The Birr courthouse has been in the news again lately in the context of its being used as an arts school for painters and others. It would be good to find a use for it that ensures the conservation of the building. Some years ago the idea was put forward that Birr should be considered the Bath of Ireland because it has such fine terraces, good shops in its narrow streets, fine churches, a Pugin convent (now the Birr library), the workhouse, John’s Hall, Oxmantown Hall, the Crotty church, maltings, a distillery and more. To recall Mark Girouard writing in Country Life in 1965, and in his own inimitable style Birr
‘epitomises the peculiar charm of a small Irish town at its best. It is a charm deriving not so much from the quality of the individual buildings as from the way in which they are put together – an aquatint spaciousness still scarcely soiled…’
That was over fifty years ago. Today the castle, gardens and telescope are like a shining star, in this great constellation of fine buildings in this carefully planned town over the period from 1620 to 1870. All of the public buildings contribute to what makes a market townscape and were perceived as essential in any planned town such as Birr, or its near neighbour Tullamore.
The Birr courthouse is another example of what can go wrong in a recession. Marked out for improvement following on the Tullamore courthhouse it was unlucky in that it fell foul of the recession and the radical constraints on public finances from 2011. The Courts Service had to drop its enhancement proposals. Mistakes were made before 2008 in the running of our country and emergency measures were taken. One was to close all courthouses in Offaly save that in Tullamore. The Birr plans for improvements, discussed with local solicitors in 2008, were shelved and then, worse, the courthouse was closed in December 2013. Edenderry was closed at the same time. That other quarter sessions venue, Daingean (Philipstown), was closed almost 100 years earlier in 1914. The pace of change in the 2011-14 was brought home to all Irish towns with the dismantling of the town councils, the loss of local garda stations and post offices, the ending of local courts, and from 2005 the end of local engagement with the health services.
What would Armagh man John Wright, the editor of the King’s County Chronicle, have to say about the loss of these services? One expects a lot as he loved his adopted town of Birr. From 1899 he would have seen the loss of influence for Birr with the move to a county council based in Tullamore and the ending of the Rosse influence in local administration and the grand jury. The shift was gradual in the early years of the last century as the county council secretary was C.P. Kingston, a Birr man. As late as 1917, a somewhat frustrated P.F. Adams, commented that the county council had a number of senior administrative figures from the Birr area including Secretary Kingston, James Mahon and Coroner Thomas Conway (the county council solicitor) and wrote an amusing letter to the press (TKI, 31.3.1917) complaining about jobbery in the council’s appointments:
Of all the positions in the different departments of a permanent class, only one is held by a native of the northern end of the county. Yet their supporters talk of brains. The air at the southern end of the county has a wonderful effect on the brain development of its youths.
After 1920 the Sinn Féin dominated council brought in radical cost cutting in the health services with the closure of the county infirmary and the Birr workhouse and its amalgamation with Tullamore.
The first to write about the Birr courthouse was none other than Thomas Lalor Cooke, the Birr solicitor and historian, who published a history of Birr in 1826 for which he obtained nine drawings, one of which was the courthouse (see illustration).
Cooke writing of the Birr courthouse and quarter sessions (since the 1920s the Circuit Court) appeared to suggests that Birr had some predominance in regard to quarter sessions of the peace (as distinct from of the crown – criminal matters) up to the 1820s. The courthouse at Birr replaced an earlier sessions house and was built before 1810 (possibly after 1803 when Thomas Clere Parsons, a younger brother of the earl of Rosse was appointed chairman) on the Tullamore road leading out of the town. (The chairman of the quarter sessions was from 1796 a paid ‘assistant barrister’ who sat with the unpaid local magistrates. This position evolved into chairman of the sessions magistrates, later a county court judgeship and later again a judge of the circuit court). Cooke was full of praise for Parsons, who died in 1825, while Cooke was writing his history. Plans were made to erect a memorial to his memory in the form of an obelisk 70-foot high at Scurragh, but it ultimately foundered and the stones were carried away. Interestingly, Chairman Parsons may have been the father of the portrait painter, Thomas Foster.
Cooke refers to the first session house in Birr as having a 1623 date which is in line with the settlement of the town by the new colonists after 1620. The old courthouse which also served as a market house was situate at the corner of Castle Street and Main Street and, apparently, assizes were held in it for a time although it was not the county town. This honour fell to Daingean from the 1550s and Tullamore from 1835 when the new courthouse was completed. Of the new pre-1810 Birr courthouse Cooke wrote in 1826 that:
The present session house is a handsome, convenient building sufficiently extensive for the business of the county. The Bench, Jury-boxes, &c. are prettily contrived, and unlike to session houses in general, there is a good outside hall to the one now being described. The Grand Jury Room is spacious in proportion to the criminal business to be transacted in it. At the south end of this building is the Bridewell, in which the county treadmill has been recently erected. The Gaol formerly stood on the south side of the old bridge. It was there in the year 1628, and until a recent period. Part of it is yet standing. The General Quarter Sessions of the Peace are held in this town four times in every year, viz: in January, April, July and October. In the session house is also held the manor court, in nature of a court baron, before a seneschal, appointed by the Earl of Rosse. Its jurisdiction, as to amount, extended by the original patent to all pleas of debt, transgressions, contracts, detinue, causes and other matters which in debt and demands did not amount to forty shillings Irish arising within the manor. . . The present Seneschal holds his Court precisely at twelve o’clock on the First Monday of every month. There is also a power of holding a Court-Leet and Frank-pledge here twice in every year, but it is now disused.
The landlord’s manor court in Birr was still going in 1845 and was considered of great benefit to the poor who for ‘a trifling expense’ could recover small claims not exceeding £2 (KCC, 17.12.1845).
The Birr courthouse continued in use both as a venue for the circuit court and the district court thus carrying on a long tradition back to the 1620s. Cooke in his The picture of Parsonstown (Dublin, 1826) does not provide a date for the present courthouse but he did provide an illustration (see pp 218-22 and p. 241 for this account and the illustration). Wright, in The King’s County Directory (1890) states that ‘the barrack-looking building came into being in the beginning of the nineteenth century’, p. 164. Certainly the date of 1830 attributed in An introduction to the architectural heritage of County Offaly (Dublin 2006), p. 38 with illustrations of both courthouses is incorrect. Illustrations of both Daingean and Birr will be found in Mildred Dunne and Brian Phillips, The courthouses of Ireland (Dublin, 1999), pp 56-57 and 120-21. The suggestion that Daingean courthouse was by James Gandon was first mooted in the reprint of the Life of James Gandon, first ed. 1846, reprint edited by Maurice Craig (London, 1969). In Maurice Craig and the Knight of Glin, Ireland Observed (Cork, 1970), p. 38 the suggestion was stronger. McParland in a note at p. 197 of his James Gandon (London, 1985) scotches the ‘rumour’ and states of Daingean courthouse ‘the building, the façade of which is a weak derivative of the west front of the King’s Inns, is excluded here, on grounds of quality from his [Gandon’s] oeuvre.
The grandeur of the old Daingean courthouse had long faded when it was daubed with ‘IRA 1916’ and a large painted Sinn Féin flag in February 1921 – the same month as the Tullamore courthouse was taken over by the British military – Midland Tribune, 26 February 1921. The Tullamore courthouse was destroyed in July 1922 by departing republicans and rebuilt by the Free State government in 1927 (Byrne, Legal Offaly, 2008).
Part 2: John Wright’s reminiscences of the greatest trials held in Birr Courthouse