Richard Butler traces the origins of Bagenalstown Courthouse and its place in the enduring myth of Walter Bagenal’s “New Versailles”
In the absence of archival material, myths and legends can easily congregate around buildings and sometimes whole towns. Think of that police station or hospital buried somewhere in the Irish countryside, the plans for which, local folklore has it, someone accidentally dropped in the “IRE” instead of the “IND” pigeonhole in a dim imperial office, thereby depriving an Asian desert of a Gothic turret or a polychromatic belvedere. We have all heard these stories yet none have been proven. Few ever will.
It is impossible to separate the history of Bagenalstown Courthouse from that of the town itself, a sleepy provincial centre on the banks of the River Barrow in County Carlow, the origin of which is infested with a great myth. If you haven’t been, go and look, the train from Dublin gets there in just over an hour. I have visited many times by different modes of transport but the best experience is by train, stepping off at one of Ireland’s finest jewel-box stations, taking the short walk towards the sparkling granite Church of Ireland church from where it immediately becomes apparent that Bagenalstown is quite unlike the average Irish town: it is planned to a grid (fig. 1). The main streets are so wide that the town appears almost deserted: if there has ever been a traffic jam, I have yet to see one.
Here we reach the first myth: that Bagenalstown was to be Ireland’s answer to the French enlightenment, a major new town called either Versailles or New Versailles. The only source for this is A tour through Ireland in several Entertaining letters (1746): ‘The next Place worth Observation was Bagenal’s-Town, laid out by WALTER BAGNAL [1671-1745], Esq….who once intended to erect one of the finest Towns in this Kingdom or in any of its neighbours by the name of Versailles‘. Bagenal’s efforts were thwarted when the main road was diverted away from his town, putting ‘a Stop to the further Progress of the Buildings after immense Expence’ . But could it really have been a new Versailles? A grid of five streets-by-four hardly suggests so: more likely a case of inflated ascendancy ego. Philip Henry Bagenal (1850-1927), writing in 1925 about his family’s history, criticised what he saw as ‘the somewhat ridiculous allusion to Versailles in the  sketch’ . And yet the legend has endured, and nine out of ten books or websites will take as fact the anonymous and good-humoured remarks of the ‘two English Gentlemen’ who dined with Bagenal and his ‘several beautiful Children’ at their Dunleckny home about a mile north of the town, sometime in the 1720s, and left us this tall tale .
Apart from the grid layout, what had Bagenal actually achieved? Here again our only source is the English Gentlemen, quoted – and misquoted – ever since. My 1748 copy says Bagenal put up a ‘magnificent Square, Court-House, and several other public Buildings…with Stones of different Kinds intermixed with Marble’ . Here we stumble upon the first reference to the town’s ne plus ultra oddity: its courthouse. Where is it? You could easily pass it by, or at least miss its best façade. Some directions: walk towards the river, then veer right onto Main Street, and soon it will appear, shunning the street, turning its back on the ordered rhythms of Bagenal’s “Versailles”: sullen, hidden, and obscure. You get the most fleeting glimpse of its Ionic portico from the small gaps on either side of its unpromising street façade. These gaps serve to set it apart from the fabric of the town. It seems to be aligned with nothing in particular, facing no-one, contributing who knows what. But – walk a little further on, down an alleyway and around a corner – and it opens up in all its strange glory, perched high over the Barrow on steeply sloping ground, its sparkling granite columns rising from a tended garden surrounded by high walls and railings (fig. 2). This half-hidden space is surrounded, for its sins, by plastic rubbish bins, broken glass, old gas cylinders, mangled rusting construction fencing, and a surfeit of those towering flowering plants which are quick to colonise neglected cubbyholes. If there is a Baalbek of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, this is it. Some acrobatics involving an old stone wall and it is just about possible to capture the Grecian portico minus the decay and abandon, but why take an untruthful photograph?
There are no known drawings or letters pertaining to this courthouse. We do not know for sure who the architect is, or when precisely it was started or finished. Here the legends and myths have taken off like the surrounding weeds. Firstly, some have suggested the ‘Court-House’ mentioned in 1746 is the building we see today, and that it represents the ‘only legacy of [Bagenal’s] grand dream for a New Versailles’ . Others have added to the confusion by missing out on a critical comma, suggesting the original building was a ‘Square Court-House’, whatever that would be . In truth it cannot be part of Bagenal’s eighteenth-century scheme: Lewis (1837) and Fraser (1844) both refer to a ‘lately erected’ courthouse, with the latter describing an Ionic portico, and calling it a ‘remarkable object’; Lewis mistakenly and confusingly talks about ‘four Doric pillars’ . Whatever the English Gentlemen saw in the 1720s, it was not the building we have today. Furthermore, it cannot be the only surviving piece of the grand “Versailles” plan: Walter Bagenal was almost a century dead by 1835 when, paradoxically, it is claimed by the same sources that he employed Daniel Robertson (d. 1849) to design the building.
Enough of the myths and legends. It is clear from researching the history of the building that the year of construction is not circa 1835 as currently thought, but almost a decade earlier: 1826. This distinction is important, as it reattaches the commission to the great national wave of provincial courthouse building in response to a combination of agrarian unrest, legislative reform from Westminster, and Grand Jury competitive pride. The source for this new evidence is, perhaps unexpectedly, buried in the annual reports of the Inspectors General for Irish Prisons. Major R.R. Woodward, Inspector for the Southern Division, noted in 1824 that ‘A GAOL and court-house are to be established [in Bagenalstown], but are not as yet built’ (by ‘gaol’ he meant a small bridewell, in effect a few holding cells) . Then, in a report dated 1st February 1827, he says ‘In both these places [Bagenalstown and Tullow] new court houses and places of confinement have been built since my last inspection. The court houses are on a good plan, quite suited to the importance for the use for which they are intended. But the Prison Act has been wholly overlooked in the plan of the Bridewells attached’ . Three years later he notes ‘The two cells at Bagenalstown are no longer used for prisoners, which is quite right, as the accommodation was illegal’ .
Accounts from the Board of Works show that money was loaned to the Carlow Grand Jury to help build Tullow Courthouse around this time, but none was offered (or sought) for Bagenalstown . Nationally this is unusual – Grand Juries regularly part-financed their building projects with central government money, generally repaid over 10-20 years . Lewis (1837) says the new court house was ‘erected at the expense of Philip Bagenal [1796-1856]’ who inherited much of the Bagenal family property (and indeed changed his surname to Bagenal by Royal Licence) in 1832 . This, coupled with Woodward’s condemnation of the attached bridewell, gives a valuable insight into the building and its context: it seems likely the courthouse was a pet-project of the young Philip, who financed it from his own private wealth. In a classic sounding of late-ascendancy liberalism, he seems not to have cared for government approval of the attached holding cells: the pointlessness of shutting them down just three years after construction certainly suggests this. Perhaps he saw it as important to continue the “improving” work of his great-grandfather. Or perhaps the building is a kind of folly. After all, its best view is to be gained from the outskirts of the town, on the road to the family’s Dunleckny property. Here the pediment rises spectacularly above the surrounding buildings, and entering by the banks of the Barrow, there is a sense of anticipation that surely echoes the grandest of enlightenment planning. The Bagenals would have seen it every time they entered their town, every time they acted as magistrates in their courthouse .
In spite of the lack of any definite evidence, it seems very likely Robertson was indeed the architect. Myles Campbell at Trinity College Dublin has recently found evidence that Robertson was active in Ireland much earlier than previously thought – as early as 1818 – and so the construction date of 1826 does not necessarily exclude him as architect . Some of his other commissions, in particular Upton House in County Carlow, and the older of the gate lodges at Castleboro House, County Wexford, are stylistically very close to Bagenalstown (the appearance of an Ionic portico at the former is especially striking) (fig. 3). If not Robertson it is unclear who else the architect could have been: Thomas Cobden (1794-1842) perhaps, but the skilful rendering at Bagenalstown of the Greek Erechtheion Ionic, with a turned corner volute, is more sophisticated than the rudimentary quality of much of Cobden’s work (fig. 4). Until new evidence comes to light, the attribution seems reasonably safe: during the 1830s and 40s Robertson built houses for many members of the Newton-Bagenal family, including, not least, the new Dunleckny Manor in a Tudor Revival manner .
In the ten-year period from 1825 to 1835 the Grand Jury of Carlow, with the notable help of some of the landed elite like Philip Bagenal, rebuilt all the court houses and gaols in their county . Accounts show over £15,000 was spent in this period, a figure which does not include some government loans or indeed private munificence. Over the next twenty years, only a third of this sum was expended: in other words, there is a discernible (and as yet underappreciated) great decade of building. Bagenalstown fits into this broader context, but clearly it also stands out as odd and perplexing for many reasons. Lovable and strange, a gleaming granite folly in the Carlow landscape, or perhaps a light-hearted piece of civic architecture in a county which escaped much of the agrarian violence and outrages which racked Cork, Tipperary and the midlands for much of the 1820s and 30s. ‘I am always rejoiced’, an unusually placid Lord Norbury said addressing the Carlow Grand Jury in 1826, ‘when I come to this part of Ireland which enjoys so much happiness and tranquillity, at a time when other parts of the country are overwhelmed with criminal excesses’ .
And what came of Robertson, the architect? His later life was less cheery: declared bankrupt in 1841, he is memorably depicted by Mervyn Wingfield (1836-1904), seventh Viscount Powerscourt: ‘He was much given to drink, and always drew best when his brain was excited with sherry. He suffered from gout, and used to be driven about in a wheel-barrow with a bottle of sherry; while that lasted he was always ready to direct the workmen, but when it was finished he was incapable of working any more’ . Perhaps similar shenanigans took place on the banks of the Barrow.
Richard Butler is a PhD student and Gates Scholar at the Department of History of Art & Architecture, University of Cambridge, where he is pursuing a history of early nineteenth-century public architecture in Ireland. He has been involved in numerous conservation projects in the Cork area and has published on British colonial architecture in India and on the works of George Gilbert Scott. He recently gave a paper on 1820s provincial courthouse building in Cork at the Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland’s annual conference in Newcastle
1 Anon., A Tour through Ireland in several Entertaining letters…by two English Gentlemen (Dublin 1746; London 1748), p.227. Portions of this text appear plagiarised in Luckombe, Philip, Compleat Irish Traveller Volume I (London 1788), p.105, as quoted by Edward McParland, “The Public Works of Architects in Ireland during the Neo-Classical Period” (Ph.D thesis, Cambridge 1975), p.127
2 Bagenal, Philip, Vicissitudes of an Anglo-Irish Family 1550-1800: a study of Irish romance and tragedy (London 1925), p.147
3 Gorton, John, and Wright, G.N., A Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland Volume I (London 1833), p.105; Power, Catherine Ann, “The Origins and Development of Bagenalstown c.1680-1920″ in McGrath, Thomas, and Nolan, William (eds.), Carlow: History and Society (Dublin, 2008), p.405
4 Anon., A Tour through Ireland, p.227
5 Comerford, Patrick, “Visiting Versailles and the Parthenon on the banks of the Barrow” blog post 4th July 2011 (retrieved 28th April 2013)
6 Power, Catherine Ann, “The Origins and Development of Bagenalstown c.1680-1920” in McGrath, Thomas, and Nolan, William (eds.), Carlow: History and Society (Dublin, 2008), p.409
7 Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Volume I (London 1837), pp.99, 584; Fraser, James, A hand book for travellers in Ireland (Dublin 1844), p.171. Power repeats Lewis’s error in referring to the order of the portico as ‘Doric’
8 Second report of the inspectors general on…the Prisons of Ireland, p.40
9 Fifth report of the inspectors general on…the Prisons of Ireland, p.43
10 Eighth report of the inspectors general on…the Prisons of Ireland, p.46
11 An account of all Sums of Money placed at the disposal of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for Public Works, during each of the last Four Years, pp.4-5. Listed are applications which were rejected, and in which Bagenalstown does not appear
12 Ibid., pp.4-7
13 Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Volume I (London 1837), p.584; Bagenal, Philip, “Pedigree of the Irish Branch of the Bagenal Family” in Vicissitudes of an Anglo-Irish Family 1550-1800: a study of Irish romance and tragedy (London 1925)
14 As they regularly did: 27 Petty Sessions were presided over by members of the Newton-Bagenal family in 1835. A return of the courts of Petty Sessions in the several counties of Ireland…for the year ending 31st December 1835, p.16
15 Campbell, Myles, “British architects and the Tudor-Revival country house in Ireland 1825-50” (forthcoming Ph.D thesis, Trinity College, Dublin)
16 O’Dwyer, Frederick, “”Modelled Muscularity”: Daniel Robertson’s Tudor Manors” in Irish Arts Review Yearbook Volume 15 (1999), pp.87-97
17 Tullow Courthouse (c.1825-7); Bagenalstown Courthouse (c.1826-7); Carlow Courthouse (1828-32). Carlow County Gaol (1828-32). This is evident from compiling the sums spent on courthouse and gaol building work given in the annual Grand Jury presentments: abstracts of accounts of presentments (1824)
18 Anon., “Lord Norbury’s Charge” in Freeman’s Journal (25th March 1826), p.4
19 Anon., “Insolvent Debtors” in Freeman’s Journal (22nd December 1841), p.4
20 Wingfield, Mervyn, A Description and History of Powerscourt (London 1903), p.77
I am grateful to DrChristine Casey, Myles Campbell and Aaron Helfand for their help in preparing this piece. Thanks also to Tamela Maciel and Otto Saumarez-Smith for proof-reading and making suggestions. Some of my visits to Carlow were made possible by a generous Brancusi Grant from the University of CambridgeBack to Building of the Month Archive