20 April 2019

How the architect of
Nenagh’s courthouse
ended his days in jail

The classical courthouse in the centre of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, was designed by John Benjamin Keane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The classical courthouse Nenagh occupies an important site in the centre of the townscape and its monumental size and architectural quality make it one of the most impressive public buildings in this Co Tipperary town.

Courthouses were built by the Grand Juries in many towns and cities throughout Ireland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The courthouse in Nenagh is part of a complex of judicial buildings built in the town in the early 1840s, and stands on one side of Banba Square, facing towards the town centre.

Nenagh courthouse was designed by the Dublin-born architect John Benjamin Keane. His other courthouses included Tralee (1828), Tullamore (1832) and Downpatrick (1832-1834). It is also said he designed the courthouse in Carlow (1830-1834), although this was designed by William Vitruvius Morrison and is modelled on the Temple on the Ilissus in Athens.

Keane also designed Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, and Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, Waterford, worked with Sir Richard Morrison on the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin and with AWN Pugin and Patrick Byrne on the designs for the Loreto Convent chapel and lantern in Rathfarnham.

Keane first worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison by 1819 or 1820. He was in independent practice by 1823, when his name appears in Wilson’s Dublin Directory.

During the next two decades, Keane received several important commissions including the new Queen’s College, Galway, and a number of major Roman Catholic churches in Dublin and elsewhere.

He exhibited a large number of designs at the Royal Hibernian Academy between 1828 and 1841, and in 1842 he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. Keane exhibited his plans for the elevation of the new courthouse in Nenagh at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1840. The Board of Works granted a loan of £6,000 in 1840, and the courthouse was built by John Hanly, a local builder, in 1840-1843.

This courthouse in Nenagh has a three-bay, double-height centre block with a sandstone giant order pedimented tetrastyle Ionic portico on a stepped base and flanked by two-storey wings with engaged giant order pilasters. It has an entablature at the front and at the three-bay side elevations.

A three-bay, two-storey block built ca 1860 projects from the rear.

Keane designed the Gothic Revival quadrangle at Queen’s College, Galway (now NUI Galway) in 1845 very much in the fashion of Christ Church College, Oxford.

Later, Keane was the engineer with the River Suir Navigation Co in 1846-1848. However, the latter years of his career appear to have been blighted by alcoholism. He fell into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea gaol. He died on 7 October 1859.

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