The Affair of the White Waistcoat, 1899

From the Belfast Telegraph, 17 June 1899:

Yesterday, in the Four Courts, Dublin, in the course of a trial, Lord Chief Justice O’Brien observed that one of the Queen’s Counsel appeared in a white waistcoat, which was not professional costume.

The MacDermot QC, leading counsel for the Corporation (who, by the way, holds the old title of Prince of Coolarin), immediately closed the front of his silk gown.

Mr Ronan QC., observed that last week in London a judge stated he would not hear any barrister who did not appear in bar costume.

Lord Chief Justice – And I won’t hear any barrister who comes into court wearing anything unprofessional.

The MacDermot said he had not intended any disrespect to the Court, or to do anything untoward. He had been in the library, and hurried down, not having had time to put on his costume.

Mr Shaughnessy QC, then, amid much laughter, handed The MacDermot a pin, and, for the remainder of the trial he kept his gown closed in front.”

Given the status of the MacDermot QC – a former Attorney-General some years older than the Lord Chief Justice, whom he had previously led in a number of cases – it was inevitable that this story would be taken up by the Press, with the following interesting consequences.

Firstly, Westminster judges, not to be undone by their Four Courts counterparts, started throwing barristers out of court for even the merest glimpse of white around their midriff – an interesting example of English courts following Irish procedural precedent!*

Secondly, the Lyric Theatre, Dublin, made substantial profits from re-enacting the entire event described above on a nightly basis over several months ‘in a very laughable way and to the intense enjoyment of a large audience.’

It is not recorded whether Lord Chief Justice O’Brien ever came to regret his remark. Perhaps he felt all the trouble was worth it if it put a stop for once and all to the indulgent practice of barristers wearing white waistcoats in warm weather!

*White waistcoat reprimands were reported to have been given by judges in the Whitechapel County Court, in July 1899, in the Chancery Court, in July 1901 and in the Chancery Court again in July 1933.

More about the White Waistcoat Affair in Mathias O’Donnell Bodkin’s ‘Recollections of an Irish Judge,’ which includes an anonymous parody of the incident, published in the Freeman, and generally attributed to Bodkin himself (it most definitely has his style!) It did not improve his already stormy relations with Lord Chief Justice O’Brien.

That white waistcoat certainly caused a lot of trouble!

Image credit: (top right)

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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