(Irish Grid Reference: H962402)
Situated on the western approach to the town Markethill Courthouse has always been prominent among the civic buildings of the district. It is one of the few free-standing district courthouses to have survived, and indeed one of the select few that have been restored as a focus for community life, albeit in a more welcome capacity.
The Petty Sessions Court of Markethill District was originally conducted in a neighbouring building, now home to the Chapel of Ease. That building was purchased by the Rev. Lord John de la Poer Beresford at a cost of £600. Licensed for divine service on November 14th, 1851, it was presented to the parishioners of Mullabrack Parish Church upon his retirement from the ministry in 1859. It would seem this sale was made possible by the construction of a new custom-built courthouse also situated on the main street.
Built to the design of Thomas Duff, the courthouse was erected in 1842, despite the builder having been declared bankrupt and the less-than-enthusiastic attitude of Mr. Lindsay, the county surveyor. For his designs and specification, Duff received the sum of £48-2-6. Something of a flamboyant architect of the gothic style, Duff is better remembered for his ecclesiastical buildings such as the cathedral of St.Patrick and St.Coleman in Newry. For the courthouse he kept his design simple though nonetheless imposing.
The tasteful Georgian style building was constructed in a T-shaped fashion
using blocks of random blackstone. The facade of the building is almost completely
devoid of dressing with the exception of the simple Armagh granite quoins at
the angles of the building. The only adornment is an octagonal lantern and cupola
atop the building, the windows of which are in the traditional sash style of
the Georgian era. In Duff's original design the entrance doors were placed either
side of a central projection.
According to Bassett's 1888 guide to Armagh, the court of petty sessions was convened in Markethill on the last Monday of every month and the quarterly sessions for the county were conducted in Markethill twice a year. Towards the rear of the building were constructed a bridewell, exercise yard and three cells.
The civil bill books pertaining to the court of petty sessions are available in the Public Record Office, Belfast. As would be expected, the cases heard by the court were of a minor nature such as minor criminal damage or non-payment of rent. Over the years the court also heard a small number of cases of fraud or assault. Seldom did an interested party appeal the court's decision.
As an agricultural area, there were a number of disputes concerning the ownership
of animals and their offspring. Usually these cases were settled by some monetary
compensation from one farmer to another. One interesting case was recorded on
October 3rd, 1885, interesting because the charge was given as 'seduction'.
The particulars of the case are not recorded but the injured party claimed £50
in compensation. Though the court ruled in her favour she received only £10
for the inconvenience!
The last recorded civil case conducted in the courthouse was on October 11th, 1940. Following that the judicial system was reorganised and petty sessions were convened in the county court at Armagh.
When the courthouse was relieved of its judicial function, it lay vacant until 1954 when it was taken over by children's clothing factory 'Regal Styles'. The building was adapted to the purpose by the insertion of a horizontal window in the front and the haphazard construction of storage facilities. By the mid 1970's the factory had transferred much of its operation to a purpose built factory at Newtownhamilton and the courthouse was once again left unoccupied. As a result the building fell into an unfortunate state of disrepair and lost much of its interior fabric as the result of water penetration from a leaky roof.
Twenty-five years later, the cross-community body Markethill District Enterprise saw the potential of the building as a neutral venue for community activities and in 1997 purchased the former courthouse for £67,000. The purchase was the culmination of six years lobbying for funding to restore the building. Monetary provision from a multitude of bodies allowed restoration work to commence in March of 1999. Consarc Design Group of Belfast drew up the plans for refurbishment. Work was completed at a cost of £894,000 in May of 2000.
The mass of shabby attachments was demolished to make way for some expansion of the building. Additional storeys were prohibited by the listed status of the building so the planned nursery facilities were designed to wrap around the eastern side of the building. Much needed restoration was carried out to the roof. Many of the original timbers were retained but significantly strengthened. The original cupola sitting atop the lantern feature had long since been lost. A new lead capped cupola was designed and put in place above the lantern. A number of the sash windows were damaged or missing altogether. During the restoration work they were replaced, although the difference is barely detectable.
Where possible original timber or stone flooring was retained as were the original stone cells of the courthouse. In everything the owners and architects attempted to retain the authentic character of the building. However, the building was altered to provide greater accessibility to disabled users and every effort was made to comply with modern safety requirements.
In decorating the courthouse a balance was sought between the austere nature of an old judicial building and the welcoming environment of a community facility and restaurant. Traditional features such as a wrought iron fireplace and original stonework lend a period feel to the building, complimented by the retention of the old courtroom and cells. The warm cream and deep red colour scheme brings a modern aspect to the somewhat austere building, but far from being out of keeping with traditional Georgian architecture it provides a warm welcome equalled by the staff.
The aim of the Enterprise is "To improve the quality of life for all those in Markethill and surrounding district through economic, social and environmental projects". Since the reopening of the courthouse the directors and members of the body have sought to fulfil this aim by fostering a multitude of community groups and projects. Provision of these facilities is provided for financially by the Courtrooms restaurant and the Future Kids day care nursery. The fare on offer in the restaurant is of course much superior to the provision made for the prisoners of previous days.
A variety of groups and societies operate under the umbrella of Markethill District Enterprise. They include:
It would seem the courthouse is a much more welcome feature in the community now
it has relinquished its judicial capacity. Activities convened in the building
include computer courses, tutored art classes and old time dancing. Patrons enjoying
the delights of the restaurant may also sentence themselves to a session of aerobics
held within the old courtroom.
All are welcome to attend and give their personal verdict. Rest assured that it is now a rarity for anyone to be confined to the cells!