A fire, a phoenix-like rise from the ashes, a new era
Beyond the stretch of memory ‘the Courthouse’ has held stable court from its vantage point close to Roscommon town centre. Through the centuries the iconic building has commanded the imperious stand of Washington’s White House, its lofty front windows holding continuous look-out across the town, its heart amongst the people. From earliest times, the imposing dominance has captured the eyes and seized the imagination of the many thousands of different creeds who will have passed the street below. The many, too, who, through time, were solicited to serve within its chambers will have left their path, climbed the stone steps and entered the spacious rooms to spend daylight, often into darker hours, charting the course of the county they were called upon to guide. These great people were, and still, remain the county guardians.
The present-day – now redundant – courthouse is not the only such building the town has known, as part of the old Dominican Friary was used throughout the early seventeenth century for administration purposes. In the eighteenth century, the Harrison Hall, dedicated to the memory of John Harrison, who served as a physician in the local community, functioned as a courthouse until 1819. Having outlived its usefulness for this work by that date, a number of meetings were called by the Grand Jury – the civil administrators of the time – to decide whether or not to render the Harrison Hall building fit to transact public business or erect a new building altogether.
The decision to build anew was unanimously made in the late 1820s and a committee was appointed to arrange and advance the programme. The committee of nine, which included Robert Goff, after whom Goff Street is named, was headed by the Right Hon. Lord Hartland. In 1822, £500.00 was paid in advance for the building. Advertising in the national newspapers for planning and estimates cost £2.7s 11p. One year later, the Grand Jury made a decision to raise £5,752.00 levied on the county by successive yearly instalments of £287.00.
Construction of the new courthouse was completed in 1832, at a total cost of £8,725.00, part of the revenue coming from the sale of the Harrison Hall. Designed by Richard Morrison & Co., Dublin, the name of the building contractor is not recorded. However, the name of local contractor, Patrick Geraghty is charted through the years to follow, for carrying out necessary maintenance to the building. Before completion, four high iron gates were erected in front of the main entrance to protect the Courts and, indeed, any unwelcome approaches to the new building. The interior of the building housed ample office space and a large room, with bar attached, appropriate for the judges and understudies. The ground floor comprised of a range of kitchens with necessary fittings and supplies. Another room was made available for employees’ rest and the public in general, attending Courts and other business.
In his statistical survey of County Roscommon in 1833, Isaac Weld of the Royal Dublin Society wrote “a new Courthouse upon a very expensive plan has been erected in Roscommon Town. The principal front is strategically placed under a portico of six pillars set in pairs, intended, apparently for the ancient Doric Order”. The new courthouse was insured to the value of £5,000.00 by The Patriotic Insurance Company, Dublin.
A strong social aspect embodied the new Roscommon Courthouse. The Chamber Rooms – where a piper from Longford known as Balfe often entertained – was made available for balls and concerts and public assemblies when the need arose. In 1899, a performance by legendary entertainer, Percy French, was mooted, but due to failure to locate the ‘wandering minstrel’ from Clooneyquinn, who was possibly overseas at the time, the event did not materialise. Local disappointment was aired, as he never performed in his own county.
In 1901, Dr. Douglas Hyde, later to become the first President of Ireland, delivered a lecture on the revival of the Irish language in the courthouse. Attended by a very large crowd, a concert of Irish traditional music preceded and followed the talk.
As a local body, the Grand Jury were responsible for the necessary duties of repairing roads and buildings, maintaining public works and controlling accounts of expenditure. The early transactions somewhat similar, but much less complicated than those of the modern local authority.
County administration suffered a severe setback in 1882, when a major fire broke out, causing extensive damage to the half-century-old courthouse building – and it became evident that imminent danger and fears arose for the safety of neighbouring premises, many of which were thatched houses. Immediate notification was sent to the Gashouse on the other side of the town to disconnect supply in the fear that further inflammable substance might be added. People of the town turned out in large numbers anxious to render assistance, but, regretfully, with very little means of success. A large number of valuable public documents and records were saved.
Due to the extent of the fire, Mr. L.P. Hayden, Chairman of the Town Commissioners, ordered, by telegraph, a fire engine to be sent urgently from Athlone. Since permission for this warranted sanction from Dublin – and London – and the equipment transported by special train to Roscommon Station, the operation was cancelled as the fire was smouldering to a slow conclusion. As a consequence, a hundred military were dispatched from Athlone under the command of Captain Whaley, an engineer, who, on investigation, quickly traced the fire to the front of the building under the roof. Teaming up with assembled police and pumping water from a large roof tank and a curtailed local supply, the flames were controlled and the building saved from total destruction. The solid stone structure, however, held firm.
Danger to buildings in nearby Church Street and Henry Street became less intense. During the height of the fire a number of houses and business premises’ in nearby Abbey Street were severely damaged.
The most critical were Mrs. O’Rourke’s and Patrick Beirne’s licensed premises, the latter’s private house and Mr. Flanagan’s bacon store and shop. The two-storey thatched dwelling of Mr. George Sweeney was completely destroyed. The office of local newspaper, Roscommon Messenger, in close proximity, was also at extreme risk, with some of the window glass cracked. A report in the paper’s issue of June 17th, 1882, ran:
Major Fire in our Town. The Courthouse of Roscommon, a building of which we have reason to proud of, consumed. Many dwelling houses burned, thankfully no fatalities or injuries
Within months of the blaze, meetings were held in the offices of the Roscommon Messenger to raise support for the local businesses who were stricken. Lord Crofton from Mote Park, who attended all meetings, was first to subscribe the worthy sum of fifty pounds and offered further support in time, including accommodation for continuance of Grand Jury work. Dr. Harrison and a colleague, Dr. Phillips, donated thirty pounds each. Other benefits came from well-to-do town and county businesses.
In 1883, the tender of a Dublin-based company, Messrs Wardropp, with the figure of £6,482.00, was accepted for the restoration of the courthouse. The insurers paid most of the claim. The rebuilding work took over two years to complete to a blend of the original structure erected in the 1830s and the more modern construction of the day. The burning of Roscommon Courthouse in the late 1880s, said to be one of the largest fires in the country, was seen as a major catastrophe for the town and county.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 replaced the Grand Jury system with County Councils or local authorities as they are currently identified. In December of that year, the Roscommon Messenger reported ‘exciting times’ in Roscommon when a proposal by the Council to hoist the National flag over the courthouse was objected to and banned by the Sheriff, the public refused entry to the building during negotiations. The councillors gained some success, however, by hoisting the flag inside in their main chamber. In December, 1907, the Davitt Memorial Portrait was unveiled by Roscommon County Council in its recognition of the Land League founder’s continuing agitation at national and political level, on behalf of the oppressed Irish tenant farmers. The framed portrait which may still be on display in the Courthouse Entrance Hall was produced by Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, to the order of M.J. Farrell, Jeweller, Church Street, Roscommon.
Roscommon’s first County Manager was Galway native, John G. Browne, who served from late 1940s to 1965. The first meeting of the newly-formed County Council was held on the 29th April, 1899. Members of the first Council included the familiar names of Farrell McDonnell, Chairman, John Galvin, Athleague, Jasper Tully, Boyle, later to become synonymous with the newspaper industry, Michael Glennon, Kiltoom, John Neilan, H.D. Stevens. Many political personalities have been associated with Roscommon Courthouse over a long number of years. Among the earlier group were Jack McQuillan, TD, a county senior footballer in the 1940s, Joan Burke, TD, the late Brian Lenihan, TD, and the late Sean Doherty, both the latter who held Government ministerial posts.
Fresh thinking – coupled with forward planning – decreed Roscommon Courthouse no longer measurably equipped to row against time’s advancing tide. Opposing voices went unheard. In December, 2015, the last anchor dropped. A new building has unnoticeably risen in its back garden within its gaze. Only conduit between the old and the new is the 12-ton Abeline & Porter Road Steam Roller, DI-637, which operated on County Roscommon roads between 1913 and the early 1960s. The vintage machine in bright green colour, permanently exhibited in the front foyer of the new building, was last driven by the late Brian Dervan of Roscommon Town on St. Patrick’s Day, 2001.
From the tables of Roscommon’s new ‘White House’ on the corner – the People’s House – the county’s future hand of cards will be dealt. The old courthouse – once their place of pilgrimage – now playing host to the ghosts of bygone years. Always looking out across the town, a lasting monument to Roscommon’s past.
* The author of this article would like to thank former County Librarian, Richie Farrell, and Catherine Heaney, Corporate Services Department, Roscommon County Council, for valuable information supplied.