Throughout history in Ireland, courts have been important centres of administrative and civic function. And in their architecture, they embody the finest values of an ethical society.

Waterford Courthouse

Earliest Times

Earliest Times

The earliest courts in Ireland were probably clearings in the wood, undefined gathering places used for judgment and festivity. The Brehon Laws used in pre-Norman times may have been exercised in raths or ringforts, maintaining a very ancient tradition of assemblies.

The arrival of the feudal system in the Middle Ages brought Ireland into approximate line with the rest of Europe. It also brought an abundance of courts; ecclesiastical, royal and civic, as legal power was divided between interest groups.

The Great Hall in Dublin Castle was used for courts, and it’s possible similar use was 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. Towns dispensed local justice from tholsels (toll halls) and town halls.

Earliest TimeEarliest Time

New Patterns Emerge

New Patterns Emerge

During the times of the plantations of Queen Elizabeth and King James, a pattern of buildings designated for court use emerged - with the central Four Courts in Dublin, and county Sessions Houses scattered throughout the island.

 Courthouses that were similar in style spread as new towns developed and urban growth took place.

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.

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 ostensibly stylistic reasons, but also expressing a strong moral culture. 

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 precursor to the county council had a strong impact on the courthouse plan, as the Grand Jury required space and formal access.

A Gradual Revolution

A Gradual Revolution

The architectural history of courthouses over the period was closely linked to developments in Britain. Separate courtrooms for civil and criminal cases were established, along with ancillary offices, space for judge and jury and the development of specific patterns of circulation to separate 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 move to cut stone and in the professionalism of their builders from artisan craftsmen to fully qualified architectural firms, using their brief to complete works of international stature. Architectural style evolved - first Artisan Classical, then Palladian, and most effectively Neo-Classical, the power of clear symmetry and formal plan sequence that suited the courthouse exactly.

In addition to the country courthouses, many smaller towns were equipped with petty sessions houses, containing a single courtroom, in the period of the mid-1800’s. 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 – was important: the judge sat on high at one end with the public below; the accused being brought from below to the light to face his accusers and (potentially) the clemency of the judge and jury.

Former Courthouse at Bagenalstown Carlow

Listowel Courthouse

Victorian Ireland to modern day

Victorian Ireland to modern day

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 resulted in many ruins in need of restoration, 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, which resulted in a 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.

Sligo Courthouse, a Gothic Revival

21st Century Architecture - the Criminal Courts of Justice