The Diamond in the Diamond

It’s remarkable the number of old buildings in Donegal that we take for granted. We see them that often in our comings and goings we forget to look at them. In some cases, we don’t think of these landmarks at all until they are gone.

The Old Courthouse in Lifford Diamond is a good example of this type of familiarity – a building that seems to have always been there, although it was touch and go a few years ago. Other people, with perhaps a more critical and appreciative eye to the intrinsic architectural significance of our famous buildings, take a different perspective on things. Here, for example, are just a few of the descriptions that have been bestowed on the Courthouse over the years:

  • “One of the oldest and finest courthouses in Ireland”.
  • “One of the finest facades of its date anywhere in Ireland…so richly endowed with elements of a quirky classicism”.
  • “One of the finest buildings in the North”.

First commissioned in 1743, it was built between 1746-1750 under the watchful eye of the Grand Jury and the architect, Michael Priestley. All of this is commemorated in a tablet under the Hanoverian arms of George the Second situated above the front entrance. Written in stone, it states: ‘This building was raised by the County of Donegal under the directions of Andrew Knox, Oliver McCausland, George Vaughan, Nathaniel Nesbitt, Francis Mansfield, trustees. Designed and executed by Michael Priestley A.D. 1746 Gilmore Fecit’.

Very little is known about the Court, or Sessions House, as it was also called, during this initial period. We do not know, for example, how much it cost to build, although the money or most of it, would have been raised by a cess or tax levied by the Grand Jury on the county as a whole. (The Grand Jury was not a ‘jury’ in the legal sense of the word. It was made up of prominent landowners in the area who controlled the administration of the county and was the forerunner of what we know today as the County Council).

What little we do know has been gleaned from the original Grand Jury Presentments (payments) book now held in the County Archives, Lifford. From these we learn that the site for the Courthouse was bought from the Rev. Thomas Burgoyne for £150 and was paid for in two instalments, April 1755 and September 1756. This price also included a site for a schoolhouse elsewhere in Lifford. The architect, Mick Priestley, also had to wait for his money when he was paid a total of £136.19.6 – the final payment being paid in March, 1755. This late payment may be accounted for by last-minute alterations to his original plans. This becomes apparent if the building is viewed from the front where an extra wing has clearly been added on the left, leaving the impression that the whole façade is ‘unbalanced’.

Despite his contribution to the history of Lifford and surrounding area, Mick Priestley remains a bit of a mystery. One of the trustees, Nathaniel Nesbitt, thought him “a plain man, no great drawer of estimates, his skill lies mainly in his practice”. For the period, he is regarded as the “one figure who stands out with an identifiable style and artistic personality”. Yet we don’t even know the dates and places of his birth and death. His impact on the Lifford area, however, is undeniable and it is here that the Courthouse plays a crucial role. It is the only building in Ireland we know for certain to be Priestley’s work and because “it embodies in one façade many of the elements so characteristic of the work of the architect…it provides an essential reference which enables us to ascribe to him with confidence, further buildings in the region”.

The list of other structures attributed to this man is impressive. In 1774, the nephew of Thomas Connolly, M.P. and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons (1715-1729), is said to have commissioned Priestley to build Lifford House, which became the base for the Grand Jury during the Lifford Assizes. We know it today as the Gateway Hotel. Other famous buildings connected to him include Dunmore House, Carrigans; Prehen House, Co. Derry; Port Hall House, Lifford; Strabane Town Hall; Church of St. John, Clondehorky; Bishop Barnard’s Chapel of Ease and Palace, Derry; Strabane canal and new street layout for the Earl of Abercorn; Boom Hall, Co. Derry; and last but not least, a remodelling of the Bishop’s Palace, Raphoe. Considering that “in the mid-18th century there were very few native architects practising in Ireland as a whole, whilst fewer still in the more remote areas”, Michael Priestley certainly left his mark in this part of the world.

Extract from “The Court Will Rise – A short history of the Old Courthouse, Lifford, Co. Donegal” by Billy Patton.

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