Holding court on the courthouse


JURY’S OUT The future of Westport Courthouse remains uncertain, for now.  Pic: Conor McKeown

The purchase of mid-19th-century Westport Courthouse has sparked much interest in its potential – but as what? 

Áine Ryan

BUILT at the height of the Great Famine and opened in 1846, if the walls of Westport’s Courthouse could talk they would bound to have some colourful yarns about sheep stealing and poitín stills and the arrogance of the Ascendancy legal system of 19th-century Mayo.
Unsurprisingly, an iconic photograph – issued as an An Post centenary celebration stamp last year – of a Dáil Court session during the seismic summer of 1920 – was taken in the town hall. The courthouse clearly was a monument to colonial times during these years when the War of Independence caused much unrest.
Refurbished in 2002 and closed in 2013, as the Irish Courts Service centralised many of its Co Mayo sittings to the newly upgraded Castlebar Courthouse, the Castlebar Street building has lain idle since.
However, its purchase by Mayo County Council in recent weeks has been widely welcomed. The Mayo News decided to ask three readers, how they would like to see this important landmark building used into the future.

Home for heritage
Here is what acclaimed poet Ger Reidy, a retired Mayo County Council Executive Engineer, said: “Courthouses. I’ve spent time working in them, attending court cases, under crossfire from barristers on behalf of Mayo County Council, where I worked as an engineer; observed the emotional trauma some vulnerable people endure when perched at eye level with the judge, wigs and gowns and all that ‘Yes M’Lord’ stuff, as solicitors and barristers play out a tired colonial Punch and Judy show that should have no part in our Republic.
“The buildings are usually fine cut-stone structures now preserved in a cold, austere and formidable 19th-century aura. Windows are at a high level, and maybe if they were in private ownership an ambitious architect would blow a big hole in the side and let in some light from the 21st century, but that won’t happen.
“I believe that all buildings have a certain kind of energy. Like all courthouses, Westport’s building is rooted in the past and therefore it could be used to celebrate our past in this period of centenaries. Located at a strategic junction at the entrance to the town, and with its high ceilings, it could be used to house large items which could not normally be displayed.
“I would therefore be drawn to the idea of using it as some kind of museum or heritage centre, using some items found in Mayo over the years now safely locked away in Dublin and local items now on display in our heritage centre.
“Perhaps, with our existing heritage centre at the Quay under threat from flooding due to global warming, a solution would be to relocate it to the courthouse.”

Creative hub
On the other hand, June Bourke, envisions a more contemporary creative ethos for it. She is a craftswoman who shears, spins and uses plants to dye the wool of her Jacob’s sheep from her farm in Knappagh for her knitwear, ‘Back to Back’.
“I was delighted to hear Mayo County Council has acquired the courthouse in Westport and I look forward to it being put to good use.
“In my opinion an art and craft hub would be appropriate for this significant building in the heart of the town. A creative space like this would be welcomed by the many skilled independent craftworkers who live and work in the locality – artists, weavers, jewellery makers, wood turners, basket makers and fibre artists, to name but a few.
“Local handmade objects could be designed, made, bought or just enjoyed there. A unique community would be created where growth and innovation would be promoted and perhaps a stepping stone to greater things for some.
“Another destination would be welcome for visitors to our town, and it is well known that money spent local stays local. There is much community pride in Westport, and I’m hoping that courthouse will be another place we will all be proud of.”

Centre for cultural inclusion
Meanwhile, Lina Stein, an Australian-born award-winning milliner and hatter, who lives in Westport, brings a more cosmopolitan flavour to her pitch.
“Westport is a unique town blessed with an international population from a multitude of backgrounds, nationalities and religions.
“I see the old courthouse as a much-needed place of connection, a multi-functional venue for the various cultural groupings to celebrate and share their values, heritage, national holidays, music, art, food, language with everyone else.
“This ‘Centre of Cultural Inclusion’, being located in the heart of the town, is perfectly situated for the unification of all Westport society to open up, enjoy, flourish, and embrace the diversities and similarities that make us all special.”

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage explains the provenance of the building in great detail. Here is an excerpt:
“A courthouse representing an important component of the nineteenth-century built heritage of Westport with the architectural value of the composition, a ‘neat substantial stone building’ (Slater 1846, 145) recalling the contemporary Swinford Courthouse (1838-9; see 31207009) and thereby attributable to Henry Brett (d. 1882), County Surveyor for County Mayo (appointed 1836; transferred 1849), confirmed by such attributes as the symmetrical plan form; and the uniform or near-uniform proportions of the openings on each floor with those openings showing sheer limestone dressings demonstrating good quality workmanship.
“Having been well maintained, the elementary form and massing survive intact together with substantial quantities of the original or replicated fabric, both to the exterior and to the interior where contemporary joinery; chimneypieces; and sleek plasterwork refinements, all highlight the artistic potential of a courthouse making a pleasing visual statement in Castlebar Street: meanwhile, a much-weathered benchmark remains of additional interest for the connections with cartography and the preparation of maps by the Ordnance Survey (established 1824).”

While the future use of this historic building, so prominent at the entrance to the town from Castlebar, is being debated, one thing is for sure: the town’s citizens are wholly invested in dreaming of all the benefits access to such a space could bring.