Like the majority of Irish towns, Roscommon is a bit of a mess, the historic core displaying a lack of coherent civic vision for either its maintenance or improvement. And there seems little will to change the situation. The tourist office, for example, closes during the key lunch period: wasn’t that kind of wilful indifference to visitors’ needs supposed to have disappeared around the same time as the manually operated telephone exchange?
Clearly it wasn’t always thus. Signs of Roscommon’s currently-indiscernible vibrancy can be found in the free-standing limestone structure closing the vista of Main Street and dominating the Square – which, but of course, is actually oval-shaped. This is the town’s former court and market house, built in the early 1760s to replace an previous structure which had collapsed more than forty years before ‘killing and wounding at least 200 persons.’
It took a while for the local populace to regain confidence after that traumatic event. Then they acted with gusto, commissioning a splendid new structure from fraternal architects John and George Ensor. These brothers both enjoyed successful careers, although George was twice dismissed from government posts for taking bribes; there is some kind of perverse comfort to be derived from knowing the offence has such a long, and dishonourable, history in Ireland. John Ensor, the older and apparently more law-abiding of the pair, was responsible for a number of private houses in the capital including sections of what is now Parnell Square, also Hume Street, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. In other words, the citizens of Roscommon displayed foresight and taste alike when they invited the Ensors to design their town’s most prominent public edifice.
What they got was a splendid, two-storey rectangular building, the core of which survives although it has been subject to subsequent alteration. By the third decade of the 19th century the court/market house had already begun to show signs of neglect and following the repeal of the Penal Acts in 1829 the local Roman Catholic priest took over the premises and converted them into a church, with additions built front and rear. So it remained until 1903 when a new Catholic place of worship in full Triumphalist Gothic opened to serve the needs of the Roscommon congregation.
The older structure then underwent another transformation into Harrison Hall, a meeting place used for dances and social gatherings, as well as acting as a cinema and theatre. Forty years ago it was sold to the Bank of Ireland and continues to operate as a local branch. Having changed functions so often, the interior retains little of interest, although the main banking hall occupies an airy, double-height space with gallery running along one side.
The exterior is more distinguished, the 19th century additions – including an octagonal cupola over the main entrance – fully in sympathy with the central block erected almost 100 years before. Overall it looks well-maintained, although one worries about plant life flourishing directly above the pedimented facade (someone needs to pay more attention to the gutters).
At the moment it’s hard to appreciate the architectural merits of Roscommon’s finest historic monument. The surrounding square is a shambles of parking spaces and street signage, meaning an unimpeded view can never be found. See how much more handsome it looks in the old photograph above, without a press of vehicles on every side. Clear away the clutter and let the building breathe. It could then come into its own, Roscommon would acquire a fine public space and the local population might rediscover the appeal of their town centre: an example to other towns suffering from the same problems.
Another important old property close by suffers similar disadvantages. This is the former town gaol, dating from c.1740 and locally attributed to German-born architect Richard Cassels (usually anglicised to Castle); he was responsible for a number of houses in the region, including Strokestown (extant) and French Park (unroofed 1953, subsequently demolished). Like the neighbouring court/market house, Roscommon’s old gaol has had what, in most accounts of the building, is called a chequered career; the same description could probably have been applied to its earliest inmates. After housing miscreants for a century – and being famous for employing the country’s only hang-woman (seemingly she took the job to save herself from the noose) – it became a lunatic asylum, then a ‘refuge for smallpox sufferers’, a market house and a private house. Only the facade with advanced end bays and unusual mid-18th century castellation now remains: since 1999 the building has been a drab shopping centre. From one grimly utilitarian function to another…