The earliest courts were probably clearings in the wood, unspecific gathering places used for judgment and festivity.
The Brehon Laws used in pre-Norman Ireland may have been exercised in raths or ringforts, uniquely maintaining a very ancient tradition of assemblies right into the Renaissance. In a wider European context, Greek democrats used unspecific stoae; the Romans used the basilica, a hall with a raised niche in the end or side wall for judgment, this more hierarchical plan derived ultimately from the royal audience hall in a palace. Interestingly, this generic form also served to house the earliest Christian churches, the niche (seat of judgment) being redefined as the apse and location of the altar. The form remained in the European subconscious to re-emerge at a later time.
The arrival of the feudal system in the Middle Ages brought Ireland into approximate line with the rest of Europe. It also brought a plethora of courts, ecclesiastical, royal and civic, as legal power was divided between interest groups. We hear of the Great Hall in Dublin Castle being used for courts, and one can imagine similar use being made of the large halls in Askeaton Castle, Co. Limerick, or Trim Castle, Co. Meath, where a change in the layout of the furniture was enough to prepare a courtroom for use. Dublin's Liberties had their own courts (there are photographs of the Liberty Courthouse in Thomas Court before its demolition). Towns dispensed local justice from tholsels and town halls.
New patterns emerge
Like so much else in Ireland, the Plantations of Queen Elizabeth and King James regularised the situation, and initiated a pattern of buildings designated for court use - with the central Four Courts in Dublin, and county Sessions Houses scattered throughout the island. The extent to which the spread of legal uniformity is related to urban growth and town foundation is striking - the courthouse as an ornament and support to new towns is a recurring theme in Ireland. Early examples were often compared with a market house function.
It is also from this period that one can follow descriptions of courthouses. In 1608, the Four Courts of Exchequer, Chancery, Common Pleas and King's Bench were removed from Dublin Castle to Christchurch. With the Restoration the structure begins to achieve a recognisable shape, and one can trace the beginning of another enduring theme - the relationship between the majesty of the law and Classical architecture. The history of Ireland between 1690 - the Battle of the Boyne - and the Famine is dominated by Anglo-Irish affairs, both in the world of politics and in the more enduring legacy of written and visual culture, in particular architecture and urban planning. Studies of the architecture of the period usually emphasise patrician and decorative aspects of the country house and its plasterwork. For historically arguable reasons, these underplay the scientific and engineering will to improvement - for profit but also for public utility, in drainage, roads, bridges, towns and houses.
Courthouses take their place in this context. They were located as public buildings within new town plans and designed using the elements of Classical architecture in an implicit and explicit way - Classical because it was the architecture of the day but also because it represented truth and rational thought; a form chosen for apparently stylistic reasons but in reality expressing a strong moral undertow. It is important to remember that they were seldom simply used as courts, but had added civic or governmental functions. In the political culture of the time, administrative power within each county lay in the hands of local families who ran their fief though a Grand Jury who had a Grand Juryroom - the smoke-filled centre of local politics - at the county courthouse. This antecedent to the county council had a strong impact on the courthouse plan, as the Grand Jury required space and formal access.
A gradual revolution
The architectural history of courthouses over the period can be closely linked to developments in Britain, and ideas were freely exchanged. It can be studied as a gradual evolution of the brief from one simple, unspecific court to two courtrooms for civil and criminal cases, the addition of ancillary offices, space for judge and jury, rooms for the Grand Jury, and the development of specific patterns of circulation in the plan which would make physically manifest the moral requirement for the separation of judge, jury and the accused - a powerful and conscious statement in an era of uncertain standards. As the scale expanded, so the architecture matured - marked in a change from rendered elevations to cut stone and in the professionalism of their builders and architects from artisan craftsmen to fully qualified architectural firms using their brief to advance monumental works of international stature - first Artisan Classical, then Palladian, and most effectively Neo-Classical, the power of clear symmetry and formal plan sequence suiting the courthouse exactly. The Irish examples stand out in their clarity (few have trammelled nature of English and other European examples, with medieval sections and later rooms together) and also in their location in the arid squares of county towns, their civic facades juxtaposed with their frequent neighbour, the County Gaol.
In addition to the country courthouses, many smaller towns were equipped with petty sessions houses, containing a single courtroom, in the period between 1820 and 1840. These were usually of two sorts - the Classical temple with the courtroom behind it (as the former courthouse at Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, or Birr, Co. Offaly) and the Georgian 'house' with a five-bay elevation and hipped roof over an ashlar basement containing cells with the courtroom over it (there are good examples in Listowel, Co. Kerry, and Clones, Co. Monaghan). The arrangement of the courtroom - and the circuitous access for each participant - has powerful iconographic references: the judge sits on high on one end (inheriting the niche in the Roman basilica) with the public below; the accused is (or was) brought from below (Hades) to the light to face his accusers and (potentially) the clemency of the judge and jury. These are the courtrooms which starred in O'Connell's famous legal victories and later provided the backdrop for Sommerville and Ross heroes and heroines - a gentler Ireland, where conflict had been replaced by a whimsical mental version of medieval jousting between landlord and tenant. Courthouse construction did not cease with the Famine.
Late Victorian Ireland saw the construction of imposing institutions like Dun Laoghaire Courthouse (a combined town hall and courthouse - although ultimately never used as a courthouse) and Sligo Courthouse, a Gothic Revival masterpiece forged out of many fragments of older forms by Rawson Carroll in 1878. The War of Independence and the Civil War provided ruins to restore, like the Four Courts in Dublin, or to demolish, like Wexford (burnt out in 1923); the Four Courts was badly damaged and carefully restored within the context of limited budgets. The new State had limited resources to build anew, and oversaw an impecunious period of decay as roofs mouldered and ceilings fell.
However, in recent years the Courts Service has seized the opportunity to expand on a well-established tradition, undertaking the restoration of many buildings and the construction of courthouses for new towns and suburbs.