30 August 2018
Grace’s Castle, a modern
courthouse in Kilkenny
dating from the 13th century
Earlier today, I enjoyed the view of the classical façade of Grace’s Castle on Parliament Street, in the historical centre of Kilkenny. This is a very modern courthouse, but it stands on the site of an early mediaeval castle or fortress that was first built by the Grace family in 1210.
The Grace family was descended from Raymond le Gros, who came to Ireland in 1170. The family primarily lived at Courtstown Castle in Tullaroan, about 15 km from the city, and Grace’s Castle served as their townhouse.
From the beginning, the family was active in the life of Kilkenny city and county. Two members of the family were abbots of Jerpoint Abbey, Oliver Grace of Tullaroan was Keeper of the Peace in Co Kilkenny in the 15th century, and later, in 1834, William Grace became Mayor of Kilkenny.
Grace’s Castle remained a private residence until it was leased to the state in 1566 by James Grace, who was then Governor of Ireland. The castle was rebuilt and converted into a prison and was used as a goal for about 200 years.
Garret Comerford (ca 1550-1604) of Inchiholohan or Castleinch, Co Kilenny, was the Queen’s Attorney-at-Laws for Connaught, MP for Callan, Second Baron of the Exchequer and Chief Justice of Munster. His third son, Nicholas Comerford, was the King’s Gaoler in Kilkenny in the early 17th century, and his children included Nicholas Comberford (ca 1600-1673) of Stepney, an important cartographer in the mid-17th century.
The mediaeval remains of the castle that survived in the jail at Grace’s Castle were incorporated I then 18th century into the basement area of the gaol. When Grace’s Castle was converted to a courthouse in 1792, the work incorporated fabric of the earlier Bridewell dating from 1566, and the basement retains fabric of the mediaeval castle dating from 1210.
This classical-style courthouse is a seven-bay, double-height building over a projecting raised basement, built in 1792. Archival material suggests Sir Jerome Fitzpatrick, a campaigner for prison reform and a former medical doctor in the army, took charge of extensive renovations to convert the building into a courthouse.
Fitzpatrick’s internal configuration shows the influence of James Gandon (1743-1823), including the courthouse he built in Waterford City in 1784 but that was demolished around 1849.
However, Grace’s Castle, as it appears today, is primarily the result of a comprehensive redevelopment by the Kilkenny-born architect William Robertson (1770-1850), who had returned from London around 1801 and had developed a busy architectural practice in Kilkenny, with the Earl of Ormonde as an early client, carrying out extensive work at Kilkenny Castle in the decades that followed.
He also enlarged the barracks at Kilkenny, reported to the Dean and Chapter of Saint Canice’s on the fabric of the cathedral in 1813, and he designed Jenkinstown Castle for the Bellew family, the Gothic gateway for Shankill Castle, Gowran Castle for Lord Clifden, the chancel of Saint Mary’s Church (Church of Ireland), Gowran, Saint Canice’s Roman Catholic Church, Kilkenny, and Cappoquin Bridge in Co Waterford.
William Robertson died in Mayo 1850 at Rosehill, the house which he had built for himself near Saint Kieran’s College on College Road, Kilkenny. His large library – ‘the result of Fifty Years’ collecting’ – was sold at auction in Dublin over a number of days the following April.
Robertson’s classical scheme for Grace’s Castle, surmounting a somewhat haphazard base, forms an elegantly distinctive building. He remodelled the façade, adding features such as a balcony and stone staircase, and designing the pedimented tetrastyle Tuscan frontispiece added at the centre.
Here, the engaged Tuscan columns form a tetrastyle frontispiece to the centre, supporting the frieze with a moulded surround to the pediment with modillions. There are paired engaged Tuscan columns to end bays, a frieze, moulded cornice, and blocking course over, incorporating panels to the end bays having swags.
The courthouse is set back from Parliament Street with a landscaped forecourt that is enclosed by paired flights of 20 cut-limestone steps leading up to the entrance level.
The courthouse was extended in 1855-1856 with a four-bay three-storey return to east, and it was extended to the rear ca 1870.
The building was renovated around 1977, when the interior was remodelled. Despite these late 20th century renovations, some early fittings survive inside that offer an element of artistic importance, including fine timber joinery and decorative plasterwork features.
More recently, a 3000 sq m extension was added at the rear of the courthouse, with modern facilities and additional courtrooms. The brief involved refurbishing the existing courthouse building along with building the new 3,000 sq m extension. The work provided new and improved accommodation for all court users, including two new courtrooms, judges’ chambers, and office accommodation for the Circuit and District Courts.
All public and staff areas are fully accessible, including the courtrooms, redesigned to be accessible to anyone with mobility difficulties. The courtrooms have also been equipped with induction loops to aid people with hearing difficulties.
Kilkenny Courthouse is used today for sittings of the Circuit and District Courts. The front of the building retains some of the original features of the jail, which are visible from street level, and Grace’s Castle remains one of the earliest-surviving civic institutions in Kilkenny.
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