H I S T O R Y

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Lifford Courthouse or Lifford Jail, as it is sometimes referred to by locals, is a historic courthouse situated in the centre of Lifford, County Donegal, in the Northwest of Ireland. The building was designed by local architect Michael Priestley and built in 1746 in order to enable a circuit assizes judge to visit the county. The Courthouse also incorporated ‘The County Gaol’ in the basement which was to last as a place of confinement for debtors, felons and eventually those deemed to be ‘lunatics’, until a new jail was completed next to the courthouse in 1793. This large jail allowed more prisoners to be processed in the town before being demolished in 1907. The Courthouse itself, however, continued to hold trials until 1938. For a time, the building fell into disrepair before being improved in the late 1980s and then fully renovated and reopened as an award-winning Heritage Centre in 1994.

The introduction of this purpose-built courthouse gave the County Donegal Grand Jury a place to hold trials in the form of periodic criminal courts or assizes. Up until this point, when the Manor Courts were the most common institutions of local justice, any building of suitable size was used to hold court. Quite often, the most suitable building was a public house. On one noted occasion, the money from the fines collected over the course of a day in court was used to buy drinks for the jury!

Crime & Punishment

Transportation was a common punishment in Lifford, with many sent by boat to colonies overseas. Crimes in the courthouse that warranted a sentence of transportation include “stealing 2 caps”, “stealing a handkerchief and blankets” and “stealing 5 chickens and 2 hens”. Public hangings were also a common spectacle. One hanging in 1831 alone is reported as drawing a crowd of around 12 thousand men, women and children.

The gallows, at the front of the new gaol, were also the setting for the infamous ‘half-hanging’ of John ‘Half-Hung’ MacNaghten, in one of the earliest recorded public hangings at the courthouse in 1761. It was not only murder that carried the sentence of death in Donegal at that time, but also ‘killing and maiming cattle’ and horse-stealing. The last public execution in Lifford is thought to have been in 1847.

With the phasing out of transportation, prison sentences became a more common punishment in Ireland. Some prisoners were sentenced to an additional punishment of hard labour during their stay in Lifford. Just as in many other prisons throughout Ireland, this usually consisted of breaking stones which were then used to build and repair roads, or grinding up bones, which would then be used as fertilizer. Another more public punishment was whipping, sometimes performed in the town where the offense was originally committed.

Notable prisoners

John ‘Half Hanged’ MacNaghten.

James Napper Tandy, founding member of the Society of United Irishmen.

The crew of “La Hoche”. the French frigate on which Wolfe Tone was captured.

Modern Day

Today, the old courthouse operates as a museum, where the public can walk through the prison cells and experience life as a prisoner. Visitors to the prison are ‘arrested’ and taken down into the dungeons on the guided tour. This takes the form of a one-man show in which an actor portrays some of the jail’s infamous residents. The building also now houses a bistro, a local library, conference rooms and often hosts special events.

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