Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: a Political History, 1750-1850


Courthouse jacket updated3-page-001Cork University Press has published a major new reference work on some of Ireland’s most well-known public buildings, entitled Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: a Political History, 1750-1850. The author is Richard Butler, a native of west Cork who lectures in Irish history at the University of Leicester. This lavishly illustrated book traces the history of how and why these celebrated architectural treasures were built in Irish cities and towns in years marked by the Great Rebellion of 1798, the Act of Union of 1800, and the Great Famine of 1845-52. It is the fruits of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the universities of Cambridge and Wisconsin-Madison in the United States. For the first time, it offers a national survey of the largest and most impressive of these buildings, where judges, juries, landed aristocrats, and government officials met to administer law and order in Irish counties.


Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison is the result of seven years of research in archives all around Ireland and abroad. It tells the story of how almost every major city and town was reshaped in turbulent years of political and cultural change with impressive – and often quite intimidating – new public buildings. It explains how Ireland’s courthouses have always been scenes of great drama, from the election of Daniel O’Connell in Ennis’s now-demolished courthouse in the 1820s to the destruction of Tullamore courthouse during the revolutionary years. In unprecedented detail, Butler shows how Irish architects copied the latest designs from other parts of Britain and Europe and how local elites lobbied and raised money to change the shape of their local cities and towns. The book explores how counties competed with their neighbours, such as in Cork, Kerry, Monaghan, and Louth, where elites were often jealous of an impressive new building forty or fifty miles away. Butler argues that this was a unique moment of creativity in Irish architectural history.

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Cork jail

The book shows how the British government contributed to the planning and funding of these buildings, mostly by way of generous loans to local elites. In the economic recession of the years after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, this money was designed to provide employment throughout Ireland. While the ‘public works’ of the Great Famine years are well known, such as building new roads in the countryside, this book shows how government loans were also used to change the shape and appearance of Irish cities and towns. It suggests that rather than these buildings being simply an ‘British’ or ‘imperial’ legacy in Ireland, they represent a more complicated weaving together of different interests and agendas.

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Tullamore town in 1838 showing the jail of 1830 and courthouse of 1835

Courthouses and prisons were where many ordinary Irish people were tried for offences brought about by great suffering and poverty – such as stealing food to survive. This book shows how Irish prisons were affected by famine, violence, rebellion, and unrest. It explains in unprecedented detail how charities and government inspectors tried, at different moments, to improve the condition of Irish prisons and those who languished within them. Butler unearths letters recently found in the United States that shed light on one of Ireland’s first prison inspectors – who ironically later served time in jail as a debtor. He explains why architecture was such a topic of rich political and social debate, and how prison design evolved rapidly in the early nineteenth century. Many of these historic prisons are now known to a new generation as ‘dark tourism’ sites, such as Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, and prisons in Wicklow and Cork. Butler has unearthed many previously unpublished drawings and photographs of these prisons, including buildings in Waterford, Mullingar and Sligo. This book both explains the history of individual buildings and situates this within the bigger trends and forces of life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland.

Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison explains how these distinguished works of architecture fitted into their nearby surroundings, such as a public square or at the end of a long street. It shows how towns such as Nenagh grew around major new public buildings, and courthouses in Carlow and Belfast emerged at key intersections of new roads. Butler argues that these buildings were a critical part of how the modern Irish city and town developed – and that urban Ireland continues to be shaped by their historic legacy.

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Offaly County Courthouse, built in 1835 and rebuilt in 1927 and refurbished in 2007.

This book is designed for both an academic and a public audience. Informative, accessible, and fascinating in its detail, it is a highly engaging account of historic buildings that are well-known throughout Ireland. Together with correspondence recently discovered in archives, and extensive appendices designed to help local history researchers, Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison celebrates the rich heritage and legacy of some of the nation’s most important architectural heritage.

Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: a Political History, 1750-1850, (Cork, 2020) large format, pp 610, in full colour, hardback, Available from Offaly History Centre (€39).

Offaly History adds:  This is the best history so far of Irish courthouses and jails and will not be in print for long. Altogether a handsome publication presenting high quality research.

0.1 Prelims front cover The Courthouse & gaol Tullamore c. 1910 cover