Maura Shaffrey (1940-1997) – a leading light behind Wicklow Lighthouse

As Irish Landmark Trust celebrates its 25th anniversary, we remember Maura Shaffrey, the architect on the first ever Irish Landmark Trust restoration project, namely Wicklow Lighthouse.

George Bernard Shaw once described how he could “think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were only built to serve”.

If you search for the name Maura Shaffrey you will find limited and sporadic information. No content retrieved on the internet will come close to the amount of attention and merit she deserves. Scratch beneath the surface and it is evident that such historical modesty mirrored Maura’s gentle and amicable nature. Never a self-promoter or concerned with her ego, Maura was too caught up in the genuine joy and exhilaration of conserving historical buildings and cultivating her deep-rooted devotion to architecture. Maura embodied the selflessness attributed to the lighthouse in George Bernard Shaw’s quote. Her spirit of design and conservation is etched into every stone, fibre and fabric of Wicklow Lighthouse. It was the last work completed by Maura before she passed away in 1997.

Her creative and unique contributions offered a once redundant lighthouse a continued opportunity to shine. Equally, Maura’s own spirit and talent continues to burn brightly throughout this living monument and Irish Landmark Trust and all future guests hold huge privilege in sharing it.

Sitting with Maura’s husband Patrick Shaffrey and her daughter Gráinne is a pleasure. We meet in the offices of Shaffrey Architects, a late 17th century house on Ormond Quay, another example of the many buildings saved by the dedication and foresight of the Shaffrey family.

We sit and imagine Maura’s excitement as she set off in 1986 to undertake the M.A. in Conservation Studies in York – an opportunity to completely immerse herself in her chosen field. Patrick paints a very romantic picture of his travels to visit Maura in the U.K. while he remained behind in Ireland. He recalls catching the ferry at Dun Laoghaire, the train to Manchester and taking a further connection on to York. He recalls a memory of Maura standing on the train platform waiting for him in a beautiful blue raincoat. One can feel the genuine support and admiration that this couple held for each other and how this position fostered great interest, adventure, travel, creativity and meticulous documentation so they could both follow their chosen paths as both a team and separately as individuals.

Maura completed her studies and arrived back to Ireland in 1988. It was perfect timing as she was immediately contracted into the wonderful position of restoring King House in Boyle Co. Roscommon. Patrick and Gráinne paint a very amusing memory of Maura encouraging the re-use of lime as an essential conservation material on the project.  One can imagine proponents of cement being genuinely perplexed by this female architect rolling up her sleeves and getting on with the job of slaking the lime. The slaking involved adding lime to water in a tin bath to facilitate the required chemical reaction. Here, began a complete cultural shift and marks the beginning of the revival of the use of lime in restoration projects. Patrick explains how Maura’s approach was never to dictate or to demand on site, her approach was to educate and to encourage, a position that meant that the workers became very fond of her and they remained very open to the sharing of new techniques.

Maura was without doubt a trailblazer who cared for and nurtured historic buildings back to life before there was legal framework or fashionable inclination to do so. We think about what it must have been like for Maura to receive her first contact from Irish Landmark Trust in 1992 and to learn about the emergence of a new organisation that shared her ethos and wanted to save more buildings.

Imagine a lighthouse vacant since the 1800’s and littered with a floor and a half of bird droppings. This is the scene that Maura Shaffrey confronted upon taking on the role as conservation architect for Wicklow lighthouse with Irish Landmark Trust. Gráinne and Patrick share a memory where Maura and two of the engineers, Michael Punch and John Egan, visited the lighthouse for the first time. Upon exiting the building, it became evident that Maura was the only member of the team who had escaped without being decorated from head to toe in bird droppings.

Gráinne remembers the beginnings of Irish Landmark Trust as evoking a very special interest for Maura. Maura also worked tirelessly on Annes Grove Miniature Castle, a very different but equally quintessential experience with Irish Landmark Trust. She was delighted with the range of buildings that Irish Landmark Trust were willing to work with, ranging from the exotic to the beauty and joy of the ordinary. Gráinne believes that Maura would have been highly supportive of the all-island approach taken by Irish Landmark Trust to architecture and to all the properties rescued and developed to date in Northern Ireland.

Maura passed away on 21st July 1997. However, her desire to protect and bring buildings back to life has never been lost. Both Patrick and Gráinne continue the Shaffrey legacy by treating buildings and towns as living entities deserving of special protection. When Gráinne worked as the lead architect conserving Irish Landmark Trust’s Merrion Mews property it evoked a wonderful sense of continuity amidst change. This is when great resurrected buildings and wonderful architecture are at their best, when their legacies can stand strong amidst the forces of social change, ensuring historic legacies are never forgotten.

In our conversation, Patrick stresses the importance of the town square in Irish lives. He describes how the town square should be treated as a community drawing room and never reduced to a car park. This type of vision creates an essential guide for the way we should live, connecting people with both the environment and each other. Positive urban spaces cultivate good relations and in every part of our conversation it is clear that good relationships are held in the highest esteem by the Shaffreys.