In the Footsteps of Kings: Chancery Place, 1224-1916

Chancery Place, on the eastern side of the Four Courts, was originally a much narrower street known as Mass Lane.  The buildings on its western side sat close against the eastern wing of the Four Courts until they were demolished by the Commissioners of Public Works in the early 19th century. The above image from the 1840s shows Chancery Place following these changes and – aside from differences in vehicles, costume, and traffic regulation, and the replacement of the perimeter wall with street bollards – it looks quite similar today.

One of the buildings removed in the course of these changes was the church which gave Mass Lane its name. This chapel, the location of which is marked on the maps below, sat right up against the east wing of Gandon’s Four Courts, pre-dating it by many years. Clarke Huston Irwin, in his History of Presbyterianism in Dublin, says that

“The church of Mass Lane was originally the chapel of a Dominican Friary.  After the suppression of the friary by Henry VIII, the Benchers of the King’s Inns obtained the building and used it as their chapel.  James II restored it to the Jesuits and heard mass in it during his stay in Dublin.  After the Revolution William III presented it to a congregation of French Huguenots, and the King himself attended service in Mass Lane after the Battle of the Boyne.”

Following this change, Mass Lane officially became Lucy Lane, or, as the Huguenots referred to it, Golblac Lane, but everyone else still referred to it by its original name. Later, in 1773, the Huguenots sold the church to a congregation of Presbyterian Seceders.

The Dominican Friary referred to by Irwin is of course the Priory of St Saviour, which once occupied the entirety of the Four Courts site, and whose monastery buildings formed the nucleus of the old Inns of Court.  Where was the Priory Church? Archaeologists carrying out investigations on the Aras Ui Dhalaigh site in the 1980s believed it to have been in the area of that site, just south of where the monastery buildings would have been – but did not find any conclusive evidence. 

Was this because, as suggested by Irwin, the Priory Church was in fact situated elsewhere, at the location which came to be called Mass Lane? If so, it may even have pre-dated the arrival of the Dominicans. In his paper, ‘The Dominicans in Medieval Dublin,’ delivered to the Old Dublin Society in 1947, Dominican historian Brian O’Sullivan suggests that there was already a chapel on the Priory site when it was taken over by the Dominicans in 1224. Perhaps, rather than erecting a new monastery church, the Dominicans simply used the old chapel, which then became the Mass Lane church.

There were other businesses in Mass Lane too, one of them employing a hero.  In August 1809, a youth of about 13 years was swimming in the part of the river opposite the Four Courts when his strength failed him. He was in the act of sinking in the presence of some hundreds of spectators when an unnamed young man in the employment of Mr Rinkle, Dyer, at the corner of Mass Lane, plunged into the river without taking off his clothes, and, by uncommon exertion, was so fortunate as to get hold of the boy on the first dive, and brought him on shore on his shoulders, and thereby saved him from a watery grave, to the no small gratification of the persons present. One of many Liffey rescues over the years!

The Wide Streets Commissioners’ plans for Chancery Street put an end to the Mass Lane church. In 1825, its contents, including an extensive gallery and pews, were advertised for sale. Though it is a pity that the building was not preserved or, at the very least, its antiquity investigated, there may indeed have been something to be said for getting rid of Mass Lane.  By now, its houses were very old, and, in December 1822, after a great storm, a wall fell on a bricklayer, who was buried beneath it.  On the same night, a forge also fell on the Lane, burying a woman passing by in ruins, though she was eventually taken out uninjured.

Most of the eastern end of Inns Quay was also demolished in the creation of Chancery Place, but there is a very fine building, 1-2 Inns Quay, at the corner of Chancery Place and Inns Quay, which dates from the early 1830s. This replaced earlier buildings on the site demolished by the Wide Streets Commissioners, who advertised the vacant site for sale as building ground in 1826. The Dublin City Council Digital Archives include plans of two very different designs put forward for the proposed building, the first a building consisting of two houses, the second, a mansion, both of which can be seen above. Ultimately, the former plan was adopted.

The building 1-2 Inns Quay must have been completed by 1834, as there was an advertisement that year for the sale of an interest in a lease for lives renewable forever applicable to the very excellent, new built Dwelling House No 2 Inns Quay which, from its contiguity to the Law Courts, was admirably adapted for the stamp and stationery business, and equally suitable as a private residence for a solicitor, or for law chambers.  The lease was initially taken up by William Connick, a merchant grocer, who, on the 7 November 1839 advertised to acquaint his Friends and the Public that he had just received his Winter Stock of New Fruit and was, as usual, well supplied with superior old Wines, in Wood and Bottle; Old Malt Whiskey, from one to seven years made; Cognac Brandy, twenty years old; Teas, Coffee, Sugar etc.  

If you look at the image at the very start of this post, you can see some men with placards bearing the words ‘Tea’ standing about on Richmond (now O’Donovan Rossa) bridge during the eventful State Trial of Daniel O’Connell in 1844; possibly they were advertising Mr Connick’s business. It seems that, like poor Dan, this business did not survive the Famine, since, in 1848, No 2 Inns Quay was once again advertised for letting to solicitors or merchants, the advertisement stating that, having been originally built with a shop front, it could alternatively be re-converted into a shop at very trifling expense.  It was subsequently occupied by solicitors.

The other half of the building, 1 Inns Quay, occupied the former site of John Bond’s helmet manufactory, the only extensive one in Dublin, supplying regiments and corps at a few days notice.   Later, Patrick Cooney opened a public house at No. 1, which became the Chancery Inn.

Meanwhile, round the corner in Chancery Street, there were looking-glass manufacturers and brass manufacturers, law agents, scriveners, attorneys, tailors and, of course, booksellers.  In 1846, Thomas Connolly’s Second Hand Book Establishment at 6 Chancery Place had a catalogue of over 4000 volumes of new and old books. In 1853, a letter of complaint was sent to the Warder and Dublin Mail about a religious painting displayed for sale outside a shop on Chancery Place, which was criticised as flagrant Popery. Clearly something of the spirit of the Presbyterian Seceders still lived on in the former Mass Lane!

The best known building in the street, the Legal Eagle, 1 Chancery Place, has been a public house since at least 1855.  Its original name was ‘The Victoria Inn’ or ‘Nerney’s Tavern.’ Its owner, William Nerney, lived above it with his family. The Nerneys were well known in the area already as they had previously owned a public house in nearby Charles Street.  It was at Nerney’s Tavern that Mr O’Moore, a member of the Bar, was arrested for debt in 1859, after having popped out with friends for a quick drink whilst waiting for a motion to be called on. His arrest was held to be in breach of the rule against arresting Counsel for debt while in the course of attending to legal business.  

Sadly, Mr Nerney got into difficulties around the time of his wife’s death in 1868. In November of that year, he published a notice in the newspaper to unnamed ‘neighbours’ saying that his failure to attend at an election was not due to having taken a bribe, but because he was unwell (the notice can be seen above). Soon afterwards, he went bankrupt, and his premises were sold on to another publican.

On the opposite side of the street, the Chancery Place entrance has always been a handy means of entry and exit for those with business in the Four Courts. There was much annoyance in 1896 when it was closed off during the construction of the new Law Library in the Eastern Wing, and even more annoyance when it was shut up during the War of Independence in 1921.  In the 19th century, this entrance would have been used by practitioners and, occasionally, litigants, but not yet by Judges, who at that time parked their carriages in the quadrangles on the river side of the Courts.

After the death of Four Courts caretaker Michael McDermott from a mysterious 1853 fall into the Chancery Place yard ultimately attributed to an attack of temporary insanity, a lodge was built for future caretakers and their families. Part of it may be visible in the last photograph in the slideshow above, which shows the entrance after the 1916 Rising, during which the Four Courts was occupied by rebels, with the East Wing, in which the Law Library was then located, coming in for particularly heavy gunfire.

Although it may seem an innocuous and even rather grey street today, Chancery Place has a long and interesting history.  Next time you are passing down Chancery Place, remember that you are crossing once-sacred ground, over which not one but two English monarchs likewise trod. Not many places in Dublin can claim that sort of lineage!

Maps and Plans: Dublin City Digital Archive and Harvard University Library

Historical Images: (top) (top middle)(bottom middle)(bottom)

News Articles: British Newspaper Archive

Current Images: Google Maps and Daft.ie

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