Restoring the Gaol


The old Gaol of Downpatrick, now Down County Museum, was built under the supervision of the Marquis of Downshire, the Earl of Hillsborough, the Hon Edward Ward and Charles Lilly, architect, between 1789 and 1796. The prison complex covers one acre and contains three main structures. These comprise a cell block to the rear, a central Governor's Residence and two gatehouses flanking the main entrance, all set within a high perimeter wall.

The Governor's Residence housed chapels, stores, debtor's cells and rooms for use by the Gaol staff. An inscribed stone inserted behind the front entrance of the Governor's Residence bears the initials MI and the date 1794, and may have been carved by one of the masons who worked on the building.

The buildings of the old Gaol appear on a map of 1833, reproduced for the Downpatrick edition of the Irish Historic Town Atlas series. The Gaol is known to have had a treadmill by 1823, possibly located at the rear of the complex, and a number of exercise yards and courtyards surrounded the main buildings. 

In January 1831 the old Gaol's prisoners were transferred to the New Gaol, which was built on the former common behind the courthouse.

In 1832 the old Gaol was used as a temporary cholera hospital, and in the same year it passed into private hands. By 1833 the east wall of the old Gaol had been dismantled and shifted to the west in order to accommodate a road between the old Gaol and the courthouse. By 1838, the old Gaol had become an infantry barrack, and it is recorded as having this function in 1859 and 1901, when a hand ball alley was also recorded on the site. Part of this alley still survives at the south-west corner of the site, where a layer of Roman cement on the interior of the perimeter wall shows its location.

The South Down Militia used the site as a barracks in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the Royal Irish Rifles are also known to have used the site during the First World War. The well-defended site was again used by the Welsh Fusiliers and U.S. Forces during the Second World War. Evidence of huts constructed for occupying U.S. troops still survives on the west perimeter wall below the remains of the hand ball alley.

A newly arrived GI Stands guard at the old Gaol next to the remains of the huts built for them late in the Second World War.  

Important features of the old Gaol still survive today, including original cells, doors and fittings, preserved on the ground floor of the three-storey cell block. Original roofing slates from the cell block also survive in the collections and are displayed inside the entrance to the building.

Most of the original window bars were removed although the chiselled grooves still survive as evidence of their removal from the Governor's Residence. A reconstructed image of the old Gaol as it might have appeared during its use as a prison has been painted by Nigel Hughes in 1992 and donated to the Museum. An enlarged image can be seen in the Museum's entrance vestibule in the west gatehouse.

The site has been  restored to show how the buildings may have appeared externally in the late eighteenth century. However, new ground floor galleries have been added to the cell block and, with the exception of the cells, the building interiors have been adapted for modern use.

Former use of the site

When the site was first assessed in 1980 with a view to its suitability as a possible museum, it was derelict. For many years parts of the site had been used as accommodation for various activities such as furniture auctions, Christmas turkey rearing, Girl Guide rooms, typing classes, postal sorting, an Ordnance Survey local office, PSV test centre and a butcher's fridge, to name only a few. By 1980 it was being used only as a store for DOE Roads Service, and to garage the Down High School minibus.

Planning the restoration

From the requirement for the building was to house a modern county museum, not simply to restore it as an eighteenth century gaol. Even if the latter had been possible, too many of the interior courtyard divisions, and internal cells, had already been removed to make this a realistic option.

Nevertheless the evidence showed that the core buildings represented the most complete surviving Irish county gaol of its type and period.

The only part of the obvious 'gaol' interior which survived unaltered was the ground floor of the cell block. This was to be restored as it had been built, to be used as an authentic artefact. Original exterior cut stone window and door cases were restored, and later openings refilled. The original pedestrian doorways on either side of the main entrance from the Mall, which had been walled up for many years, were reopened. All the surviving brick vaulting was preserved as part of the basic interest of the building. This included the original eighteenth century arch carrying the entrance steps to the Governor's House.

The courtyards

The original surface of the courtyards was mainly gravel with some stone sections, including stone setts at the entrance. For practical purposes areas of the courtyard were surfaced with square setts.

The perimeter walls

By 1980 the only perimeter wall which survived in its entirety was the south western one, next to the Judges' Lodgings. The front wall was repointed first, paying careful attention to the appropriateness of the mix. The rare Irish Alpine, which is such a feature of the stone walls in the immediate area, quickly re-established itself, as it would not be able to do on most modern walls.