Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

The Carlow Courthouse

Source: The Courts Service

The Carlow Courthouse c.1950
The Carlow Courthouse, a fine polygonal classical building of 1830 designed by Sir Richard Morrison. The portico is modeled on the Parthenon in Athens.
The Carlow Court House c1900
The Carlow Court House c.1900 The Carlow Court House, a fine polygonal classical building of 1830 designed by Sir Richard Morrison. The portico is modeled on the Parthenon in Athens. Image from Carlow Co Museum
Dublin Road is off to the right.
The Carlow Court House with Athy Road off to the left c.1900
The Carlow Courthouse c1900
The Carlow Courthouse
Image from Carlow Co Museum.
The Carlow Courthouse c.2006
Photo W. Muldowney

Courthouse Cannon
Source: Court Services
Court Place looking towards Dublin Road c.2009
Photo W. Muldowney

Judge arriving at the steps of the courthouse.
Source: YouTube.

The Carlow Courthouse Railings

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.

Source of Railings images: Google Street view

Click on images to enlarge

Previousley published in CARLOVIANA
Vol. 2 New Series. No. 22 Dec. 1973
Journal of the Old Carlow Society
Irisleabhar Chumann Seanda Chatharlocha
Editor; E. F. Brophy
Printed by The Nationalist, Carlow

Carlow Courthouse and Railings

By Edward McParland. Art Historian, T.C.D.

In 1828 it was claimed that 'the County of Carlow is the only one in Ireland or at most with the exception of one or two more, that has not within a few years built a new Courthouse or repaired the old one on the new and improved Plan.' Such shortcomings, however, were soon to be set right, for in the same year a contract was drawn up according to which Messrs. Arthur Williams and Gilbert Cockburne were to build a new courthouse to the designs of the architect, William Vitruvius Morrison. It is unclear exactly when the building was finished, though the Board of Works noted in 1832 that the building was not more than half completed. William Morrison was still in charge of the evolving design: his were the plans of alterations approved in 1832, and his was the model of the building proudly exhibited in the same year at the Royal Hibernian Academy.

The above details are worth rehearsing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the courthouse is one of the finest nineteenth century buildings in the country; it is of definite, if unrecognised, significance as a monument of European Neo-Classicism. Secondly, the building and its history have had a bad press, from the Shell Guide—which attributes it to the wrong architect—to Carloviana itself which has reported wrongly that it was begun in 1882, and again that it is modelled on the Parthenon in Athens (it is not; the Parthenon is Doric, the courthouse is Ionic—following the Temple on the Ilissus in Athens).

These two facts—the building's extraordinary quality and its misfortunes at the hands of historians—are of the greatest relevance to the proposed alterations of its immediate surroundings. For a building of such importance must not be tampered with' incautiously, and alterations must not be conducted in ignorance of what is being altered.

And the proposed alteration to the railings around the building is of course more than tampering. They contribute substantially to the architectural impact of the building. An attack on them is an attack on the building itself: such an attack must not be tolerated. William Morrison's two finest classical buildings are the courthouses of Tralee and Carlow. Carlow is the finer of the two, and in very much better condition, within and without. In these two buildings Morrison, following the suggestions of Robert Smirke's Gloucester Shire Hall, revolutionised the planning of Irish courthouses, buildings whose importance has for long been recognised. The influence of his Tralee and Carlow buildings was felt in the courthouses of Nenagh, Cork and Tullamore. With Tralee now seriously neglected, Carlow's importance is much enhanced. The town has a responsibility to retain intact the greatest county courthouse in the country, a responsibility that is greater than can be clear to those who suggest a despoliation of some of the finest classical ironwork in Ireland, and ultimately of the building to whose impact this ironwork is integral.

(I am grateful to Miss lona MacLeod for her help in the preparation of the above).

Edward McParland Art Historian, T.C.D.

Source: Michael Purcell  2012 <>

Court House Railings -1973, 1999 & 2012.

[Letter dated April 1999, from Des FitzGerald, published in The Irish Times in support of Edward McParland's stand regarding the retention of the railings at Carlow Courthouse.

Dr Edward McParland was at the time in charge of the History of Art Department in Trinity College, Dublin.

Dr. McParland was to the fore 26 years earlier (1973) when another battle took place to have the Courthouse railings retained and preserved. (see above article).

Limerick born Des FitzGerald was the 29th and last "Black Knight of Glin" he died in Sept. 2011.]

Letter to the Editor.

Irish Times.

Thursday, 4th April 1999

Carlow Courthouse

Sir, - The Irish Georgian Society would like to support our Board member, Dr Edward McParland, in his deep concern about the proposed plans for the railings of Carlow Courthouse the Courthouse is, as he says, one of the finest 19th century buildings in Ireland. It would be a criminal act on the part of the Office of Public Works to remove or alter the railings, which are an integral part of the original architectural design. -

Yours, etc.,

Desmond Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin, President,
Irish Georgian Society,
Merrion Square,
Dublin 2.

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 himself 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 Morrison's 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 intrinsically 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, were 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.


Website Links & Source: The Courts Service

Carlow Courthouse Brochure.pdf

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