Omagh, a small town in County Tyrone, is known for many things. A prison isn’t one of them. But high above the River Strule overlooking the Old Mar’t (now a shopping precinct) stand the fragments of what was Omagh Gaol. It should have celebrated its bicentenary in recent years; instead it closed in 1902. The remaining buildings of Omagh Gaol in Castle Place form a picturesque hilltop group along with the adjacent St Lucia’s Army Barracks. The best view is from Abbey Bridge (a plaque states “First built 1900. Reconstructed 1948”) crossing the River Strule.
The grandest extant building of the prison is the Governor’s House designed by the prolific architect John Hargrave. He was the hand behind commercial and residential buildings in varying styles across northwest Ulster including the neoclassical court houses of Omagh, Dungannon and Strabane. His country house commissions include the Greek Revival Ballygawley Park near Omagh, the Gothic Favour Royal in Aughnacloy, the Picturesque Lough Veagh House in Garvagh and the neoclassical Rockhill outside Letterkenny.
In 1743 a fire wiped out Omagh. The O’Neill clan of Dungannon had founded the settlement in the 1430s and following the Plantation of Ulster it had been developed by Captain Edmund Leigh. This hilltop group belongs to a rebuilding of the town starting at the end of the 18th century. Alastair Rowan explains in his Pevsner Guide to the Buildings of North West Ulster (1979), “In Castle Street, west of the court house and churches and on the west bank of the river, is a little precinct entered through a pointed archway. This was the site of the old prison, built in 1796 and rebuilt by John Hargrave in 1823. Various late Georgian terraced houses remain, together with the octagonal three storey sandstone block of Hargrave’s Governor’s House. It has a gallery on the first floor and short wings on either side.”
The Governor’s House (18 Castle Place) and the Gatehouse (7 and 12 Castle Place) are three of the 19 Listed Buildings of Omagh. The wraparound balcony with its French doors was not decorative: it allowed the Governor to watch prisoners in the yard below. Polygonal designs inspired by philosopher designer Jeremy Bethan’s 1785 Panoptican model are commonly found in prison architecture – whether internally or externally – for providing 360 degree vantage points. Currently derelict, the elegant house offers 260 square metres of living accommodation (three reception rooms and four bedrooms) over three storeys. Another structure, barely there now, is the crumbling Tread Wheel. This stone building contains a deep well for drinking water and was also probably used as an instrument of punishment. None of the three early 19th century prisons of this region – Omagh, Derry City and Enniskillen – survive, save for these stones.
Local historian Vincent Brogan has been campaigning to save the Governor’s House: “The Council do not have an historic structure of this type in Omagh or Enniskillen and it would add to the heritage of the district. So much of Omagh’s heritage has been lost over the years, so it would be great to see this property being purchased and developed for future generations. It’s vital to the rejuvenation of Omagh that no more of our historic buildings should be allowed to crumble and disappear. There is an immense opportunity to change the aspect of the town when St Lucia Barracks are developed and the Governor’s House will be an even more strategic proposition when this inevitably happens.”
The adjacent St Lucia’s Army Barracks were built for the Royal Inniskilling Fusilier Regiment to the design of architect James Butler in 1881. Unlike their neighbour, while the barracks may be vacant, the sturdy two and three storey limestone buildings are still intact. St Lucia’s Barracks cost £40,000 to build (according to The Tyrone Constitution, 16 December 1881); the Governor’s House is currently for sale for £40,000. Further north of Omagh, Ebrington Barracks on the banks of the River Foyle have been brilliantly upgraded and edited as a mixed use new urban quarter of Derry City.