The Carlow Courthouse
Courthouse, a fine polygonal classical building of 1830 designed
by Sir Richard Morrison. The portico is modelled on the Parthenon
- The Carlow Courthouse
- Dublin Road is off to
- The Carlow Court House with Athy Road off
to the left c.1900
- The Carlow Courthouse
AND CYCLOPEDIA OF IRELAND
- The Carlow Courthouse
- Image from Carlow Co Museum.
- The Carlow Courthouse
- Photo W. Muldowney
Source: Court Services
- Court Place looking towards Dublin Road
- Photo W. Muldowney
The Carlow Courthouse Railings
The railings stand high on a limestone base and are topped by
replicas of the ancient Roman axe, the fasces, the Roman symbol of
Source of Railings images: Google
Click on images to enlarge
- Previousley published in CARLOVIANA
- Vol. 2 New Series
No. 22 Dec. 1973
- Journal of the Old Carlow Society
- Irisleabhar Chumann Seanda Chatharlocha
- Editor; E. F. Brophy
- Printed by
The Nationalist, Carlow
Carlow Courthouse and Railings
By Edward McParland. Art Historian, T.C.D.
In 1828 it was claimed that 'the County of
Carlow is the only one in Ireland or at most with the exception of
one or two more, that has not within a few years built a new
Courthouse or repaired the old one on the new and improved Plan.'
Such shortcomings, however, were soon to be set right, for in the
same year a contract was drawn up according to which Messrs. Arthur
Williams and Gilbert Cockburne were to build a new courthouse to the
designs of the architect, William Vitruvius Morrison. It is unclear
exactly when the building was finished, though the Board of Works
noted in 1832 that the building was not more than half completed.
William Morrison was still in charge of the evolving design: his
were the plans of alterations approved in 1832, and his was the
model of the building proudly exhibited in the same year at the
Royal Hibernian Academy.
The above details are worth rehearsing for a
number of reasons. Firstly, the courthouse is one of the finest
nineteenth century buildings in the country; it is of definite, if
unrecognised, significance as a monument of European Neo-Classicism.
Secondly, the building and its history have had a bad press, from
the Shell Guide—which attributes it to the wrong architect—to
Carloviana itself which has reported wrongly that it was begun in
1882, and again that it is modelled on the Parthenon in Athens (it
is not; the Parthenon is Doric, the courthouse is Ionic—following
the Temple on the Ilissus in Athens).
These two facts—the building's extraordinary
quality and its misfortunes at the hands of historians—are of the
greatest relevance to the proposed alterations of its immediate
surroundings. For a building of such importance must not be tampered
with' incautiously, and alterations must not be conducted in
ignorance of what is being altered.
And the proposed alteration to the railings
around the building is of course more than tampering. They
contribute substantially to the architectural impact of the
building. An attack on them is an attack on the building itself:
such an attack must not be tolerated. William Morrison's two finest
classical buildings are the courthouses of Tralee and Carlow. Carlow
is the finer of the two, and in very much better condition, within
and without. In these two buildings Morrison, following the
suggestions of Robert Smirke's Gloucester Shire Hall, revolutionised
the planning of Irish courthouses, buildings whose importance has
for long been recognised. The influence of his Tralee and Carlow
buildings was felt in the courthouses of Nenagh, Cork and Tullamore.
With Tralee now seriously neglected, Carlow's importance is much
enhanced. The town has a responsibility to retain intact the
greatest county courthouse in the country, a responsibility that is
greater than can be clear to those who suggest a despoliation of
some of the finest classical ironwork in Ireland, and ultimately of
the building to whose impact this ironwork is integral.
(I am grateful to Miss lona MacLeod for her
help in the preparation of the above).
Edward McParland Art Historian, T.C.D.
Source: Michael Purcell
Court House Railings -1973, 1999 &
[Letter dated April 1999, from Des
FitzGerald, published in The Irish Times in support of Edward
McParland's stand regarding the retention of the railings at Carlow
Dr Edward McParland was at the time in
charge of the History of Art Department in Trinity College, Dublin.
Dr. McParland was to the fore 26 years
earlier (1973) when another battle took place to have the Courthouse
railings retained and preserved.
(see above article).
Limerick born Des FitzGerald was the 29th
and last "Black Knight of Glin" he died in Sept. 2011.]
Letter to the Editor.
Thursday, 4th April 1999
Sir, - The Irish Georgian Society would like
to support our Board member, Dr Edward McParland, in his deep
concern about the proposed plans for the railings of Carlow
Courthouse the Courthouse is, as he says, one of the finest 19th
century buildings in Ireland. It would be a criminal act on the part
of the Office of Public Works to remove or alter the railings, which
are an integral part of the original architectural design. -
- Desmond Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin,
- Irish Georgian Society,
- Merrion Square,
- Dublin 2.
Historical and architectural
The architect who designed Carlow courthouse - William Vitruvius
Morrison - came from a highly talented architectural lineage being the
son of Sir Richard Morrison who had, during his career, been knighted
for his architectural achievements and became the most influential
architect of his time. Sir Richard had studied under none other than
James Gandon and both himself and another architect, Johnston, inherited
the practise when Gandon died. William followed in his fathers
footsteps, and indeed lived up to the high hopes placed on him. He was
something of a child prodigy for there is an account of when his father
was asked to provide a suitable covering for Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry of a
fashionable mantle, so that its owners could call it a "castle" -
William Vitruvius, then only fifteen years of age furnished the design.
He is described as being perhaps more gifted than his father and his
output of work also included the classical courthouse at Tralee. William
was to suffer from prolonged bouts of ill-health however, and sadly died
before his father at the young age of 44 in 1838.
The architecture of Carlow courthouse itself offers a lavish and
imposing external architecture which later courthouses were not to
incorporate due in large part to the very high costs of such extravagant
designs. It is built in ashlar granite and the front aspect highlights
Morrisons style of Greek revivalist architecture - with a projecting
central block screened by a portico with 8 Ilyssus style Ionic columns
set above a grand flight of steps.
Internally, Morrison's design bears little resemblance to his
father's style - or any of the Gandonian tradition. Gandon and his
followers would have started with a hall out of which would open the
courts (the best example being the Four Courts) whereas Morrison started
from the outside and worked inwards. He provided two D shaped courtrooms
to the left and right and these, coupled with the rectangular block of
offices at the back, form a huge cross-shape.
The lighting in Carlow Courthouse is an example of the genius of
Morrison in designing a method of sufficient lighting for the building
by natural means, as electrical lighting was not available at the time.
The back block of offices are all lit by wide and tall rectangular
glazed traditional casement windows. Similar windows are in place on
each face of the polygonally shaped central structure. Morrison's genius
is really captured in the centre of the building where, at the heart of
it all is a square which is primarily a light-well, since the principal
sources of light for the two courtrooms are giant inward-facing
lunettes. All of this central section is lit brilliantly by a number of
symmetrically placed skylights
Carlow people hug the tradition that the courthouse was really
intended for Cork, but that the plans got mixed up to the advantage of
Carlow. The building cost £30,000 to build which was a small fortune in
the early 19th century but the amount is hardly surprising given the
brilliance of the design and the lavish features which it includes.
The cannon which stands at the top of the courthouse steps is
intrinsically linked with the building in the minds of native
Carlovians. The cannon is a Russian gun, captured during the Crimean war
over 100 years ago. It was donated to the borough after representations
by the Town Commissioners of Carlow to the then British Minister of War,
the Right Hon. Lord Panmure, and it commemorates all those Irish
officers and men who died in the conflict.
Minutes exist of discussions surrounding the proposal for the project
by the Carlow Town Commissioners and the "Morning Post" carried reports
of the ongoing negotiations with the War Office during 1858 during which
they agreed to furnish a gun but reported that they were unable to
obtain a carriage and suggested that a suitable alternative could be
sourced. Presumably that course was adopted and later that year the
cannon, now disabled, were installed in its conspicuous position where
it has remained to this day never again to fire a shot in anger.
By the 1990's, Carlow Courthouse was showing its age and it was
apparent to all that major restoration work would be needed in order to
return this majestic building to its former glory. An examination of the
building identified a number of serious building defects, including
dry-rot in roof and floor timbers, together with rising and penetrating
dampness and consequent wet-rot and woodworm.
Careful surveying and historical analysis were undertaken as part of
an overall conservation study prior to design phase. This included an
evaluation of the existing architectural spaces and features within the
building with a view to their conservation. The plan of work for the
building was prepared in accordance with conservation guidelines and in
consultation with the Heritage Council.
The challenge of the project of the project was to conserve as much
of the original building fabric whilst undertaking the necessary repairs
and improvements. The use of traditional building skills was considered
essential to the project and these included specialist joiners,
carpenters, stonemasons and plasterers - the latter being responsible
for the re-rendering of the rear return in lime sand render.
A further phase yet to be undertaken involves the restoration of the
magnificent iron railings which surround the site, together with the
re-landscaping of the grounds and the provision of additional parking
facilities. The railings stand high on a limestone base and are topped
by replicas of the ancient Roman axe, the fasces, the Roman symbol of
The works which have been undertaken have achieved considerably
improved and enhanced courtroom facilities in Carlow whilst restoring
this most worthy and significant historic building. The Minister for
Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. John O'Donoghue T.D.,officially
opened the refurbished Carlow courthouse on Thursday 21st March 2002.
The Courts Service
Carlow Courthouse Brochure.pdf
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