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Architecture and heritage

Carlow Courthouse

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Carlow Court Office

Historical and architectural information.

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 he 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 intrin sically 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, was 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 Justice.

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.