The Time They Tried to Move the Four Courts to London, 1850

From the Freeman’s Journal, 17 July 1850


The Irish bench and bar are now upon their trial in a way more dangerous to them and to the national interests than at any previous time since the Union.  Not a post leaves Ireland without communications from some of the correspondents of the London press, laying bare every accessible point of their position.  If business be brisk it is pointed out with grudging envy, if it is slack a shout of exultation is set up over the empty bags of the practitioner, and some even of our Irish contemporaries re-echo the fine news as a preliminary to the shutting up of our national tribunals.  Bench and bar had need to look to themselves; and it especially behoves the judges to take care that their conduct shall leave no room for injurious observation; for we can assure these learned functionaries that there is no motive so base but the domestic traitors, who have been employed for our vilification and sale, will be quite ready to impute to them, to their sons, their sons-in-law and their remotest cousins, if any occasion, no matter now trivial, be given for corrupt aspersions.”

What was the cause of this concern? And why was the Freeman, so often their trenchant critic, so concerned for the reputation of the mid-19th century Irish bench and bar?

Follow the money.  On 27 March the same paper had reported that a bill ‘for the abolition of the Irish courts, and for reducing Dublin to the rank of a market town,’ had been communicated to a select few of the Irish members by Prime Minister Lord John Russell. According to the Freeman, Lord John, possessing ‘all the cold-blooded obstinacy of the Russells, added to the cold- blooded dogmatism of a doctrinaire’ would ‘pursue his venesection regardless of the writhings of his victim’ unless the Irish people raised their voices unanimously to object. 

Lord John Russell, reputed to be scheming to move the Four Courts to London, as depicted in Vanity Fair, via Artflakes.

What had actually been proposed was the abolition of the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland, but it was felt that should this office be abolished, ‘then would follow the abolition of the Four Courts, the Custom-House, the Stamp-Office, the Royal Hospital, so that Dublin would be only a city in name, but really a village, requiring gentry, citizens, tradesmen and artisans to proceed with their families across the Atlantic to the shores of that rising country the United States of America to earn for themselves the means of support.’

The thought of the courts being transferred to Westminster created consternation in Dublin, not just among barristers, solicitors and court staff, for whom this would mean either emigration or prolonged annual absences from their family, but also among businessmen who, still feeling the pain of the abolition of the Irish Parliament fifty years previously, anticipated a further disastrous fall in trade. Public upset was such that on 30 April 1851 the Lord Lieutenant himself met with a deputation from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to assure them that no possible removal of the courts of law and equity had ever been contemplated and that he considered their existence essentially necessary to Ireland. 

This reassurance did not alleviate the concerns of the Freeman, whose view was that although it would be a long time – four years at any rate – before the predicted relocation of the courts went ahead, ‘woe to the judge whose temper or connexions might expose him to a showing up as the Irish correspondents of English newspapers would take care that any scene in the Rolls would occupy a prominent place in the column of diurnal preparatory damage to the ancient and permanent seats of justice, the possession of which gives a constitutional dignity to our country and our city, to the befouling of which this covey of evil birds apply themselves.’

Safely removed from the predicted carnage, the Ulster Gazette was less sympathetic, remarking that Ireland (if not Dublin) would not lose one farthing’s work by the removal of the High Court to Westminster, as it was not law courts and lawyers which gave dignity to a country but the honesty and pure morality of its people. 

The 5th Marquess of Londonderry, who thought the Four Courts should stay where it was, via AbeBooks.

One of Ulster’s best-known peers did not agree.  The Marquess of Londonderry spoke against the abolition of the Lord Lieutenancy in the House of Lords, saying that if the office  were abolished, the Four Courts and other establishments would inevitably follow, Dublin would become a desert and grass grow in her streets, particularly at a time when nearly a decade of famine had already educed Ireland to the utmost verge of destitution. 

The above coincided, intentionally or not, with the implementation of a change in jurisdictional rules which stood to remove many previously lucrative cases from the scope of the superior courts. According to the English Sun, this would render the profits of Irish barristers so inconsiderable as to render the profession not worth following by 9/10 of the present practitioners, making it a matter of justice, as well as expediency, that they should be granted the privilege of practising in England, and indeed English barristers likewise in Ireland. 

The Tralee Chronicle sarcastically remarked that there was little graciousness in permitting Irish barristers to abandon their homes, families and connections to plead the cause of their clients before the judges of Westminster Hall and accept verdicts at the hands of ‘Cockney juries,’ nor was there any sense in encouraging English barristers to come to Ireland to gaze at ‘deserted halls and unemployed judges.’ It also suggested that the proposed move was due to embarrassment suffered by the British establishment in the course of a number of recent political trials, such as that of Daniel O’Connell in 1844, when the prosecuting Attorney-General had notoriously challenged opposing counsel to a duel in open court.

Something had to be done to stop the move, and it was.  On 1 June 1850 the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent wrote happily that

“The spirit of the Irish Bar, so long dormant, and by many supposed to be defunct, has at length been resuscitated and the energetic elasticity which characterised its revival yesterday, holds out a hope of better days for Ireland. For the first time since the disastrous period of the Legislative Union, the members of that honoured profession – casting to the winds all political differences and selfish considerations – met in proud array to protest against the fresh wrong to be inflicted on their native country, against the Process and Practice Bill and the bill for extending jurisdiction of the Assistant Barristers as calculated to affect most injuriously the long recognised privileges and the emoluments of both branches of the profession under the plausible pretext of rendering law cheap the real object being to degrade the superior courts of justice in Ireland and pave the way for transferring the principle legal business of the country to Westminster Hall”

James Whiteside QC, later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland (zoomable version here)

The meeting was notable for a speech by James Whiteside QC, who stated that, having lived long enough to listen with distrust to what public men say with respect to Ireland, he was certain that, in the absence of a determined expression of opinion on the part of the Irish people, the courts would be removed to London whenever expedient – something which would be disastrous for Dublin. The difference, he said, that the Four Courts made to the city was palpable – out of legal term the city bore a ‘dull and dreary’ appearance in contrast to the animated aspect it presented whenever the courts were sitting.

The Four Courts never did move to London, although some said it had never been intended to move them there in the first place and the whole debacle had been one almighty and maybe even very Irish fuss about nothing.

The Irish Bar survived the post-Famine years with the help of guineas generated in the Encumbered Estates Court in Henrietta Street. By the following decade, all talk of moving to Westminster was over and the Four Courts itself was expanding again with the erection of new buildings.

By this time, Mr Whiteside, now Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, had transferred his crusading abilities henceforth to another, even more serious problem – the eradication of the Liffey smell. Could his June 1850 speech have swayed parliamentary opinion? And, if so, should we consider another move – a transfer of his statue, currently in Christchurch, back to its original site?

Statue of Lord Chief Justice Whiteside, via Wikimedia Commons

After all, who better deserves to be commemorated within the Four Courts than the man who just may have tipped the balance in saving it for Ireland?

Note of Thanks Left Behind as Sweet-Toothed Rebels Vacate Requisitioned Solicitor’s Office, 1916

Sweet-toothed 1916 rebel leader Constance Markievicz (left). Move the slider left to see the former 130 St Stephen’s Green West (the building with an ad for baby carriages on the side). Image via

From the Belfast News-Letter, 8th May 1916:



The offices of Messrs. Keating & Keating, solicitors, 130 St Stephen’s Green, suffered rather severely at the hands of the rebels, who burrowed through the wall from the Turkish Baths, and also effected an entrance through the wall from the Grafton Street end. Mr Edward Keating gave an interesting account of the extraordinary condition in which he found the offices on last Monday morning. A piece of notepaper bearing the following words was also found:- ‘Please send in some supplies from tea shop. Cakes or bread preferable. – C. De Markievicz.’ The following was pinned on the door: ‘Thanks very much for these comfortable lodgings. Wednesday morn absent.’

It would be impossible to enumerate the various articles which remain, but they include, tin openers, pots, pans, bandages, medicine, port wine, gin, Chartreuse, field glasses, a bag marked Q.T.C., armlets of the Veteran Corps, hairpins, keys, Woodbine cigarettes, ink, a doctor’s white coat, a comb and brush, syphons, jams, violins, violin string, liqueur glasses, candles, sweets &c., &c. It will be seen that the collection is extensive and varied, and suitable to all tastes.”

Mr Keating was luckier than a number of other solicitors whose offices had been entirely destroyed in the Rising of 1916, such as Mr Thomas Early, solicitor, of Abbey Chambers. 70 Middle Abbey Street. By 10 May, a newspaper advertisement placed by Mr Early describes him as back in business round the corner at 5 Bachelor’s Walk.

The same day, a meeting of solicitors who had suffered loss during the Rising was held at the Solicitors’ Buildings, Four Courts. At the meeting, it was noted that, in the case of ten firms, all the documents in connection with the business had been lost or destroyed, and, as costs could only be recovered on the production of documents and book entries. the situation in those cases was serious for the practitioners concerned.

Another problem was lost wills, deeds and leases, belonging to clients. It was reported that safes in the burnt offices of many solicitors had proved ineffective at saving their contents and that in one case all documents connected with the winding up of a large estate had been destroyed.

At the insistence of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland, the Law and Procedure (Emergency Provisions) (Ireland) Act 1916 included a clause preventing any action being brought by clients whose documents had been destroyed in the Rising to recover damages from the solicitors concerned.

In July 1916 130 St Stephen’s Green featured in the newspapers once again when an application was made in the Probate Court regarding the will of John Stenson, of Ballintra, County Donegal. The original of the will had been sent to Keating and Keating in their capacity as town agents; one of the papers which had accompanied it had been found in the street outside their offices. Fortunately, the Ballyshannon solicitor dealing with Mr Stenson’s Probate had made a copy of the will before sending it to Dublin. Mr Justice Madden granted the application to prove the copy in place of the original will.

Another application to prove a will lost in the Rising was made in December 1916. The testatrix in this case was Madeline CHP Moore, of Ballymoney, County Antrim, whose will – in an envelope addressed to the Dublin office of her solicitors had been unfortunate enough to arrive at the General Post Office just before the Rising commenced. It was presumed that the will had been destroyed and again leave was given to prove a copy.

The following month, Mr Justice Barton in Shanahan v Shanahan relied on an 1861 judgment of Lord Chancellor Brady to find an affidavit sworn by witnesses as to the contents of a deed lost in the Rising good secondary evidence of that deed.

The records of the Incorporated Law Society could easily have been lost in 1916. Fortunately, although the Solicitor’s Building in the Four Courts (now the Law Library) was for six days in occupation of the rebels, with considerable damage being done to furniture, fittings and windows, the records were uninjured.

Probably the most famous case of legal lost property in 1916 was a car owned by Mr Thomas Erskine Alexander, solicitor. It had been requisitioned on Easter Monday while he and a party of friends were travelling from Fairyhouse, only to be abandoned the following day in poor condition behind the Hill of Tara. Mr Alexander had taken the precaution of insuring the car – albeit under a policy which stated that there was no claim for damage caused by invasion, foreign enemy, riot, civil commotion or military or usurped power. His claim against the British Dominion & General Insurance Company for failure to pay up, came up for hearing at the Belfast Assizes the following month and was unsuccessful.

Keating and Keating were still at 130 St Stephen’s Green in 1956 – forty years after the Rising. Their building was eventually demolished to make way for the Stephen’s Green Centre.

I wonder if they kept any of the mementos of the 1916 occupation?

Portico Problems, 1786-1925

From the Evening Herald, 5 March 1925:

“A Chara – may one hope, from two lines in your most interesting article on the Four Courts, that Gandon’s original plan for the portico may at long last be executed and the renewed pile be adorned by the grand and noble entrance he designed.

‘The question of the Central Hall and its surroundings is under consideration.’

Your article appropriately appeared on the 3rd of March – the very date on which the foundation stone of the Four Courts was laid in 1786.  An extraordinary incident marred the occasion.  The Lord Chancellor and the chief judges had only retired from the ceremony when, in Gandon’s words, ‘a gentleman of considerable fortune and influence, a Privy Counsellor and a member of the Irish parliament. stopped his travelling carriage to inquire the cause of the enclosures being made on the quay.  Being informed that the ceremony of laying the first stone of the new Courts of Law was the cause, this gentleman left his carriage and addressed me in a manner not very courteous ‘What is all this going on here? Who ordered the quay to be enclosed? Etc etc.’

Gandon explained, saying all the authorities had sanctioned what had been done; had seen, examined, and approved the designs, and had just taken part in the laying of the first tone.  This precious bully then ‘immediately left the ground, observing that if the building proceeded, it should be pulled down!’

Gandon continues: ‘Knowing the gentleman’s influence, and thinking to prevent clamour, I was induced… to set back the portico originally designed to cover the footway.  This I considered a great sacrifice of the beauty of the front; but even this sacrifice of my design was not sufficient, for as the gentleman had not been consulted about the building, he disapproved of the designs, which he condemned in every particular…’

Looked at from the quay on which it stands, the long almost unbroken flatness of the front strikes the eye forcibly from its want of beauty of proportion.  Looked at the from the opposite quay, the splendid relief which would have been given to the front and the great additional beauty to the whole block had Gandon’s design been carried into effect are obvious at a glance.    The dome, the drum of which is so vast, would appear to have much less preponderating weight were the portico to advance, as designed by Gandon, well in front of the rest of the building.  The adjoining arcades would, prospectively, retire, by reason of the projection of the portico, with most graceful effect, from the lightness of their construction; and in the rejuvenated Four Courts the capital would at last have in all the glory of its original conception what the great block was first intended to do.

WL Cole

3 Mountjoy Square”

Gandon’s Four Courts had recently been destroyed in the Civil War of 1922 and their reconstruction was in contemplation at the date of the above letter.   An article in the Dublin Evening Telegraph of the previous September had likewise suggested that the reconstructed building might be improved to embrace the entire footpath – as was the case with one of Gandon’s other buildings, the former Parliament Building in College Green.

Its alleged over-projection was not the only element of the six-columned Corinthian portico which had to be varied.  The Freeman’s Journal of 15 September 1808 notes a recent lowering of the pavement at the entrance and under the portico to ‘obviate the inconvenience or injury resulting from wet weather, and especially a species of nuisance justly censured… a saline and ungracious practice professionally justified on the principal that ‘necessity has no law.’  

Possibly a delicate allusion to the vexed question of public urination? If so, the following letter from ‘JF’ in Saunders’s Newsletter of 1819 suggests that the above works may have been less than successful in achieving their objective:

“Mr Editor

May I, through your valuable Paper, put a question viz Why the principal entrance into the Great Hall of that beautiful edifice, the Four Courts, is so shamefully neglected and abused? It has become the receptable of the greatest filth, to the shame of the person whose province sit to see and keep it otherwise… should the external of the building be without the necessary servants for its preservation, this statement may meet the eyes of the Judges and give employment to some industrious and starving family.  The Watchman stationed near the spot could prevent nightly abuses and the daily attendance of a decent man would entirely do away the abuse contained of.”

A 19th century photograph showing the portico from another angle. Then as now, Edward Smyth’s sculptures of Moses, Mercy, Wisdom, Justice and Authority adorn the pediment above.

Clearly something must have been done since there were no more complaints about the condition of the portico – at least until the occupation of the Four Courts during the 1916 Rising, when its pillars were damaged by bullets – possibly misfires intended for the statue of Moses on the pediment, which myopic British soldiers were convinced was a sniper. 

Moses and companion, post-1922, via Europeana

Irish Free State soldiers knew better during the Battle of the Four Courts in 1922, when Moses survived without a scratch, though his companion statues of Mercy, Authority and Wisdom were described afterwards as ‘grimy and careworn’ and Justice had lost her face from ear to chin.  The portico, in fact, was one of the few portions of the Four Courts to survive the bombardment, its pillars and pediment, gashed and torn by shell-fire, still in place gamely supporting the skeleton of the collapsed dome. 

Perhaps the survival of the portico in outline form operated as a disincentive to follow Mr Cole’s suggestion of extending it – its projection over the pavement after the reconstruction being the same as previously.

Did the Irish Free State miss an opportunity to improve this beautiful building?  Or has it always been simply perfect as it is?  Have a look above at the images side-by-side of the portico as it currently subsists, and its companion portico in College Green, reflecting Gandon’s original plan, and decide!

Sandymount Lady Sues English Lieutenant for Breach of Promise, 1920

Image via Getty Images

From the Dublin Evening Telegraph, 31 March 1920:


Today in the King’s Bench Division, before Mr Justice Dodd, in the action of Sarah Reynolds, of 41 Londonbridge Road, Sandymount, Dublin, v Wm B Huskisson, Mr CS Campbell (instructed by Mr DA Quaid) applied for an order giving leave to issue and serve a writ out of the jurisdiction. The cause of action was breach of promise of marriage.

Counsel moved on the affidavit of the plaintiff, who stated that the intended defendant had been for several months resident in Ireland whilst his regiment had been stationed at Wellington Barracks, Dublin, he being then a lieutenant in the North Lancashire Regiment. She first met him in Dublin towards the end of July 1918.

Londonbridge Road, Sandymount. No. 41 is third from left.

Their acquaintance ripened into affection, and when visiting her mother’s house, 41 Londonbridge Road, Sandymount, he proposed marriage to her. Thereafter he constantly visited at her mother’s house as her accepted suitor and repeatedly alluded to their forthcoming marriage taking place in a very short time.

Mr Justice Dodd – The hand of a skilled draughtsman is obvious in the framing of this (Laughter).

The affidavit proceeded to state that when the intended defendant was about being transferred from Dublin to England, in course of demobilization in May, 1919, he promised to return to Dublin to marry her within six weeks, telling her that she might make all arrangements. She accordingly made the necessary arrangements for their marriage, and her mother and herself went to considerable expense in connection with the intended marriage but the defendant had never returned to Dublin. He subsequently wrote letters to her and to her mother in reference to his breaking off the engagement.

The letters contained intimation that the intended defendant was unable to carry out his promise to marry her, the grounds of his inability to do so being stated to be that he was not in a position to enable him to marry. But from statements made to her, and from information she had acquired through her solicitor, she had every reason to believe that the suggestion made by the intended defendant as to his circumstances in these letters quite misleading, and was designed with the object of endeavouring to justify the breaking off of the engagement.

She was informed that the defendant’s father, who lived at ‘The Knowle’ near Preston, Lancashire, died last May. Her solicitor had learned that the father was well off, being reputed to have property in Preston. As he died very suddenly, it is believed he did not make a will, and that the intended defendant was entitled to a share of his property.

Mr Justice Dodd granted the application.”

Mr Justice Dodd. A man with a sense of humour – much needed, as he was the High Court judge who primarily dealt with breach of promise cases.

Although there is no record of the final outcome of the case, the trusting and hospitable Reynolds family of 41 Londonbridge Road were back in the news again in December 1930 as victims of former convict Michael Thomas Brosnan, alias O’Brien, Byrne and Kelly, who had obtained lodgings on credit from them by professing to be an engineer specialising in wireless telephony and holding a position of great importance in the service of the General Post Office.

Sarah’s mother, Mrs Reynolds, told Judge Little in the Dublin Police Court that she had been impressed by the ‘airs’ and statements of the defendant and because he kept on announcing that ‘he would get his cheque on Thursday’ she lent him several small sums in cash amounting to £1 5s 3d, which were never repaid. When asked if she expected to get them back, she replied philosophically: ‘Well, how can I, seeing where he is now.’

Mrs Reynolds’ son Charles and sister Maud also gave evidence for the prosecution, but there was no reference to Sarah – hopefully she adopted a similarly philosophical approach to her jilting and found a replacement suitor of greater fidelity!

A Robbery at the White Cross Inn, 1814

The New White Cross Inn, directly behind the Rolls Court and Record Court of the original Four Courts; now part of the extended Four Courts site.

From Saunders’s News-Letter, 11 October 1814:

“A few days since a Welshman of the name of Owen Thomas, came to lodge at the White Cross Inn, Pill Lane, where a Mr Donald McKay, from Aughnacloy, likewise took up his abode. They had been but a few days residents of this Inn, when the North Countryman found his cash diminished upwards of ten pounds.

On investigation, some circumstances were disclosed which led to a suspicion that Owen Thomas knew something of the matter; he was accordingly taken into custody, and brought before the Magistrates of Ormond-Quay Office, where he confessed that he came from Wales to try his fortune, and having a few very useful keys, he opened the trunk of his neighbour Mr McKay, and borrowed the cash missing.

A Rev Mr McFerran, who was also a lodger at the Inn, missed five guineas in gold, which the prisoner acknowledged that he could give the best account of. He returned four of the guineas, and produced a parcel of English Bank Notes, which he stated he had bought with the plundered Notes. He returned them all, in the hope that there would be no prosecution; but the proprietor of the Inn conceived in his duty not to allow him to escape, consequently he was fully committed to Newgate to abide his trial.”

Posterity does not record the sentence received by Mr Thomas!

Nor is it clear from the story whether the hostelry involved was the old White Cross Inn at No. 65 Pill Lane or the New White Cross Inn a few doors up at No. 72. You can see both premises on the map below.

Map via Dublin City Digital Archives.

One of the new clubs formed by the United Irishmen after its proscription in 1794 was the Friendly Club (later the United Society of Pill Lane) which met in the old White Cross Inn. The Club, also known as the Committee, was reputed to consist of seventy members, many of them men of great property, and to exercise a supervisory or leadership role within the organisation. William Drennan (whose grandson William Drennan Andrews and great-grandson James Andrews went on to become noted judges), Oliver Bond and Henry Jackson were all members.

Ghosts of United Irishmen aside, another spectre who may haunt the location of the old White Cross Inn is the Reverend Mayne, a clergyman from Northern Ireland, who died after throwing himself out of one of its windows some time in the 18th century.

Map via Dublin City Digital Archives

Both the old and New White Cross Inns were acquired by the Wide Street Commissioners in the 1830s and now form part of the Four Courts.

Can you work out what is located on their respective sites today? This may help!

The Barrister Who Fell in Love With his Witness, 1908-1915

A photograph of Lord Justice Moriarty published in the Ballymena Telegraph, 8 May 1915, via British Newspaper Archive.

The character of Professor Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories may have been inspired by Doyle’s Stonyhurst classmate John Francis Moriarty, who subsequently went on to become an Irish barrister and judge of the Court of Appeal in Ireland.  Not only that, but he also became one of that small but select category of barristers who end up marrying one of their clients.

The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph of 8 May 1915, in an article published at the time of Moriarty’s unexpected death, stated as follows:

“His first wife was a very wealthy lady, possessed of a fortune of £26,000.  The two paid a prolonged visit to America, and after an absence of four or five years, Mr Moriarty resumed his practice at the Irish Bar.  His marriage with his second wife was of a romantic character. Her previous husband’s will (by which she was a large beneficiary) was contested by some of his relations, and Mr Moriarty was engaged as her counsel in support of the will.  While examining the lady in the witness-box, he fell in love with her, and, in due course, they were married.”

Moriarty’s obituary in the Sunday Independent of 3 May 1915 described him as

an able and brilliant advocate…  His incisive method of examining witnesses, was consummate, suave and subtle, and his graceful and fluent addresses were often adorned with neat literary allusions.  He used to tell a story against himself in his young days of having a rough time with the Bench in a certain case, and when he came into the dressing room he flung down his wig, exclaiming disgustedly ‘I’ve the greatest contempt for the law.’  ‘Ah, my dear Moriarty, said a caustic brother, that’s not a contempt born of familiarity.’”

Moriarty was well-known for his use of the monocle in court, as well as for a habit of flicking his gown to celebrate scoring a point in cross-examination.

Serjeant Moriarty KC, cross-examining in the East Cork Election Petition case of 1911. The photo is from the Daily Mirror, 24 April 1911, via British Newspaper Archive.

The case in which Moriarty met his second wife was Martyn v Dolphin, a dispute relating to a will of Hubert Dolphin, of Galway, which had been re-executed shortly before his death to remove a gift to his sister, Mrs Martyn.  Moriarty succeeded in rebutting allegations that Mr Dolphin’s signature on this final will had been forged by his much younger wife, Mabel.  Mabel had married Mr Dolphin as a child bride and was still only in her mid-twenties at the time of his death.  

Some of the evidence in Martyn v Dolphin, as reported in the Weekly Irish Times, 27 June 1908. The witness being examined was Kate Killigher, a servant of the Dolphins, whose anonymous letter to Mrs Martyn regarding the alleged forgery had prompted the case, and who was pejoratively described by Moriarty as ‘half-witted’.

Mabel and Moriarty married not long after Martyn v Dolphin’s successful conclusion in 1908 but did not live happily ever after. Moriarty died unexpectedly in 1915, less than two years after having been made a Lord Justice of the Irish Court of Appeal. 

An obituary giving details of the circumstances of Moriarty’s death, also published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph of 8 May 1915, via British Newspaper Archive.

Mabel had recovered quickly after the death of her first husband and she moved on even more quickly after the death of Moriarty, marrying again a mere six months later to Captain Robert Francis Guy, a man of her own age.  She was widowed again for the third time when Captain Guy died prematurely in 1927.  Not long before his death he had been involved in a car accident near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, in which a woman was killed. Mabel – whom tragedy seemed to follow throughout her life – was in the car at the time.

Is the moral of this story that a barrister should never marry their client?

Snowballing in Peace and War, 1867-1945

Snowball Fight, by Edouard Giradet, via ArtVee

From the Kilrush Herald and Kilkee Gazette, 11 January 1918:

“Round The Town

By the Man in the Street

There was a fine snowstorm on Monday and Tuesday which covered the ground several inches.  In town it was made the most of by the rising generation of both sexes – yes, and their far elder in years too.  There was a fierce war of snowballing in all the streets.  There was no discrimination for anybody passing through, gentle or simple, lay or clerical.  Solicitors and barristers passing to and from the Court were vigorously shelled, and even the good County Court Judge fell in for a few torpedoes. And he enjoyed the sport like a man.  A fussy shopkeeper in Market Square sought police protection coming from the Court House, but he and his escort fell in for a merciless pounding.”

Nothing polarised the public like the sport of snowballing.  In 1867 Saunders’ Newsletter published a letter from a gentleman (“name withheld: card with the office”) requesting that the attention of the proper authorities be drawn to “the dangerous and illegal practice of snowballing in Dublin, whereby gangs of roughs, young and old, male and female assailed the passers-by with volleys of hard balls of snow worked up into the most formidable missiles.”

That same month, ‘a regular battle, in which snowballs were the missiles, greatly to the annoyance and even terror of some of the passers-by’ had occurred in Stephen’s Green, Dublin between students from the Royal College of Surgeons and students from the medical school of University College, Dublin, resulting in a number of prosecutions and fines of 10s each.

We find medical students again in the dock in 1895 for pelting Cork doctor Joseph O’Sullivan with snowballs and otherwise maltreating him on his way to visit a patient.  The attack was linked to an ongoing dispute between Cork medical doctors and the friendly societies who employed Dr O’Sullivan as their physician.  Several prominent medical professionals made a point of attending the hearing.

Students Snowballing, by Horace Vernet, via Public Domain Review

You didn’t have to be a medical student, however, to be prosecuted for snowballing. In Waterford the previous year, John Henneberry, ‘a respectable-looking youth’ had been convicted of snowballing a man named Madigan in such a way as to accidentally break his umbrella and ding his hat. 

Snowballing a policeman, via Media Storehouse

Damage to person or property, or indeed the dignity of an authority figure, exponentially increased the risk of prosecution for snowball-throwing.  In January 1881 Dublin boys Christopher Bridgeman and Lawrence Berrill were prosecuted for having assaulted Constable 17C by striking him with several snowballs on the head and knocking off his helmet.  In 1873 Trinity student John T Ross was brought up before the Dublin Southern Division Police Court for having having assaulted Police Constable 1B by striking him with a snowball on the side of the neck.

The day of the week on which the snowball was thrown could also be relevant in assessing one’s chances of being prosecuted. In 1867, Mr John O’Neill, JP prosecuted Charles Maguire before Londonderry Magistrates’ Court for striking him with a snowball.  Mr O’Neill – who emphasised that he was not opposed to snowballing in principle, merely on the Sabbath – had seen the defendant and others snowballing and remonstrated with them regarding the propriety of their conduct.  The defendant had responded by putting one of the snowballs into his pocket and lobbing it at Mr O’Neill’s back as he exited following his homily.

Harold Hume Piffard ‘Guilty or Not Guilty?’ via ArtUk

Some magistrates – like Mr PJ O’Donoghue RM, who informed Belfast Magistrates’ Court that he himself had been snowballed many times but had never thought of bringing a prosecution for assault – were sceptical of the merits of prosecution for snowball throwing.   In December 1930, Mr Begley RM, sitting in the same court, faced with a batch of pre-teen defendants alleged to have thrown snowballs in public throughfares during the recent snowfall, said it was a shame to bring in these cases at all. Everyone knew that children could not do harm by firing snow.  It was a form of recreation which they had all indulged in in their young days.

James Beattie Michie, ‘Children at Play (Snowball Fight),’ via Art UK

Likewise, in 1935, Mr JM Mark RM, sitting at Templepatrick Petty Sessions Court. described a snowballing incident outside the local Parish Church as ‘merely a boyish prank which was carried too far.’  The defendant brothers promised to conduct themselves in future and were allowed off on payment of costs.

Snowball prosecutions could provoke romantic memories too. In 1909, an unnamed Dublin magistrate chuckled with amusement at the trial of a man brought up by the constable for throwing snowballs at a young lady. ‘Did she throw any snowballs back at him?’ his worship asked.  ‘She did,’ replied the defendant, whereupon the magistrate laughed heartily and asked what the cause of the combat might be.  When assured that it had been purely in fun, he discharged the defendant forthwith without fine.

Man and Woman Have a Snowball Fight, via Getty Images

Amore and snowballs coincided yet again in a prosecution featured in The Belfast Telegraph of 12 February 1945, involving a young married lady alleged to have conveyed to prisoners of war in a Belfast Prisoner of War Camp certain written or printed matters or articles of foot contrary to the Prisoners of War and internees Access and Communications Order 1945.  The communications consisted of the following notes wrapped in snowballs and thrown over the wire of the camp:

“Dearest Irish girl

I am enjoyed that you like the Germans as well for we prisoners of war have a sound feeling for the whole Irish people.  Take my sincerest regards to all at home and tell them that Germany stands together though the present war situation is not in our favour.

If you should have time enough to answer my line throw your chit in a snowball enrolled as far as you can and make me pay attention for this ‘bullet.’ You will see me every day at the wire wearing German parachute uniform.

Let me soon hear from you.  Best wishes. Heil Hitler – Heinz.

UK POW Camp, WW2, via Picclick

The defendant’s response was as follows:

“What is your name and address? Kathleen,” followed by several marks of endearment.

Further notes passed culminating in the following, again written by the defendant, accompanied by a parcel containing a jam sponge and several buttered sandwiches:

“I have fallen in love throwing snowballs.  Come back to me after the war?”

As a result of her communications, ‘Kathleen’ was bound on £10 bail to be on good behaviour for 11 months. 

To add to her woes, the gallant Heinz subsequently disclaimed responsibility for the letters, claiming to have been merely writing them at the behest of a fellow prisoner with limited English and a yen for baked goods.

The perils of snowballing with the enemy!

Howth Tea-Smuggler Escapes as Revenue Routed by Pill Lane ‘Mob,’ 1764

Portrait of a Smuggler, by Henry Pertwee Parker, via Selling Antiques

From the Oxford Journal, 28 July 1764:


Dublin, July 17. Last Friday Night some Revenue Officers made a Seizure at Howth of 160 Casks of Tea; but they were soon after attacked by a Number of Smugglers, when a desperate Engagement ensued, in which one Higley, a Smuggler, was killed; only seven Casks out of the whole Parcel, were carried off by the Officers. A Brother to the Deceased was taken Prisoner by the Officers, and this Day sent to Town, guarded by a Serjeant and four private Men, but in passing thro’ Pill Lane, on their way to Kilmainham, they were assaulted by a tumultuous Rabble, which rescued the Prisoner, and dangerously wounded the Serjeant; the House of a reputable Shop-keeper, into which the Soldiers retired, was much abused by the Mob.”

Pill Lane, 1811, via the Dublin City Digital Archive

Just one of many exciting goings-on in the very exciting and somewhat rebellious street of Pill Lane over the years!

Others include a dancing bear climbing up a lamppost, numerous escaped livestock, an underground prison break and a couple of fires which, but for luck, might even have destroyed the Four Courts itself. A reconfigured Pill Lane now survives as Chancery Street, but most of the western side has now been incorporated into the Four Courts site.

Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, many of the businesses along Pill Lane traded in tea. The generally rebellious nature of the street – which had played a significant part in the 1798 Rebellion – may have been one of the reasons for removing it. A much later example of its residents’ successful defiance of authority can be found here.

Late 19c, via Geohive: much of Pill Lane has now been incorporated into the Four Courts site, with the rest forming Chancery Street and the Bridewell.

More on smuggling in Howth in Francis Elrington Ball’s ‘A History of the County Dublin,’ which details Mr Higley’s death but omits to mention the escape of his brother, here.

Smugglers on the Irish Coast, by Julius Caesar Ibbetson, via the Tate, hat-tip to @TheTomMallow and @JohnConstableRA

As late as 1820, Thomas Kitson Cromwell, in his ‘Excursions Through Ireland,‘ describes the town of Howth as “inhabited by a singularly hardy and healthy race of men, generally above the common height, who, until very lately, were noted smugglers, and several of the father and grandfathers of the present race, are frankly stated by them to have died of wounds received in the pursuit of that illicit calling. In one encounter of this kind, it is narrated, a Howth man who had fallen, was found to have owed his death to the lodgement of a sleeve-button in his heart; a revenue-officer, whose ammunition was expended, having loaded his pistol with this extraordinary bullet.”

Are there still Higleys in Howth?

Woman-on-Woman* Fight Behind the Four Courts Reduces Combatants’ Clothes to Ribbons, 1879

As this illustration of a female fight shows, there was a long tradition of female fighting in the vicinity of the Four Courts. Image via Trinity College Digital Collections.

From the Leeds Times, 4 January 1879:

“A disgraceful scene was witnessed the other day in Greek-street, Dublin, near the police courts, where two women engaged in a fierce contest, surrounded by a ring of male and female backers.  They scratched, pummelled, and tore one another for fully an hour, the fight being artfully suspended on two occasions when a constable appeared.  Each had possessed herself of a large portion of her antagonist’s hair, their forms were nearly naked, their clothes having been reduced to ribbons in the encounter , and their faces, streaming with blood, had hardly any human semblance.  At last one got her opponent’s fingers in her teeth, and nearly bit them off.  This ended the fight.”

Greek Street is not only near the former Northern Police Court in Chancery Street, previously known as Pill Lane, but is right behind the north-eastern corner of the Four Courts.

Mr Donnelly, via Wikipedia

The women in question may have been inspired by Dan Donnelly, the famous boxer mentioned in the speech bubble at the top of the illustration above, whose tavern was a popular local haunt in the early part of the 19th century.

Satellite view of Greek Street and surrounding area today, via Google Maps. Greek Street is the street marked with a red dot.

In the century following the opening of the Courts, crime in this once-prosperous area increased to such an extent that most of the business in the Police Court was said to come from miscreant locals. It is also only fair to say that there were also very many well-behaved residents who deplored the behaviour of their rambunctious neighbours.

A survey of Sir Compton Domville’s holdings in Greek Street, 1804, from the Dublin City Digital Archive. Though not shown on the map, the Four Courts is located in the bottom left corner. At this stage the area was still a prosperous one. This soon changed.

Today the area is improving and increasingly vibrant – as befits its extraordinary and fascinating history. The most likely candidate for the scene of the fight described above, the corner of Greek Street and Chancery Street (below), is now in the course of being developed as the new Hampton Hotel. Hopefully there will be more positive developments to come – or at least no more woman-on-woman* fights!

*As per this twitter discussion, the original term ‘girl-on-girl’ in this post has been replaced by ‘woman-on-woman.’

Greek Street today, via Google Street View.

Hats On, Hats Off: Non-Horsehair Headgear in Court, 1785-1971

Hats off for men in court was – and maybe still is – the rule for courtrooms. Image Credit

From the Ballymena Observer, 1951:

“Wearing of Caps in Courthouse

Judge Refers to Old Tradition

An incident in Ballymena Courthouse on Monday, during the Quarter Sessions, prompted Judge Begley KC to refer to a tradition peculiar to that Court.  A man who was leaving the building, had just reached the flagged portion and put on his cap.  A police officer requested him to remove it, which he did.  His Honour interrupted the business to remark that there was a very old tradition which entitled people to wear their caps in that part of the Courthouse.

The police officer said he was unaware of that tradition. That must be the only courthouse in Ireland where such a tradition existed, he added.

Judge Begley – It is the only one so far as I know.  I would like it to remain so long as this Courthouse is in its present condition.

His Honour’s last comment was occasioned by the lack of heating.  He went on to say that he would sit for the purpose of the Crown business on Tuesday, but no longer unless there was an improvement in the hearing.”

Traditionally, no matter how cold the courtroom, men in court were only allowed to wear hats or caps with the specific permission of the presiding judge. 

According to the Waterford News of 1868, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer for Ireland, Standish O’Grady, once refused permission to the freezing foreman of a jury to wear a hat, saying that, if his head was really cold, he could always borrow a wig from one of the barristers; the foreman demurred.

A man who refused to take off his hat in court could be ejected from the court, fined, or have his hat forcibly removed.  Imprisonment for contempt of court was also a possibility.  An amusing incident happened in Kerry in 1944 when a judge threatened a member of the public gallery with contempt for wearing his cap in court.  When called before the bench it transpired that the ‘cap’ was nothing more or less than a crop of fuzzy brown hair mistaken in the distance of the room for a piece of headgear.

Lord Abingdon, wearing his hat – and looking for a lawyer! Image Credit

Along with their many other privileges, an exemption from wearing one’s hat in court was traditionally granted to peers as a matter of course.  Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon, plagued by legal problems, was given permission by Lord Kenyon LCJ to wear his hat in court in 1785.  A gentleman passing as the Earl of Egremont is reputed to have retained his hat in Marlborough St Police Court in 1902 when answering a charge of being drunk and disorderly in Piccadilly. However, this may not be correct as there does not appear to have been an Earl of Egremont at the time. Perhaps a pretender?

A judge might perhaps allow someone suffering from a head injury to keep on their hat in court. Patrick Griffin, an elderly victim of assault, was allowed to wear a soft hat in the Northern Divisional Police Court in 1888 to hide the bandages upon his head, his injuries being very severe.  Likewise, in 1913, a witness at the Dungannon Quarter Sessions was allowed to wear a cap in court to cover his mutilated ear.

Permission to wear one’s hat in court might also be granted in cold weather.  Indeed, sometimes judges would make a point of allowing witnesses to keep on hats in order to draw attention to the chilly state of the courtroom in which they were sitting.  This occurred at the Kanturk Quarter Sessions in 1924, when the Recorder said that the building was in a wholly unfit condition for court and, owing to the breeze passing through, anybody who desired to do so had authority to wear their hat.

If an elderly witness asked to keep their hat on because of the cold, it was probably unwise to argue with them.  At Shankill District Court in 1928, an 87-year-old gentleman insisted on keeping his hat on because otherwise his head would get cold, as there was ‘little or no hair on it.’  Justice Reddin, despite muttering that the cold affected everyone, was wise enough not to pursue the point, and allowed the man to keep his hat on.

It was also sometimes necessary for an accused to model hats in court.  In 1937 a man charged with theft before the Belfast Police Court wore his hat in court in a number of modes fashioned by a district inspector for identification purposes.  The judge was not satisfied with the identification and the charge against the accused was dismissed.

Shortly after the opening of the Four Courts, a prohibition on the wearing of hats in the Round Hall was published in the newspapers. As women were required to wear hats in court, this prohibition would have applied only to gentlemen. This illustration indicates that the prohibition was still in place in the mid-to-late 19th century – although illustrations of the trial of Daniel O’Connell in 1844 do show some hats in the Round Hall. Does the prohibition still apply?

Quakers had particular difficulty with the prohibition on hat-wearing in court, since it was an edict of their faith that their hats should be taken off to none other than the Supreme Being.   Judges, who tended to regard themselves as the Supreme Being, at least so far as their courtroom was concerned, proved less than sympathetic to this view.

An incident occurred in 1849 when Mr Abraham Fisher, a member of the Society of Friends, appeared in Youghal Court wearing a hat with a ‘broad brim’ of more than ordinary dimensions.   On the instructions of Mr Justice Ball, presiding, the bailiff removed the hat from Mr Fisher’s head. The ill-fated hat was then left hanging on the spike of the dock after Mr Fisher, refusing to accept it back, retired from court, enquiring sarcastically as to whether Judge Ball also wanted him to remove all his clothes.

Baron Bramwell, having initially rebuked a Quaker for refusing to take off his hat in court, subsequently issued an apology to the man concerned, stating that, having considered the matter, he felt that a man should act according to his conscience and that there was nothing intrinsically disgraceful about the wearing of hats in court, the practice of taking them off being only a matter of usage and practice.  Not all judges agreed; Mr Justice Montague Smith, in Liverpool Crown Court in 1865, described the Quaker practice of refusing to remove one’s hat as discreditable to common sense. 

At the Limerick Summer Assizes of 1876, Mr Joshua Jacob, again a member of the Society of Friends, was summarily ejected after refusing to take off his hat when serving as a juror.  Judge Ball – once again the presiding judge – got more than he bargained for when Mr Jacob drew up and published an account of what had happened, a copy of which he addressed personally to every member of both Houses of Parliament, arguing that, as officers of the court were allowed to wear hats, he, as a higher officer of the court in his capacity as juror, should also have been entitled to do so. 

In response to Mr Jacob’s campaign, the Irish Times remarked that “[w]e so no reason why the conscientious scruples of good men, so long as these do not offend morality or good taste, should not be respected.  Friends are not obliged to swear in courts of law, and it really seems rather small of a judge to forcibly expel a respectable juror because, from conscientious scruples, he refuses to remove his hat.” 

In 1907, a query was put to the Secretary of War as to whether a soldier should take off their head-dress in court.  A reply was received from the Army Council that an officer or soldier should remove his head-dress in court when a judge or magistrate was present, save when on duty under arms with a party or escort.  In 1915, Robert Killen, charged before the Belfast Magistrates with being an absentee from the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, claimed that as a soldier he was entitled to wear his cap in court. It was taken off him by the dock sergeant on the basis that he was not there on duty. 

If a man took off his hat in court, he needed to keep a careful eye on its whereabouts, as the court bore no responsibility for its theft or loss.  In 1828 a man sentenced in Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, to 12 months’ imprisonment for assault, complained that he had just lost his new hat in court, and requested remuneration.  This application was promptly rejected by Judge Moore, who said that the accused should rather have expressed sorrow and repentance for his sin and the crime he had committed rather than be making an application for compensation.

This young man doesn’t seem to have decided what to do with his hat. Image Credit

During the Irish War of Independence and subsequently, the wearing of hats in court was adopted by those associated with Sinn Féin as part of a policy of refusal to acknowledge the courts’ jurisdiction.  The Kildare Observer and Eastern County Advertiser disagreed with this practice, not because they disapproved of the motivation behind i,t but because they saw it as ‘emulating the example of those police minions of the law who wear hats in court.’  In March 1918 five young men, described by the Larne Times as ‘prominently identified with the Sinn Fein movement,’ were told ‘Hats off.’  When they refused to comply, a constable rushed forward and removed their head-gear. 

In 1918, Father Cahill CC, present in Seaforde Magistrates’ Court for the trial of a man charged with leading the Drumness Sinn Féin pipers’ band in processional order without authority, asked why he should remove his cap when the police wore caps in court.  He was told that he must do so or leave.  In 1919, the Reverend Malachi Brennan CC was removed by the police when he refused to take off his hat at a Galway Crimes Court inquiry into charges of unlawful assembly at his parish hall.

The practice of defiant-hat-wearing for political reasons was still being engaged in as late as 1939, when a number of IRA men on trial in Carrick-on-Shannon had to have their hats and caps removed.   Around this time, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State Eamon de Valera was asked in the Dáil whether persons wearing caps in court should be allowed to plead ‘not guilty,’ to which he replied that it was a matter for the court.

Two years earlier, an ‘eminent lawyer’ had told an Irish Press reporter, following the forced removal of a man who declined to remove his hat in court, that what was proper dress in court depended on the particular judge, who could not only order a man to take off his hat but, if he wished to do so, could also make him wear a hat or be committed for contempt.  Fortunately, said the eminent lawyer, most judges were reasonable men.

Differences as to what was reasonable were evident in Portnockie Police Court in 1938, when the Clerk of the Court, in response to a solicitor calling attention to cap-wearers in court, remarked that ‘[t]his is a democratic age.’  Magistrate Bailie Geddes disagreed and said that gentlemen should always take off their caps and hats in court.

The prohibition on male hat-wearing in court has yet to be formally revoked, though tends to be enforced less often in an age of diminished hat-wearing.  The type of hats removed against the will of their wearers have changed over time from the 18th century tricorne to the 1970s stetson removed in Carlow Circuit Court in 1971 from a man charged with robbery and violence. It is unclear whether the matching spurs on the accused’s boots were also removed as part of the same process.

The difference between men and women in court. This lady would not be allowed to take off her hat; the men behind her would not be allowed to put theirs on. Image Credit

The rules regarding the wearing of hats in court were precisely the opposite for women, who were not allowed in without them, and had to keep them on at all times save with judicial permission.   This divergence in policy led to the famous joke about the judge who, having mistaken a woman wearing a sailor hat for a man, asked her to remove it, to which she retorted that she was no man and he in turn replied that he was clearly no judge.

In the King’s Bench Division in 1930, Mr Justice Roche directed an usher to tell a hatless girl handing in a document that, the next time she was to come into court, she was to come into court with a hat on her head.  The girl blushed deeply and hurriedly placed on her head a brown felt hat of the close fitting type, presumably a cloche.

Mr Justice Roche’s colleague, Mr Justice Bateson, was liberal as regards the necessity for female head-coverings; when a female witness in a divorce trial asked if she could remove her hat to hear better when giving evidence, he eagerly assented, saying that he felt all ladies should take off their hats in court.

Matters came to – well, a head – in 1939 when Mr EG Hemmerde KC, Recorder of Liverpool, publicly declared that there was no historical or scriptural ground for insisting that women should wear hats in court, describing it as irksome and unnecessary.  However, this was just one judge’s policy, and many still required hats, and indeed also required women to unbutton their gloves when holding the testament, though Lord Darling was once so tired of waiting till a woman had unbuttoned her glove that he told her to keep it on.

A postcard of suffragettes objecting to ‘man-made’ laws – but still wearing their hats in court! Many women might not have wanted to take off their hats in court, as they would have been an integral part of their outfit. Image Credit

In 1934, a ‘pretty, well-dressed girl’ charged with theft, who admitted taking a fur coat from a dance hall as a dare and then wearing it to a dance in Dublin when she could not find the owner, was told by Judge Reddin that, out of respect, she should have worn a hat in court.  Speaking about the accused in the third person, the judge said ‘it may be that she wishes to display her coiffure but I would like to remind her that there is a lot of brass in many a seeming platinum blonde.  Pilfering is also becoming too prevalent.’  The girl escaped with a fine and the coat was restored to its owner.

The issue of mandatory female head-covering in court was resolved in England and Wales in 1942, when  Sir Donald Somervell, Attorney-General, announced in the House of Commons that, in view of a certain change in social habits, the Lord Chancellor deemed it unnecessary to require compliance with the practice of requiring a woman to have her head covered in court.   When asked if similar liberty should be given to men who wished to wear their hats in court the Attorney-General replied ‘that raises a very different question.’

This hat-wearing exemption, however, did not apply to Ireland, where the Irish Independent of September 18 1943 reported that a female witness in the Dublin District Court had been ordered by Judge Mangan to cover her head when taking the oath – a custom described by that newspaper as dating back to early Christian times and the edict of St Paul, in his Epistles to the Corinthians, that men praying should go with their heads uncovered and women with their heads covered.   The Independent made clear that, in supporting the policy, it was not suggesting that hatless women were less likely to tell the truth, but that it did feel that covering the head in court tended to impress on them the solemnity of the occasion.  

This glamourous 1940s witness shows lots of nylon-stockinged leg – almost certainly more than would be permitted by any judge – but makes sure to keep her hat securely on her head! Image Credit

Northern Ireland judges and magistrates also persisted in requiring women appearing in court to wear hats for many years after the Lord Chancellor’s 1942 ruling.   In 1968 ,Justice CM Maguire at Newcastle West Court told a woman witness that she was supposed to wear a hat in court.  In 1960, Mr TD Elliott of Brookeborough Petty Sessions Court was gracious enough to allow a woman wearing a hat to remain in court, but gave her a severe warning for future occasions.

It goes without saying that no Irish judge today would require a woman to cover her head n court – though a news report on the 2006 retirement of Kilkenny Court Clerk Bernard Byrne noted that old notices requiring the wearing of hats still remained in place in some courthouses in that county.

That is not to say that the dress of female – and indeed male- witnesses does not provoke judicial comment. In 1943, Colonel CCO Whitely, chairman of Croydon (Surrey) Magistrates Court, rebuked a ‘girl witness’ for appearing in slacks, saying that it was an insult to the court.  He subsequently delivered a formal statement saying that a female fellow magistrate had thanked him for making this point and that he was certain that, if one of the High Court judges saw a young girl wearing slacks, they would turn her out of court. 

In 1937, a defendant in a civil case in Kildare came into court wearing an open necked shirt during an early August heatwave, to be told by a horrified unnamed judge that ‘this was not a bathing beach but a courthouse’ and that, out of respect for the court, the defendant should have buttoned his shirt and put on a tie.  In response, the Derry Journal remarked that many men ‘had no tie to put on and ne’er a button on their shirts’ and ‘what this Justice has got to learn is that the ways as well as the days of the landed ascendancy are gone and he must come down out of the clouds and realise that truth can proceed from the throat that is left healthily open as well as from one that is incarcerated in a three inch standing-up collar and that respect is not measurable by the position of the buttons on one shirt.’

A sleeveless ‘muscle-t’ as modelled by a punk witness in a court postcard depicting an English courtroom – the subject matter of the trial would not be one for jokes today! Image Credit

Skimpy warm-weather dress may however still provoke chastisement from Irish judges.  In 2006 Judge Martin objected to two witnesses before her in Kilkenny wearing ‘muscle t-shirts,’ requiring them to borrow a jacket or change into polo shirts before giving evidence.

The question of judges or barristers wearing headgear (other than the wig) or skimpy attire in court usually does not arise because of the requirement of robing – although it remains an issue which could potentially rear its head during vacation sittings.  In the 18th century, when legal costume was not required for Assizes outside Dublin, judges and lawyers commonly wore tricorne hats in court.  

There is of course one very famous item of headgear which a judge has occasionally substituted for their wig in the past, and that is the black cap of silk and poplin which was placed on their head when pronouncing sentence of death.  In England, the placing of the black cap was done by the chaplain of the court, in Ireland, by the judge himself – the reason for the difference is unclear. Perhaps we had fewer chaplains?

 In 1943, former judge Henry Hanna regretted the cessation of the ‘black cap’ practice by Irish Free State judges and argued for a definite ruling on the point, saying that covering one’s head with a black cloth or hood was a long-standing and solemn judicial procedure and a sign of mourning for the life being forfeited.  No ruling issued, and the vexed question of whether or not to put on the black cap continued until rendered moot in Ireland by the abolition of capital punishment in 1964 for most offences including ordinary murder (the death penalty was abolished for all offences in 1990). 

Compulsory female head-covering in court, black caps, even the ban on slacks – all gone! But what about a witness – male or female – who insists on wearing a beanie, a trilby, a cloche or a leghorn in court?  Would a judge require them to take it off, or, perhaps more wisely, decide to ignore it? It would be interesting to know!