10 March 2018

Former courthouse is part
of Bray’s heritage but is
closed and blocked up

The neoclassical courthouse was built facing the Royal Hotel in Bray in 1841 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing about the Royal Hotel in Bray yesterday [9 March 2018], and how its restoration in recent decades has returned it to its former glory, when it was the premier hotel in the north Wicklow town.

In front of the restored grandeur of the Royal Hotel, the former courthouse is now a sad and neglected state on a paved corner at the north end of Bray’s Main Street.

This was the Market Square in mediaeval Bray. With the expansion of the small settlement founded on the banks of the River Dargle by the de Riddlesford family in the 13th century, a market became necessary. In July 1213, the square was formally laid out under a Royal Licence.

Throughout the Middle Ages and for some time after, markets were held weekly, and fairs held twice a year – on Saint Martin’s Day, 11 November, and on the Feast Day of Saint Philip and Saint James, 1 May. These markets would have been the highlight of the week, and the fairs were the fairs were the highlights of the year.

In later years, William Brabazon (1769-1797), who succeeded his father as the 9th Earl of Meath in 1790, built a new market house on this spot. He was never married. He was killed in a duel on 26 May 1797, and he was succeeded by his brother John Brabazon (1772-1851), 10th Earl of Meath.

Lord Meath’s courthouse was torn down some years later and it was replaced by a Classical-style courthouse built in 1841. It stands on a prominent site at the north end of the Main Street.

This is a three-bay two-storey building and it was extended at the north-east corner in the mid- to later 1900s. The building is basically square in plan with a small projecting porch on the south side that sits within a shallow full-height pedimented bay. The façade is finished in painted render with granite alternating quoins, a sill course and door and window surrounds.

The porch has panelled pilaster-like corners and a granite parapet with squat end piers. The roof of the original section of the building is hipped and slated with a single rendered chimney-stack behind the pediment of the bay to the front. The extension has a flat roof.

The entrance is at the west side of the porch and consists of a panelled timber door. The windows are flat-headed and had six-over-six timber sash frames. However, the two first-floor windows at the front have been blocked up.

At the ground floor on the front and the west elevation, there is a series of niches that may once have been windows.

One niche has a plaque erected by Bray Heritage Centre Bicentenary Committee commemorating Captain John Edwards (1751-1832) of Oldcourt, a ‘magistrate and yeomanry officer, who was described by Luke Cullen as ‘a gentleman of courage, prudence and humanity.’

Another niche has a plaque commemorating Charles Barrington (1834-1901), the first man to climb the Eiger Peak. Barrington was from Fassaroe in Bray, and in 1858 was the first man to reach the summit of the Eiger. The plaque was erected to mark the 150th anniversary on 11 August 2008.

After Bray’s first town commissioners were appointed in 1859, their meetings were held in the courthouse until the Town Hall was built in 1880s.

Oscar Wilde was once up in court there after some confusion over selling his father’s properties on Esplanade Terrace. The estate agent accepted offers from two different bidders. The bidder who was later declared unsuccessful sued Oscar Wilde, who won the case but had to pay the court expenses.

It ceased to serve as Bray’s courthouse in 1984, and was later used as a heritage centre, a tourist office and a design centre. At one time, it housed an educational and entertaining exhibition depicting 1,000 years of the History of Bray, ‘From Strongbow to Steam.’

Last year (2017), Ian McGahon of Bray Labour Party expressed serious concern at how the historical archives and artefacts stored in the former heritage centre are being neglected.

He expressed concern ‘that many valuable historic artefacts and archives are being neglected and abandoned by Bray Municipal District Council and by Wicklow County Council.’ He said many items have been abandoned in the building, ‘with previous attempts to archive them, document them, preserve them, forgotten.’

This building continues to form an important element of the historic civic quarter of Bray. Despite recent developments, and in spite of recent neglect, it retains much of its original fabric and the authority of the courthouse remains intact.

The monument to Dr Christopher Thompson in front of the former courthouse and the Royal Hotel in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The small paved area in front of the building has a stone obelisk monument with a fountain, erected by public subscription in memory of Dr Christopher Thompson (1815-1876). It is similar to the memorial to Dr Isaac William Usher in the centre of Dundrum, close to the steps leading up to the Luas station.

Dr Thompson was born in Dublin, and as an army doctor, he was assigned to the Light Infantry in Queenstown (Cobh). He returned from a posting at Portsmouth General Hospital to Ireland in 1859 and lived at 9 Duncairn Terrace while working as a doctor in Bray.

When there was an outbreak of cholera in the Boghall Road area of Bray in 1876, he responded immediately and volunteered to care for the victims. But he contracted cholera himself, and he died on 16 December 1876. He is buried in Saint Paul’s churchyard, across the street from the memorial, erected after a meeting in the Royal Hotel on 26 January 1877.

The monument is a protected structure, but it is made of soft sandstone, and there are fears that any attempts to clean the stone work by chemical treatment or sand blasting would damage the monument.

The fountain at the monument to Dr Christopher Thompson in front of the former courthouse and the Royal Hotel in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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