A Visit to the 1890 Law Library

In 1890, Irish Society (Dublin) decided, with the help of one ‘A M’Lud,’ to give its readers a day out in the Four Courts. The first part of the ensuing visit, featured here, took us to the Round Hall. Today, we accompany ‘M’Lud,’ a practising barrister, to the original Law Library located just behind. M’Lud’s piece gives us an intimate picture of the final days of this very small law library, which closed in 1897 after a typhoid outbreak, to be replaced by a new and larger law library in the East Wing.

“The busy, idle, seething, talkative, tempestuous, stifling Library! A Babel of tumult, where practically the whole legal business of the country is transacted! It is noisier than the Paris Bourse, less salubrious than the Paris sewers, and more full, at times, of fun and gossip than the gayest of the Boulevards.

Perhaps in all the world there is not a place more full of human interest than the Library of the Four Courts. It is a microcosm – a little world of ambition, despair, jealousies, scandal, honest work, good fortune and bad fortune, good temper and bad temper, petty pride and false conceited notions, wit and humour, dullness and cleverness, ignorance the most profound, and knowledge wide and generous; cliques, cabals, and provincial narrowness; good fellowship open and free-hearted and ‘the dear love of comrades.’ All are there to be found, crushed together as indiscriminately and free from order as I have set them down. Everybody appears to be shouting, and at intervals the tones of the strongest-voiced man on earth, the door-keeper, are heard above the general din, delivering a thunderous summons to some barrister to come for a consultation at the door.

Here, as in the dressing-room, all are equal. There is no part of the room set aside for the Queen’s Counsel, or even for the Chief Law Officers of the Crown. But the latest junior may plant himself beside the Attorney-General, if he likes, and is entitled to ask him, or anybody else, for assistance in his briefs. Only by prescription can the right to a particular seat in the Library be acquired. The prescriptive owner is entitled to turn anyone else out of it when he himself wants to sit down; but he cannot claim to have his ownership respected in his absence. Ote-toi de la question je m’y mette.’ To say this, and enforce it, is the sum-total of his rights. There must be, in the present year, some thirty or forty members of the Library , paying their annual subscription, like the rest, but who, for all that, have no seat, no desk, nor any place except the ground, on which to leave their books and papers. When they murmur for a revolution they are not listened to. We, older members, have gone through the same inconveniences in our day. At long last, we secured a seat for ourselves, and now, with the conservative instincts of our profession, we utter our nolumus mutari,’ and smile cynically at the malcontent rising generation. Nevertheless, in our hearts, we fully recognise that the unclean over-crowded Library is a disgrace to the Irish Bar.

The ‘Long Room’ – a compartment at right angles to the main building – is sacred to the Equity lawyers, though some common law men have also found admittance there. Most of the well-known Nisi Prius advocates are in the other room, the noisy talkative room. Mr Walker has gone up to the gallery to escape from the mephitic exhalations of the floor. The MacDermot sits beneath an open window with a similar grim determination to survive the present government. Mr Adams, at the round table in the middle of the room, is the delight of the Library with his even, fertile imagination and mirth-provoking tales. Mr Healy, industrious ever and indefatigable, sitting between two Tories, is searching the Year Books with a savage intention of crushing Mr Balfour with a certiorari. The Solicitor-General, universally liked, is doing his duty in a leisurely sort of way, telling and listening to stories with a thoroughly unofficial gout for them. The Northern Barristers cluster together round the fireplace and entertain one another with anecdotes of the wits of Antrim. The Leinster men are scattered about the Library with the cosmopolitan instinct of the capital province. The Connaught circuit are gone to Connaught! The pleasant brogue of the Munster men rings out distinctly in the merriest company; and when they are not talking (which is seldom) or writing (which is seldom) they are playing such juvenile pranks of merriment as would do credit to their youngest sons. Immortal gods! but there is much Olympian laughter in this dull dirty Library, and much honest good humour and happiness among this struggling, badly-paid Bar in these distressful times.

There are other qualities too – not quite so pleasant. But on these we will not dwell nor enquire too curiously into their causes. One act, however, we might note as a striking and surprising thing about the Bar of to-day. Amid great legal learning, great talent, and a commune, so to say, of Irish brain-power and genius, there undoubtedly exists a vast amount of voluntary ignorance, ignorance of men – of ‘the people beyond the mountains’ – of art, of poetry, of contemporary ‘thought,’ and the progress of the big world in which the Irish Bar is, after all, a very little thing indeed. To a great many barristers the Irish Bar is everything, not only the whole of Ireland, but all the world besides. It is so pleasant a Bar, so pleasant a profession, and our land question and other politics are so important in their own way that even the men of genius refuse to look out of the windows and see what else is going on outside.

It may be natural, but it seems a pity, and it was not always so. The Irish Bar contains the best of Irish intellect and the highest potentialities of Irish enlightenment. It holds a position with regard to the country at large which is not held by the legal or by any learned profession in other countries. It is the most popular institution in Ireland, and its influence as an educating agent is superior almost to every other. Hence it should seek for itself the broadest culture of the highest inspiration, and refuse to justify what has been said in satire by Erasmus, that lawyers are everywhere ‘doctissimum genus indoctissimorum hominum.’

With this little well-meant lecture to the gentlemen of the long robe, which you, my friends and companions of this imaginary tour will, I know, approve, we will leave them to their briefs and books…”

Interesting words! And perhaps just as relevant to today’s digital age, as Irish barristers nervously keystroke their way into the dangerous world of social media discourse and criticism, which now bedevils even the most eminent of judges!

And on that subject, the reassuring words that criticism of the judiciary is nothing new – Irish Society followed up the above with a series on the merits and demerits of each member of the Irish Bench of the time, shockingly frank and personal to today’s barristers but mild by the standards of most 19th century newspaper criticism of the Irish judiciary… nolumus mutari indeed!

More to come!

For those who would like to read more about the original Law Library (1836-1897), a collection of other posts on it to date may be found here. You can also click on their names to read more about its esteemed Law Librarian, Mr Delany, its famous crier, Sergeant Bramley, and slippery library assistant William Supple, who featured in a notorious breach of promise case only to subsequently die at the hands (or more properly the forked tongue) of a Dublin Zoo snake…

A Day in the Four Courts, 1890

From Irish Society (Dublin), 8 November 1890:



For those who cannot spare time for a corporeal visit to the Temple of Justice, let them come with me now in spirit, and I will be their guide, philosopher, and friend in an imaginary personally-conducted tour through the noble pile of buildings in Inns Quay, which forms the material home and domicile of Irish law.

Let us be at the courts by a quarter to eleven of the clock, and take up our position in the great hall, which is the centre of the main building, and round which are the four chambers formerly occupied by the ancient independent Courts of Chancery, Queen’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas.  Since the abolition (a couple of years ago) of the Common Pleas division of the High Court of Justice these four chambers have been labelled “Chancery,”, “Queen’s Bench No 1,” “Queen’s Bench No. 2,” and “Exchequer.”   The judges are not sitting yet, so we will, for the present, confine our attention to the crowd of people in the Hall.

What a motley crowd it is! Quite impossible to make an exhaustive analysis of the men and women that compose it! But I will mention a few types and classes that are certain to be represented, being constant constituents of all court crowds.

Well, first there are the professional men, barristers and attorneys, who have business (more or less) to attend to.  The barristers themselves are a motley collection.  There are prosperous dignified Queen’s Counsel, and Queen’s Counsel blighted by their ‘silk,’ or past their work, or out of favour with the public, looking with jealous eyes upon the rising juniors.  There are leading juniors, and dilettante brief-holders in silk and in stuff, and the large and varied classes of the briefless.  Briefless however, or full of briefs, every barrister in Dublin comes down daily to the courts, for which, no matter how cruel they may have been to him, he nevertheless maintains a faithful affection.  The barrister, more than any other man, has need of the virtue of patience, and patience once acquired never deserts him, but remains with him to the end, and prompts him to hope against hope, and despairing to hope again.  There are very few pessimists at the Bar; for only the most ridiculous optimists survive the third year.

The people holding black bags in their hands are connected with the solicitors’ branch of the profession, being either themselves full-sworn solicitors, or the apprentices or clerks of others.  They too present many varieties and nice degrees of position and importance.  There is the ‘highly respectable and eminent solicitor’ as he is referred to by the junior whom he has not employed, but who has expectations of briefs in that quarter.  The ‘highly respectable’ solicitor is neatly dressed, wears an irreproachable hat, is on familiar terms with the leading Q.C.’s and even nods to the judges.  He condescends majestically to the junior, whom he occasionally briefs.  He does a large business in the Equity Courts, and his instructions are generally taken from landlords and other highly-respectable people of means.   Then there is the ordinary unpretending Dublin solicitor, who acts for all sorts and conditions of men, and has great faith in one particular Q.C., and one particular junior – men, often, of mediocre ability and little practice – whom he always employs, except when his clients won’t let him.   There is the Country Solicitor, in a suit of tweed and brown billy-cock hat, up in town for an important case and a little spree in the metropolis at the expense of rustic litigants.  There are nervous fidgeting people, endeavouring to hold conference with barristers; clients anxious for the fate of their suits, and fully impressed, each one, that his is the only case in court to-day.  The Counsel (who has his guineas in his pocket) scolds his interlocutor ungratefully, refuses to listen to him, and hurries off to the Library, where the discomfited client can follow him no further.

Other representatives of the general public in the hall are witnesses attending on their subpoena; some sullen and discontented at being brought away from their business; others, on the contrary (such as civil servants and clerks) only too delighted to have a day off.  Jurors, too, in their hundreds are rushing about from court to court to ascertain what particular judge has been threatening to fine them £10 each for not being present when the panel was called.  Then there are, besides policemen and tip-staffs, and court-keepers and attendances, a few of the process-serving community prowling about for hire.  There are bag-men and bag-women who, having brought down the barristers’ bags at ten o’clock, will sit on the pedestals of the statues and pillars till it is time to take them home again at five.  Some women earn a livelihood by selling the Daily Express and Freeman’s Journal; others, by retailing saffron-cakes and currant-buns to the busier members of the bar whose press of work will not permit of a more elaborate repast.

Even now it is an animated scene in the Hall of the Four Courts, 11 o’clock in the early and busy part of the sittings.  But time was when the place was literally packed with barristers and attorneys, many of them full of briefs and money.  Compared with those times these are poor indeed, and the Four Courts are now unquestionably the least congested district in Ireland.

The hands of the clock show that it is now eleven, and the Judges should be on the Bench at that hour.  But, trust me, you have a quarter of an hour to spare still, for their lordships are never punctual.  So we may go down and inspect those gloomy subterranean chambers to which the ‘counsellors’ descend to dress for court.  There you will see hundreds of tin band-boxes containing the wigs of the barristers, whose names are inscribed ‘So-and-so, So-and-so Esq.’ in golden letters – for barristers are gentlemen, and entitled to the ‘Esq’ by the common law, unlike solicitors, who depend for that distinction upon an Act of Parliament.  The Q.C.’s go through a more complete costuming than juniors, being obliged to wear a peculiar coat of black dress-cloth, elegantly braided, collarless, and cut away from the first button.  In the dressing-rooms, all members of the Bar are equal – first come being first served; the Attorney-General claiming no precedence over the rawest junior.  For the Bar is, in many ways, a veritable democracy.”

When the Four Courts originally opened, a regulation was passed and published in the newspapers specifically precluding the wearing hats in the Round Hall, but it did not last very long! Today, hats, jurors, bag-persons, newspaper and currant-bun sellers are long-gone, QC’s have become SC’s, and the so-called ‘highly respectable’ solicitor is now more often than not a partnership based in a corporate palace.

Though there are still rising juniors, worried clients, eager and reluctant witnesses, and – perhaps to a greater extent than there should properly be – involuntarily and unjustly briefless barristers, there are also women practitioners and judges, cases in Irish, and the flag of a Republic flying above the courts – things which would have been dismissed as mere fancies, or at best vague hopes, by the members of the crowd described above.

What change will there be in this magical place, 120 years, or even 20 years on? 

Every journey towards a new and better reality starts with a dream sincerely held, and the determination to implement it. 

How would you – practitioner or layperson, workaholic or dilettante, because the courts belong to all citizens – like the Hall of the Four Courts to appear in the future?

And what are you going to do about it?

Image Credit

Lord Leitrim’s Hearse Attacked by Mob in Church Street, 1878

From the Irishman, 13 April 1878:


The remains of the late Earl of Leitrim arrived at St Michan’s Cemetery, Church Street, Dublin, about half-past two o’clock.  When the remains came into Church-Street the hearse was surrounded by two or three hundred persons, mostly comprised of the middle and lower classes.  On the funeral cortege coming to a halt a scene of great disorder was witnessed, popular feeling being strongly manifested by the crowd, who pushed, shoved, shouted and hissed around the hearse. The most violent section of the mob broke the line with a rush, and forced their way to the hearse.  Curses, derisive cheers, and groans made the scene a horrible one. 

A reinforcement of thirty more men of the D Division hurried up at the moment and recaptured the hearse.  Under their convoy it was piloted to one of the entrance gates, and it was evidently intended to bring it through the gate to the church door.  No sooner was the gate unfastened, however, than the mob burst through the cordon of police and was almost pouring in when the gate was forced out in their faces.  Over a quarter of an hour elapsed before the coffin could be finally removed.  In the meantime, the mob hooted and groaned, and voices came from the worst of them saying, “Out with the ould b___,” “Lug him out,” “Dance on him.”  

With the utmost difficulty, by the aid of a double line of policemen, the mob was held in check while the coffin was unhearsed.  A great yell of execration was raised as the coffin passed in.  Then came another rush, in which the chief mourners were rudely jostled against the railings.  The new Lord Leitrim, who was not recognised, was separated from his friends, hustled and crushed severely, before he could get inside the gate. 

At last the funeral procession was safe within, and the organ of St Michan’s played the Dead March in Saul as the coffin was borne to a place opposite the lectern.  The service of the dead was then performed.  The last prayers being over, the coffin was born through the southern door, towards the vaults.  Immediately on the bare-headed mourners being sighted by the mob outside the railings, a new howl of execration went up, and amid hisses, cheers and indecent jests, the coffin of the unfortunate nobleman was hurried to its last resting place.”  

High drama around the corner from the Four Courts – and not just for the Leitrim family! On reading the above report, the Commissioner for Police in Ireland sent the following telegram to Lord Cairns, the Lord Chancellor, which was read in the House of Lords the following Friday.

“I have read the account of Lord Leitrim’s funeral.  It is a great exaggeration, and the writer must have drawn largely upon his imagination, as hardly one fact, except that there is a crowd, is stated accurately.  Further details will be sent by post.”

The Dublin Daily Express, on the other hand, supported the accuracy of the Irishman’s account, describing the event as ‘a brutal gloating’ and blamed the police for failing to take adequate precautions against any unseemly conduct.

What had the 3rd Earl of Leitrim – assassinated in Donegal earlier the same month – done to provoke such ire among people who did not even know him? Not only, it seems, had he been over-zealous in evicting his tenants, but had also insisted that their pretty daughters work for him as servants and otherwise, sending them off to America (if fortunate) when he was tired of them.  Some even compared his behaviour to that of a medieval seigneur exercising the right of jus primae noctis. His body, presumably preserved ‘as sound and sweet as a nut’ in St Michan’s vaults, remains in situ to this day. 

Another funeral of note which took place at St Michan’s was that of Charles Stuart Parnell in 1891, though Parnell’s body was subsequently taken elsewhere to be buried.  The quays outside the Four Courts were thronged with onlookers – no brutal gloating this time, but genuinely heartfelt grief.

Why do we find members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy holding their funerals at St Michan’s?  The answer lies in the changing nature of the parish, parts of which – like Henrietta Street – were very wealthy areas in the 18th century.  Its decline was a gradual one, with many prosperous inhabitants up to the time of the Famine, and even a few thereafter.  The connexions of the Parnell and Leitrim families with St Michan’s Church date from this early period of prosperity.

St Michan’s Parish is also an area with a tradition of rebellion and – like other Dublin parishes – had missed out on the prosperity enjoyed by similar urban areas in England, something which the Express suggested might have created sympathy in these townsfolk for their evicted agrarian brothers. 

Perhaps, too, the ladies of Bull Lane had some sympathy for their mistreated country cousins. In fairness to Lord Leitrim, he did leave his female servants – and only his female servants – a legacy apiece. Not all of them, however, may have felt that what they had had to do to receive it was worth it.  Click here for a most illuminating and comprehensive article on other Irish landlords rumoured to have similar tendencies – reputed offenders even included an ancestor of the infamous Lord Lucan.

Just one of many riots which took place in Church Street over the years!

Image Credits: (1 – Illustrated Police News, 13 April 1878) (2) (3) (4)

Judge Gets the Boot on his First Day in Court, 1890

From the New Ross Standard, 18 January 1890:

Judge Hickson’s first experience of judicial life has been rather perilous, but he exhibited great nerve and self-possession. The practice of throwing slippers after a married couple on their wedding day ‘for luck’ is on the decline, as, however friendly the motive, the act was attended with some risk. It was not for luck, however, that a man named Finerty, from the dock at Tullamore on Thursday, inaugurated the judicial career of his Honor by flinging his heavy, hobnailed, iron-tipped boot at his head. The learned judge dodged the missile with the coolness and skill of an expert cricketer. And so he literally kept his head, and disappointed the ferocious fielder in the dock, who intended to have his Honor bowled out in a very ignominious manner with his skull indented. But his attack recoiled upon himself, and he learned that justice does not halt, but may be swift and sure. He would have been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for the offence of larcency, of which he had been convicted, the judge being disposed to deal leniently with him under the circumstances of the case, although he was an old offender; but his feat of desperate ruffianism, which in the interests of justice called for severe punishment, was rewarded by an additional penalty of twelve months’ imprisonment and hard labour.”

The stress of worrying about future missiles may well have been too much for County Court Judge Hickson, of 20 Herbert Street, Dublin, who died in October 1891. Despite the brevity of his judicial career, he did obtain some recognition in the form of the above depiction in the Illustrated Police News of 25 January 1890. His law library, which contained many scarce and valuable works, later sold for record prices.

Just one of many attempted attacks on Irish judges in the troubled times of the late 19th century, fortunately none resulting in physical injury; the psychological toll of being constantly at physical risk was, of course, a different matter.

The joys of the Bench can be overrated!

Taken by the Fairies, 1840-1924

From the Freeman’s Journal, 2 February 1924:

“At a Special Court in Tullamore, before Mr Flanagan PC, Esther Smith, no fixed address, was remanded in custody on a charge of obtaining £3 and goods by false pretences and threats from Mary Murray, farmer’s wife, Moneyquid, Killeigh.

Mary Murray stated that Smith said one end of witness’s house was built on a ‘pass’ and that the other end of the house was the lucky end.  Accused said she was sent there by the ‘good people,’ with whom she was stopping three nights a week, to warn her against deaths that were about to take place in her house.   Accused asked witness, who was terrified, to cross her hand with silver and that she would banish the evil spirits from the house. She got the key of the kitchen door and blew her breath throw it and then came with thekey and a handkerchief and put two knots in the handkerchief and placed it in witness’s hand.  She blew her breath on the handkerchief and the knots opened.

Accused then asked for a ‘baker’ or oven in which to bury the money that the ‘good people’ were to give witness.  She demanded more money from witness, who gave her 3s or 4s.  Accused then said witness had paper money in the house and to bring it out. Witness then gave accused all the money she had, about £3, including £1 note.  She ordered witness to open the room door and she went into the room and, pointing to a certain portion of the floor, said that was the spot where witness would find the money from the ‘good people.’  She ordered witness into the diary and asked for a basin of cream, which she gave her, as well as duck eggs and hen eggs, flour, onions, a skirt, flour bags, bacon and sheets. When going away she told witness never to sweep the floor out but always to sweep it in and to leave a gallon of water on the table every Wednesday evening, and she was to call back in three months to see if the water was drunk out of the gallon (laughter).

Sergt. Roberts, Civic Guard, Killeigh, gave evidence of the arrest of the accused on the day the report reached him.  Accused handed him money amounting to £2 19s 5d, and he took possession of property which Mrs Murray identified as hers.”

‘Fairy swindles,’ as they were known, were common in 19th century Ireland.   In 1844 Mary Neill appeared at the Limerick Quarter Sessions charged with obtaining a gown by false pretences, having claimed to be her victim’s father-in-law, dead for many years but now Queen of the Fairies, promising her a ‘fine red-headed boy’ and a bag of gold at the bottom of the bed, neither of which ever eventuated.

Four years later, a similar swindle was employed in Longford by a man who came to the home of a woman near Ballinalee, claiming to be her late husband, now with the fairies, demanding all his clothes, and asking her for money go to to a blessed place to have masses said for him, so that he could come home with his own features. The same year, a report appeared in the Freeman’s Journal regarding a soldier, Matthew Lally, who occasionally disappeared from barracks to visit an elderly couple, claiming to be their long-dead son who had been taken by ‘the Good People,’ or fairies and sent back to earth for a season to go into the army and learn the new light infantry exercise – the fairies too, it seems, liking to keep their military expertise up to date!

The Good People occasionally turned up in the Dublin Police Courts too.  In 1849, Margaret Byrne was indicted for having stolen a pair of boots at Sandycove, while calling herself the Queen of the Fairies and on the road to Paradise. The fairy swindle could involve threats, impersonation, promises of money or babies or claims to restore or speak with lost or deceased family members.   Two cases were tried in Cork, in December 1855, involving false claims to restore a husband and son, respectively, to life with the aid of the fairies. Another ‘fairy money’ case came up in 1861, when Anne McAvine was charged with falsely pretending that she would obtain £11,000 for a woman, giving her a bottle of oil to rub on her eyes so that she would see a fairy gentleman who would bring her to a house where she would get the money.   Like gentlemen too good to be true often do, the fairy never turned up.  Anne was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. She was lucky.  Other fairy swindlers were transported.

Even the most experienced could fall prey to the fairy swindle.   In 1864, Joseph Reeves, a policeman of 22 years’ standing, gave Mary Doheny of Carrick-on-Suir bread, tea, butter, eggs and tobacco for the comfort of the fairies, to facilitate confidential intercourse with them.  Mr Reeves, in fairness, does appear to have received something in return – letters of reply from the Good People on tinted notepaper and, if his evidence is to be believed, sight of his deceased father-in-law, his three deceased sisters-in-law and his own deceased child romping with them in the moat of Ballydine. After that, the fairy swindlers seem to have gone to ground, or perhaps Van Diemen’s Land, although there is one 1880 case involving a ‘rakishly dressed’ young woman called Anne Smith, otherwise Reilly, who likewise claimed the benefit of their confidential intercourse.

Sadly, that was not the end of the fairies in the Irish criminal courts, as they continued to feature in a number of homicide trials, most notoriously the death of Bridget Cleary in Tipperary in 1895. Mrs Cleary was not, however, the only person to die due to others’ belief that they were possessed by the fairies – a further case occurred in Roscommon in 1896, when James Cunningham, a prosperous shoemaker and artificial manure dealer who had been acting strangely and making surreptitious visits to the local fairy fort, was killed by other family members in the belief that he had been ‘taken.’ Though technically held to have been acting in self-defence due to the victim having used violence first, there remains a strange supernatural element to the case as the Cunninghams claimed that, not only had James being acting strangely, but their house was being persecuted by evil spirits, devils and fairies making strange noises.

Disabled children were particularly vulnerable to the ministrations of ‘fairy healers.’  In 1851, Bridget Peters was found guilty of causing the death of Mary Anne Kelly, a partially paralysed child about six years of age, who had been exposed on a dunghill and given foxglove in the belief that she was a changeling, and that this treatment would bring back the real Mary.   Another child died in a similar way in Kilkenny in 1856.  And, as late as 1890, a Donegal father killed his sick son in the belief that he, too, had been taken by the fairies.

One of the saddest fairy stories appeared in the Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail of 18 April 1840, regarding the death of Johnny Mahony, a child of six and seven, living on the Riall estate, Heywood, Tipperary, who had been confined to bed for two years with an affliction of the spine.  The report states that ‘being a very intellectual child, and accustomed to make the most shrewd remarks about everything he saw and heard passing around him,’ Johnny’s parents and neighbours were led to the conclusion that he was not the son of his father, but that he was a fairy. As Johnny grew sicker, an intervention took place, ending in his being threatened with a red hot shovel, and a ducking under a pump, if he did not disclose where the real John Mahony was.  According to the report, ‘the feeble child, after being held near the hot shovel, and also having been taken part of the way to the pump, told them that he was a fairy, and that he would send back the real John Mahony the next evening, if they gave him that night’s lodging.’  Poor Johnny was dead the next morning – a death ultimately held by an inquest jury, paradoxically, to have been caused ‘by the visitation of God.’

Life, for children who were different, and unfortunate enough to be possessed of fairy-believing parents, seems to have been a lose-lose situation, with both quickness and slowness to learn leading to abuse designed to expunge the ‘changeling’ within.

Whether they existed or not, those fairies certainly caused an unnecessary amount of harm and trouble!

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Much Guarding, Little Action, Scrambling Breakfasts: the Irish Lawyers’ Corps and the Rebellion of 1798

Shoulder Belt Plate worn by a member of the Irish Lawyers’ Corps, c. 1796

Despite many parades, and much drilling, the question of what that notable barrister militia company, the Lawyers’ Corps, actually did during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 went unanswered for many years. Indeed, it might never have been resolved at all had the Dublin Daily Express not belatedly managed to unearth the diary of an anonymous 24-year-old barrister member of the Corps and publish it in a centenary edition of 27th August 1898. Its contents make interesting reading!

1798: May 21st, Monday. – About 11 o’clock, just before I went to bed, one of the drummers of the Lawyers’ Corps called to summon me to attend in arms the next morning at 7 o’clock at the Four Courts.

May 22nd, Tuesday – I went to the Four Courts.  Here I got a scrambling breakfast of cold beef and porter, and, after remaining a great while under arms, we were at last marched to Thomas-Street, where we searched several houses for concealed arms.  We found some, and were dismissed about 2 o’clock.

May 23rd, Wednesday – As I was going to the Four Courts, expecting that the eight days’ sittings after term would begin, I met several lawyers who assured me that all the Courts had adjourned.  In the evening at eight o’clock I went to the Four Courts to mount guard with my company of the Lawyers’ Corps.  I found the drums beating to arms and all the yeomanry assembling; the remainder of our corps met in Smithfield.  A general rising was expected through the whole town.  The two Sheares brothers had been taken up that morning, and a vast deal of pikes and concealed arms had been discovered by flogging the several smiths and others who had been detected making or possessing them.  The night, however, passed without any disturbance, and we were not dismissed till a very late hour next morning – first day of the Rebellion.

May 24th, Thursday – There was great alarm in Dublin.  Accounts arrived that the United Irishmen had appeared in arms in many parts of the County of Kildare and in different places near Dublin. Martial law was proclaimed, and in the evening, about 8 o’clock, all the yeomanry assembled in arms in Sackville street, where we were joined by many volunteers.  From thence our corps and the Attorneys’ Corps marched to the Four Courts, and a detachment of ours, consisting of a lieutenant and two sergeants and twenty privates, was sent to take post on Sarah Bridge.

May 25th, Friday – I was sent on the party to relieve the detachments stationed at Sarah Bridge.  Luckily the weather was extremely fine.  Here we remained under arms till 5 o’clock.  Then we marched to the Four Courts, and about 6 o’clock were dismissed.  I went to bed and slept till 2 o’clock, when I was awakened, and told that a drummer had summoned me to attend at the Exchange to see the execution of some of the rebels.

May 26th, Saturday – This day very alarming accounts came to town of the forces of the rebels – of the murders and violence committed by them.  Dublin remains quiet.  In the evening we paraded as usual at the Four Courts, and I was of the detachment to Sarah Bridge which was not relieved at all.  This night we got an alarm and the men, though repeatedly challenged by our sentries, did not make any answer.  Le Hunte, one of the sentinels, and four or five privates and a sergeant fired at them.  We were very ill accommodated with a guard room and a bad supper at the other side of the bridge at a public house.

May 27th , Sunday  – Before 8 o’clock paraded at the Four Courts and was marched as guard to Newgate.  Our guardroom this night was the Sessions house in Green Street; several of us drank tea in the keeper’s room.  All was perfectly quiet.

May 28th, Monday – We had a good breakfast about 6 o’clock.  Went to parade at the Parliament House, as usual, in the evening.  This night, our guardroom was changed to the Parliament House, where the main guard was stationed.  We had an excellent supper given to us by the Clerk of the Parliament whom we lately admitted a member of the Corps.”

Sarah Bridge, now Island Bridge, where members of the Lawyers’ Corps stood guard during the 1798 Rebellion.

Over the next two weeks, the diarist continues night guard at the Parliament House and also at Hertford Bridge in the Grand Canal, occasionally adjourning to the Sackville Street Club to read ‘horrid accounts’ of events in Wexford, centre of the Rebellion. On June 4th, while again guarding Sarah Bridge, he is informed that the rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, arrested the previous week, has died in Newgate. Subsequently, the diarist returns to the Sessions house in Green Street to attend the trial of two of his rebel colleagues, John and Henry Sheares, remarking that

[i]t was a melancholy sight to see two men whom I had remembered at the Temple, and whose faces I had constantly seen at the Four Courts as barristers, standing indicted for high treason.”

He does not think much of the defence put forward on the Sheares’ behalf by the great advocate John Philpot Curran, but, as he says, ‘[i]ndeed he had not materials.’

On 13th July the diarist marches again with the Corps and a six pounder cannon through the Phoenix Park to Luttrelstown. By the 26th July, it is all over, and he goes again to the Four Courts, where the Court of Exchequer is now once again sitting, saying that

[i]t was curious to see all the lawyers in their different dresses, some in uniform, some in black, and some in coloured clothes, but in gown and wig not one. Hardly any appearance of business.”

Although a few shots were clearly discharged from time to time, there are no references in the diary to any deaths or injuries among the Corps in Dublin. Some Corps members based outside Dublin did, however, see action at the battles of Vinegar Hill and Arklow – one barrister, James Dunn, being so profoundly shaken by the latter battle, in which he was marked for life by the powder of a rebel’s pistol fired in his face at close quarters, that he felt called to take holy orders and change his profession to that of evangelist.

The Rev James Dunn, his face showing the marks of his injury at the Battle of Arklow

But who was our mysterious diarist and what happened to him after 1798? Did he go on to fame and fortune at the Bar? Or did he end up leaving the profession like the Reverend Dunn? The Express notes that he was the son of a bishop, which might be of assistance in tracking him down. What we do know is that he liked his food! Over two centuries have passed since 1798, but some things don’t change -barristers, like militia, still march on their stomachs. You can still get a very good breakfast in the Four Courts today, though cold beef and porter is no longer on the menu!

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Singing for its Supper: The Choir of Christ Church Pays Homage to the Court of Exchequer, 1851

From the Belfast News-Letter, 1 December 1851:

“In the Court of Exchequer, on Saturday week, the clergymen and choristers from Christ Church Cathedral appeared and performed their accustomed homage, by singing an anthem and saying prayers. At the entrance of the minister and choristers the barons arose and continued standing during the ceremony.”

The Court of Exchequer was where Court 3 is today, charmingly located over a cesspit only cleaned out properly later in the century. Its location on the river-side of the Round Hall also added the additional flavour of the Liffey stench. Hopefully the choristers and vicars were not too discommoded!

The practice of attending at the Four Courts, or more specifically the Court of Exchequer, four times a year, was a continuance of an older practice which had existed when the courts were previously at Christchurch, and indeed even before that time. It was in thanksgiving for an annual stipend which had been granted out of the Exchequer in 1547, hence the Court of Exchequer being the only court visited. Hopefully the other courts did not feel left out! Possibly they were happy for the opportunity to get on with business.

Another report in the Belfast News-Letter of 26 October 1898 describes the songs sung as the ‘Te Deum’ and the ‘Jubilate.’ Some nostalgia attaches to this account, since the enactment of the Irish Church Act 1869, disestablishing the Church of Ireland, had had the effect of bringing an end to these visits, which some wags remarked were the closest many barristers came to attending religious services.

Of course, there is nothing to stop the choir visits from being reinstated again on a voluntary basis – four times a year might be a bit much, but perhaps some Christmas carols?

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The Four Courts as a Sightseeing Destination, 1816-1919

The interior of the Four Courts might not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of a tourist destination, but once upon a time it was unmissable for sightseers visiting Dublin. J & W Gregory’s ‘Picture of Dublin’ (1816) describes the ‘new’ Courts of Justice as ‘one grand pile of excellent architecture’ and the Round Hall as ‘crowded with lawyers and loungers,’ not to mention pickpockets. It also includes an old map from 1610 showing the original layout of the old Inns of Court previously on the site.

Thomas Cromwell’s ‘Excursions through Ireland’ (1820) describes the interior of the Round Hall as ‘so extremely beautiful, that no verbal description can convey an adequate idea of it: ’tis simple! ’tis elegant! ’tis magnificent.’ We learn that the courts are separated from the Hall by curtains – no doors – and that the judges sit in a cove with sounding-boards over their heads. Cromwell also includes some gems of information about Irish barristers and how they were perceived abroad: more agreeable companions than their secluded English counterparts; greatly distinguished for their conviviality and social talents; possessed of much eloquence, though usually more witty than profound, and with a predilection for punning; irreproachable in moral character; fascinating in manner; amiable and exemplary in their conduct in private life, though inclined to be lighthearted even on the most solemn of occasions, which he attributes to the absence of the wig at county assizes.

Many of the images of the early Four Courts originate in old tourist guides. Wright’s ‘Historical Guide to the City of Dublin’ contains an engraving of a drawing by George Petrie showing goings-on around the Four Courts of the time. From it, we learn the history of the old Four Courts in Christchurch and also discover that the very first coffee-room in the new Courts was in the basement, along with numerous other apartments. Is this extensive subterranean layout – which presumably survived the destruction of 1922 – still accessible today?

Starrat’s ‘Visitor’s Guide to the Metropolis of Ireland’ (1830) contains some interesting information about the different courts. From it we learn about the Court of Chancery’s role in giving relief for and against infants and married women, the role of the Court of Common Pleas in civil cases between private individuals, and the role of the Court of Exchequer in recovering revenue and as a court of record, with additional equitable jurisdiction. We also find out that, prior to 1695, the Law Courts were ambulatory and held in Carlow and Drogheda as well as Dublin. Perhaps we need to rediscover the legal history of these two towns?

An updated New Picture of Dublin’ by Philip Dixon Hardy (1831). Not much new information here, but a great illustration of the front of the Courts!

Another great illustration of the Four Courts from ‘Ireland Illustrated’ by Petrie, Bartlett and Wright (1831), which references the ‘beautifully finished quay walls, of chiseled granite’ outside the courts’. Included is the usual complaint that the building is situated too close to the river.

The Irish Tourist’s Illustrated Handbook of 1852 references a recent falling off in business in the Round Hall, previously ‘a scene of wonderful bustle and excitement’. It suggests venturing into the ‘large and commodious’ courts in the hope of catching a glimpse of some of the great judges occupying ‘the always distinguished Irish bench.’

A fascinating nugget of information here in Heffernan’s ‘Handbook of Dublin (1861), which describes a pedestal in the centre of the Round Hall on which stands ‘a colossal statue of truth holding a torch, through which, is conveyed a gas tube by which the hall is illuminated during the sittings in the winter evenings.’

The same statue is referenced again in Black’s ‘Picturesque Tourist of Ireland,’ 1877. You can view an image of it here. It seems to have been originally called ‘Themis’, then ‘Truth’. Originally described as pretty, it was subsequently felt to be too large, and removed to the park beside King’s Inns, where it acquired its third name of ‘Henrietta’. This almost certainly saved it from being destroyed in 1922. Sadly – and somewhat controversially – trifurcated by a film truck some years ago during the filming of ‘Jack the Ripper,’ it was last heard of wrapped up in the basement of King’s Inns – hopefully just a phase of restorative resting before a third act!

According to ‘What’s to be Seen in Dublin’ (1888), during term time the scene within the Hall is animated and striking: clients hunting for solicitors, solicitors hunting for clients, established barristers and those who hope to be so, and groups of all sorts talking on all manner of subjects, from the affairs of State to the state of the weather.

One of the most beautiful tourist guides to Dublin is Frances Gerard’s Picturesque Dublin Old and New’ (1898), containing many illustrations by Rose Barton, including a depiction of Chancery Lane, near Christchurch, close to the area informally known as ‘Hell,’ where the Four Courts were located before they moved across the river. According to Barton, the two great possessions of Dublin are the Castle and the Four Courts, and whatever about the first-named, ‘the legal element dominates society in Dublin and is held in the highest respect,’ doing duty for the absentee nobility. She also discusses the vaults of St Michan’s.

Belying its name, the ‘Thorough Guide’ (1906) is fairly sparse on the Four Courts, although it does mention the 1887 fire in the Vice-Chancellor’s court.

It seems that by the early 20th century the Four Courts was losing its attraction as a tourist destination. Black’s 1912 ‘Guide to Dublin’ has the cheek to describe the Round Hall as inferior to its counterparts in City Hall and the National Museum. It also complains that the view of the Courts is spoiled by huge advertisements on the Ha’penny Bridge.

By now illustrations had been replaced by the camera and A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to Dublin’ (1919) contains a somewhat forbidding photograph of the Four Courts. In such a politically charged era it is unlikely that visits to the Courts would have been encouraged. Even barristers were occasionally removed by the Black and Tans.

This would be the last tourist guide to feature the original Four Courts. The Four Courts rebuilt after the destruction of 1922 would be a more workmanlike, less ornate place and – in a city which once again had its own parliament – no longer the centre of Dublin political and social life. In the absence – as yet – of time travel, old tourist guides fill an important gap in reconstructing the lost but enticing world of the Four Courts of the past!

Derry Recorder Tests Lady’s Raincoat for Water Ingress, 1929

From the Derry Journal, 12 April 1929:





A barrister, two solicitors, the Court Registrar and the Court Caretaker spent fifteen minutes in Derry Courthouse yesterday testing the quality of a waterproof coat, a garment which was much on view during the hearing of a claim for £2 by Mrs Johanna Quinn, of Redcliffe, Dunfield Terrace, Waterside, against Messrs. Goorwitch Ltd., for alleged breach of warranty.

Mr Nicholson, barrister, appeared for Mrs Quinn and Mr Tracy for Goorwitch Ltd.

Mrs Quinn said she bought a coat in Goorwitch’s in January 1928 and paid £3 for it.  The manager guaranteed the garment to be fadeless and waterproof.

HIs Honour – Proof even against Derry rain? (laughter)

Mrs Quinn added that on the second occasion on which she wore the coat she got wet, and on the third occasion she got we through.  Months later she took the coat back, and complained about it.  The manager told her she could select any other coat in stock.  She could find none suitable, however.  She kept the coat all through the summer, but only wore it a few times.

Mr Tracy, said that when Mrs Quinn brought back the coat, it was immediately tested by the Derry manager and the Belfast manager, and found to be quite satisfactory.  In addition to their own test, they sent the coat for a test to the Municipal College of Technology, Belfast, whose certificate showed that it had undergone a 48 hour test and was thoroughly waterproof.

His Honour then suggested that a test could easily be carried out within the precincts of the Court, if both parties were agreeable.

Mr Nicholson (for the Plaintiff) Not for a day. (laughter)

His Honour: For half an hour.  Water could easily be poured over the coat for that time.

The coat, which was a prominent exhibit on the solicitors’ table, and had passed from hand to hand frequently for inspection, was then taken to the solicitors’ room, and placed in charge of the caretaker.

MrJoseph Loughrey, solicitor, suggested, amidst laughter, that the solicitors engaged in the case should undergo the same test as the coat.

Counsel and the solicitors engaged in the case helped to supervise the test, and in a few minutes Mr Tracy returned and asked Mr Dickson, Registrar, to act as umpire, as the parties were unable to agree as to the amount of water to be used

“I hope the Corporation won’t prosecute us for waste of water,” he said.

At the end of a further fifteen minutes, Mr Tracy came into court and requested his Honour to supervise the test, remarking that so much water was being used that some of it was bound to force its way through.  Mr Dickson remarked that the test had by then occupied fifteen minutes, and his Honour, considering that sufficient, directed that the coat be brought back into court.

Mr Dickson, when asked by his Honour what was the result of the test, said the inside of the coat seemed absolutely dry, but the plaintiff’s side claimed that a certain amount of water had edged through.

His Honour examining the coat, said there appeared to be no sign of damp inside.

Mr Tracy – We would require a Sherlock Holmes in the case.

His Honour – I am satisfied this is a good waterproof coat, and I dismiss this process.  Even I had found it was not waterproof, I would have held that this lady was altogether long in trying to repudiate the transaction.”

Another Derry coat case came up before the same Recorder in 1937 when John Kelly and Son, tailors., Foyle Street, sued Constable Michael Brennan, for £5.10s the price of a coat made for his wife. Mr Nicholson BL again represented the disgruntled buyer and opened the case for the plaintiff by referring to a case in London, regarding a coat which cost £875, in which the judge inspected the garment as worn by the lady plaintiff.

His Honour – Do you want your lady to try on the coat?

Mr Nicholson: – It might be a good idea.   

On the invitation of Mr Nicholson, the defendant’s wife retired to the solicitors’ room and returned to court wearing the coat.  She went into the witness box and pointed out to the Judge several alleged faults in the garment.

Judge Osborne:  It looks very well on you.

Mr Nicholson – It gives you a good figure. (laughter)

Witness – Thanks for the compliment. If it fitted I would pay for it and take it.

Giving a decree for the full amount, the Recorder said he was satisfied that the coat was all right and that the lady had taken exception to the material.

Two great examples of traditional Irish courtroom humour surviving the severance inflicted by Partition – and of law opting for practicality over glamour in mediating the difficulty when the reality experienced by the consumer fails to reflect the dream as promised by the manufacturer!

The Goorwitch department store empire in Northern Ireland was set up by Nat Goorwitch/Goorvitch, from Russia. Read more about it here.

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A Barrister’s Privilege Against Physical Retribution for Hurt Feelings, 1821

From Saunders’s News-Letter, 27 November 1821:


On Saturday a conditional order was obtained by Counsellor Blackburne, the plaintiff, against Mr Hines, an attorney, for sending a Gentleman to him in the Hall of the Four Courts, to demand an explanation of account of some misunderstanding between them, and for telling him that he must abide the consequences of a refusal.

Mr Sergeant Vandeleur, on behalf of the defendant, contended that the rule ought not to be made absolute, for that when all the circumstances were detailed, they did not amount to a proof of a delivery of a challenge to fight.

Mr Wallace, for the plaintiff, said that Mr Blackburne, in the progress of an argument in the court, lately stated a particular passage of an affidavit, and contrasted that with another affidavit, in consequence of which Mr Hines felt hurt, and got up to controvert Mr Blackburne.  Mr Hines, on the next morning, sent a Gentleman to Mr Blackburne for explanation,; Mr Blackburne’s answer was, that whatever had been stated by him was stated in the discharge of his duty, and that he meant Mr Hines no personal offence whatever.  With this explanation, Mr Hines’s friend was satisfied.      

However, Mr Hines sent another messenger to meet Mr Blackburne, who did meet him accordingly in the Hall of the Four Courts, to whom Mr Blackburne again mildly explained in the presence of a Gentleman of the Bar, everything that he had done and said upon the occasion of receiving the former message whereupon the messenger asked him ‘Sir, have you any objection to put on paper what you have spoken by way of explanation?’  Mr Blackburne declined compliance and the reply was ‘then sir you must abide the consequences,’ the clear meaning of the last remark was that if Mr Blackburne, as a barrister, did not think proper to give satisfaction for what may displease an individual for an occurrence, which in the discharge of his duty takes place in open court, then he must be whipped.  

Lord Norbury: At my advanced period of life, I find a difficulty in believing the possibility of such an occurrence.  Two days have scarcely elapsed since the trial, from whence this matter emanated, took place in this Court.  It is our duty to protect the Gentlemen of the Bar, as well as the Public, and we should be unworthy if we did not so so with firmness on an occasion such as the present. 

At the trial alluded to, the Attorney stepped forward in his robes, and although the court did not commit him, he did everything in his power to commit himself.  What! Is he to be the hero of his profession? To use ‘pens for pistols, ink for blood’?  If he is suffered to run this race, to outstrip our brethren thus, the rights of the bar are lost, we injure society as well as the advocates of a free country, if we strip them, or consent to their being stripped, of those privileges which I hope they will long maintain.    

The conduct of Mr Blackburne was conciliating and kind, he stated that he had meant no offence, and yet what amounts almost to a challenge was delivered in our very court.  If such is to be the history of our profession, what will be its effect?   What the impression made, when this matter goes forth into our country, many parts of which are at present in a miserably disturbed state.  We had better strip off our robes, and fling them to the winds, if we do not protect the gentlemen of the Bar.   How can an Irish Gentleman, practising at the Bar in Ireland for many years, tell me that what has been stated in this case is not a challenge to fight?  

With respect to the individual concerned, he has not uttered one word of contrition, no acknowledgment of shame, or a word by way amends honourable to that profession he has so inured.  This has been the most levelling and audacious attempt I ever heard of.  If had ever used a hasty expression, and one that ought to be apologised for, to any member of a profession I have ever loved and regarded, I should conceive it my duty to make to him the best amends in my power.  I will, as far as I can, protect Counsel, and use every means in my power to defend the privileges of the Bar.”

John Toler, Lord Norbury, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland, 1800-1827, while not normally regarded as a sympathetic character, certainly stood up for the rights of barristers on this occasion!  His ruling above is characteristic of many of his judgments in containing a pun, a misquote, a self-deprecating comment about his age (a sprightly 81!)  and the sort of basic common sense which it is not necessary to be a lawyer to understand.  It also shows the value placed by judges of that era on their role as guardians of the public peace.

By the time of Lord Norbury’s retirement from the Bench six years later, Counsellor Blackburne was a Senior Counsel and King’s Serjeant at Law; he subsequently rose to the giddy height of Sir Francis Blackburne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland.

Mr Hines continued in practice as an attorney, becoming involved in at least one further physical dispute with a legal colleague (an attorney by the name of Boswell) on the steps of the Royal Exchange, Dublin, in 1835.  He later appears as a witness for Mr Robert Caldwell, in another great solicitor-barrister dispute of the early 19th century – the 1842 trial of Mr Caldwell, an attorney, for attempted violation by force of the wife of one of his briefed barristers.

Despite his reprehensible performance at the trial of Robert Emmet, we must thank Lord Norbury for formally recognising a barrister’s immunity from physical chastisement for offence caused to the other side in the discharge of our duty.  Without this, we would all be dodging beatings daily! 

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