan McGloin, who refurbished the gargoyles at St Columb's Cathedral. (2107SL03)
Brendan McGloin, who refurbished the gargoyles at St Columb's Cathedral. (2107SL03)

The oldest building within Derry’s city walls, St Columb’s, is also the first cathedral to have been built after the Reformation and is said to be an early example of ‘Planter’s Gothic’.

Gargoyles are the finishing touch to any Gothic structure, a point not missed when work on the restoration of the cathedral began a couple of years ago.

The bulls head gargoyle which has now been restored to its former glory at St Columbs Cathedral by Donegal master craftsman Brendan McGloin

The bulls head gargoyle which has now been restored to its former glory at St Columbs Cathedral by Donegal master craftsman Brendan McGloin

To put the final touches on the project, Donegal master craftsman Brendan McGloin was called in to completely restore the four gargoyles which adorn the building.

“The response to them has been very positive,” he said.

“Unless someone goes around the church and points out that they aren’t original and that they had been re-carved, you really wouldn’t know it.

“People would be amazed to find they had been done again, because they wouldn’t know that there was someone about that still does that kind of work.”

Given that St Columb’s has stood since 1633, the four carvings have had to withstand quite a battering from the elements over the centuries.

Many of the fine details of the original carvings were lost over that time, which left Brendan facing quite a challenge when he took on the project earlier this year.

“The work started in February when I came up to take some photographs on the heads and then did some research on them,” he explains.

“Once I looked at them it quickly became clear that it made sense for me to extract them from the building and bring them to the workshop to work on them individually..

“It took about three days to take them all out individually trying to keep them as intact as possible.

“But once you get them away from the building itself it is apparent just how much of the original carvings was missing.”

But before the process of restoring the heads could even begin, first Brendan had to work out as best as possible how the carvings would have looked in their original state.

And that is a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.

“There is a little guesswork involved in re-modelling, but usually you have enough symmetry left which you can use as a guide,” he says.

“Say you have part of the left jaw still there, then you can use that to ‘figure out the mirror image on the other side of the head.

“There is also the fine detail to work out and all of that needs figuring out.”

The first step was to remodel the heads using modelling clay to get them looking as much as they did when they were originally carved as possible.

Then the painstaking process of actually rebuilding and restoring them could begin.

“We don’t know exactly how they would have looked originally because there aren’t good enough illustrations left,” Brendan says.

“But the response to them so far has been great and I am very pleased with the way they have turned out.

“Sometimes with jobs like these they decide it’s better to leave what is old and ruined rather than try to restore it.

“There can be times when people are nervous that in trying to restore something, the original quality can be lost and maybe they don’t have the confidence that there is someone out there who can do it properly.

“And it’s true, there are jobs that can go wrong.

“But I think with this they made the right decision at the Cathedral and everyone seems very pleased with the way that it has worked out.”

When it became clear that the gargoyles should be restored, Brendan was the obvious man for the job - there aren’t too many stone masons around capable of the kind of detailed and specialist work required.

“It was actually my second job in Derry - I was asked to do the lettering at Shipquay Street about eight years ago,” he says,

“It was specialist work on the kerbing and signage around the Diamond.

“I would love to do more work in the city and there are plenty of restoration projects which could be undertaken.”

Brendan is currently working on a commissioned piece of work - a Celtic cross for a customer in County Cavan.

But his love of old buildings and architecture is clear.

“It doesn’t matter if it is a cathedral or a small church in the country somewhere, I find them fascinating,” he says.

“As a craftsman you look at them from a totally different perspective when you understand the work that goes into carving these architectural pieces.

“I tend to look at buildings in a completely different way than a general person might just because of the nature of my work.

“These days there are a lot of elements of masonry that can be done by machine.

“But there are just some things that machines can’t no matter howmuch programming they do. It’s like hand-weaving.

“You can get a machine to weave faster and bigger than a man would but you don’t get the little imperfections that make it unique if it is had-crafted.”