Returned to its former glory


Architectural prize: The newly refurbished Sligo Courthouse has just won a major architectural award. Carol Coulter writes about the history of the courthouse and what went on within.

"The site of the present Courthouse is wretched. . . Be the improvements what they may, individuals coming in any direction will not be able to command a view of the premises until they come within a few perches distance. . ."

Thus thundered the Sligo Champion in 1874 during a public controversy over whether to refurbish the existing building, there since about 1780, or to move the whole operation to a new site.

The first course prevailed and the building was substantially rebuilt and greatly extended in 1878, although part of the old courthouse and 18th-century gaol remained. It lies at the bottom of Pearse Road, the road leading from Dublin and Galway into Sligo from the south and, despite the objections of the Champion at the time, cannot fail to strike any visitor to the town.

On July 30th the renovated building received the regional award for a major building from the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. The architects who designed the refurbishment were McCullough Mulvin.

John McTernan, former county librarian and a local historian, has published a book of local history, In Sligo Long Ago. He also worked in the courthouse for many years, as it used to house the county council offices.

"There used to be public executions on the street outside this building into the 1800s," he told The Irish Times. "Parading people about to be hanged in public was part of the punishment. This site has been associated with the application of the law since then."

The last public hanging was of a Matthew Phibbs, a member of a prominent Protestant family in the county. (The office of law firm Argue and Phibbs, just down the street, was a much-photographed tourist sight for many decades because of the oddly apposite name.)

Matthew Phibbs was convicted of the murders of a local man, his wife and their servant during a robbery. In a letter written before his execution, he wrote: "Yes, often my parents did advise me to mind my Sunday school and Church, but I neglected them and went instead to whiskey houses and play-houses and races. Again, young men beware of what has brought me to this my untimely end."

A contemporary drawing of the accused is published in Mr McTernan's book.

Sligo was an important local legal centre, with regular sittings of the Assizes. According to Mr McTernan, one case heard here set a legal precedent on the law relating to duelling.

Two brothers, Thomas and John Fenton from Easkey in the west of the county, had a row with the local landlord, a Capt Hillas, during which he challenged John Fenton to a duel. Capt Hillas was shot dead and the Fentons were charged with murder.

"The judge ruled it was a fair fight and exonerated them," Mr McTernan said. "The trial was very well documented in the English papers at the time. It had a bearing on other duelling trials."

The most important trial to take place in this courthouse was that of Michael Davitt and a number of fellow Land League members, following a public meeting in Gurteen, a small town near Boyle. Davitt was charged with sedition as a result of his speech.

According to the Sligo Champion of the time: "Davitt, Daly and Killeen attacked the rent system and suggested that a combination of farmers and others would soon sweep landlords and rent out of the country."

Parnell was among those at the trial and crowds filled the street outside the courthouse while it was going on.

Again according to the Sligo Champion, the proceedings collapsed "after a week-long barrage of ridicule and scorn hurled at the presiding magistrate by an eccentric but brilliant solicitor, John Rea, whose courtroom tactics had earned him the reputation of being Ireland's best criminal lawyer".

He called himself "Her Orthodox Presbyterian Britannic Majesty's Orange-Fenian Attorney-General for Ulster" and Davitt reported gleefully to his friends that he had "a provocative manner that would drive a bench of Quakers into a militant mood of retaliation".

"By the time this larger-than-life lawyer had finished toying with them, the Sligo magistrates were reduced to a state of cringing helplessness," wrote the Champion.

The case attracted 27 journalists and a sketch of the scene outside the courthouse was published in the Illustrated London News.

The courthouse had a less colourful history in this century and became the administrative centre for the county, housing the county council offices until 1980.

The building was a warren of spaces, including some external spaces between different parts of the whole complex. According to local architect Derry O'Connell, the style of the Gothic-Revival building was clearly influenced by the Law Courts in London, which were under construction at the same time.

However, by the end of the 20th century, the external walls of Mountcharles stone were badly eroded and the internal structure was no longer suitable for the needs of a modern courthouse.

The refurbishment took two years and involved consultation with all court-users before the plans were drawn up.

The fabric of the building was preserved and original doors and window-frames carefully stripped, re-varnished and replaced. The benches in the old courtrooms received the same treatment and are back in place, complete with the names of bored reporters or lawyers cut into the wood.

Mr Bill Cashell, chief clerk of the court, pointed out a raised bench in the centre of the body of the court. This was for the local landlord, so that if he was observing a case involving a tenant, he was on the same eye-level as the judge.

One of the few changes in the courtrooms is that the dock in which Davitt sat, which is currently being restored, will not be returned to the courtroom but will be on display in the foyer.

While the fabric and essential features of the building have been retained, in particular the great, high foyer with natural light coming in from the roof windows, there were many changes in the use of rooms and staircases, in access to the building and in circulation routes, along with the addition of two more courtrooms, to reflect modern requirements.

For example, prisoners are now brought into a small yard and straight to cells, from where they can be brought to court without any contact with the public or victims. There is a separate side entrance leading to the family court suite with two waiting rooms, so that warring parties need not be sitting beside each other, and a small, intimate courtroom, as well as rooms for lawyers. There are also seven consulting rooms, two jury-rooms and a room for Victim Support, with tea-making facilities. Toilets and showers are incorporated into the judges' chambers, as well as kitchenettes.

When in full use, the courthouse houses sittings of the district court, the circuit court, two annual sittings of the High Court and the coroner's court.