An Introduction to Conservation of the Irish Sessions House: A Study of the Pain Brothers' Standard Plan in Munster

Ireland's courthouses play an important part in the civic life of Irish towns and cities both in their physical formation and their social development. Despite this their building fabric has suffered from neglect over the past century. This, alongside their uncertain future poses many conservation issues.

The Courts Service, since its formation in 1999, have been focusing on the refurbishment and extension of the large county courthouses alongside the amalgamation of certain circuit and district courts. Their strategy is to concentrate resources where there is a business need, this inevitably leads to the intensification of use of the larger courthouse resulting in a number of smaller courthouses becoming redundant. The adaptation of courthouses for continued use must respond to and accommodate a number of issues all of which will be examined in this thesis, they include: universal access, changes in the treatment of participants in a court, the integration of technology and an increase in the number of administrative staff.

The courthouse of the smaller size or 'sessions house' is the focus of this thesis. Due to present day changes in the provision of court services, the threat of vacancy and subsequent neglect is imminent for a number of them. Eight case study courthouses have been selected as a means to examine the Irish sessions house. All eight are located in Munster, the courthouses of which have received little attention to date in the way of research. They comprise all built examples of a single standard design by the Pain brothers. The Pains, following apprenticeships with eminent Regency architect John Nash, established themselves from 1811 onwards as the foremost architects of their time in Munster and contributed enormously to the built heritage of Ireland in the nineteenth century. Their impressively wide ranging work included gothic style mansions, churches, bridges, prisons and courthouses (a background of their work in the latter two typologies is presented in chapter three). The eight case study session houses represent their smaller scale work for which they are not normally recognised. These buildings display the Pain Brother's ability not only to adapt between building styles but also to differing scales and contexts. Their standard plan required an ability to design with stringent economy and adaptability in mind, a stark contrast to the 'one-off' nature of so many of their projects, particularly mansions for wealthy private clients. All eight of the original group of buildings survive and as such could be considered of substantial cultural significance on the basis of their designers contribution to the history of Architecture in Ireland alone. Almost two hundred years after their construction they are now representative of the varying physical states and usage of courthouse buildings throughout the country, illustrating trends and differing approaches while remaining mutually comparable due to their shared original design.

This aim of this thesis, through chosen case studies, is to establish best practice for the conservation of the Irish sessions house: to do so will include establishing local influences on the standard design, assigning value to building elements for the purpose of conservation, outline the issues that impede the conservation of courthouses and contribute to our understanding of the courthouse typology in Ireland.

'...the old oligarchical system had made its last, and perhaps its finest contribution in the sphere of public buildings: the majestic series of court houses which adorn the provincial towns.'1

1. M. Craig, The Architecture of Ireland from Earliest Times to 1880, (Dublin, 1989), p. 266.

Rosaleen Crushell, Dublin 2010

Note: The thesis in full can be accessed from the Richview Library, University College Dublin or by contacting the author.