First Law Library Ended by Typhoid and Solicitors, 1894

The Christmas of 1893 was a very sad one for the Law Library. It started in early December when no less than nine members of the Bar went down with typhoid. This was quickly followed by the news that one of the afflicted, Martin Burke QC, had lost his battle with the disease and passed on at his residence in Baggot Street.

The tragic death of this very young and popular silk of exceptional musical talent resulted in a belated realisation that the then Law Library premises – a small hall and octagonal waiting room on the first floor of the main Four Courts building at the back of the Round Hall, served by pungent earth closets breaching every sanitary rule possible and with absolutely no ventilation – might be less than fit for purpose.

On 12th December a meeting of the Irish Bar unanimously resolved:

“That a committee should be appointed to enter into discussions with the Benchers, the Incorporated Law Society and the Board of Works with a view that steps be forthwith taken to enlarge the Law Library and put it into a proper sanitary condition…[and] that such committee immediately proceed to employ a sanitary engineer of the highest position to inquire into and report to them upon the ventilation and sanitary condition of the Law Library.”

The report on the condition of the Library subsequently prepared by Ireland’s premier architect Sir Thomas Drew was damning enough to provoke a shock of surprise in those who read it, causing the Dublin Evening Telegraph 7 April 1894 to remark that

[t]o those who had not had the painful felicity of wearing wig and gown, the life of the barrister seemed to be made up principally of forensic reputation and corresponding fees, but with the grim details of defective sewers and execrable air supply, the gilt was, so to speak, removed from the ginger bread, and it was generally conceded that, after all, the lawyer was a man and a brother.”

Of particular concern was the discovery that the cubic feet allocated to each barrister (190 cubic feet) was significantly less than the minimum statutory requirement for a factory hand (250-400 cubic feet).

Alterations proposed by Sir Thomas involved extending the Library (situate on the first floor of the main building, immediately behind the Round Hall) into the space occupied by the Rolls and Nisi Prius Courts behind it, thereby increasing its square footage from 2,200 superficial feet to 4000 superficial feet, being ample seating accommodation to satisfy the needs of all the barristers frequenting it. Funding for the project was proposed to come from the general fund of unclaimed money belonging to suitors in the courts, and the Telegraph was optimistic that it would be promptly carried out – perhaps in time for the start of the 1894 legal year.

Sadly, this plan never came to fruition, due to opposition from an unexpected source – the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland. Extending into the Nisi Prius and Rolls Courts would necessitate rehousing these courts in new premises extending across to meet the wall of the then Solicitors’ Building. The Council of the Law Society, already at loggerheads with the Benchers regarding what it viewed as the woefully inadequate provision then afforded to solicitors in the Four Courts, would only agree to this if its own building was reconstructed as part of the scheme.

What happened next is summarised in the Council’s own Annual Report published in the Freeman’s Journal of November 1894:

” The Bar Committee not being willing to comply with the terms of the Council’s proposal, the Council declined to assent to the extension of the Bar Library towards the buildings of the Society. A Bill was introduced into the House of Commons to provide funds for the purpose of enlarging the Library and the Council took steps to have a clause inserted in the Bill providing that the premises of the Society should not be altered without the consent of the Society.

The Bill passed into law, and a new library is now being provided in the right wing of the Four Courts. The plans of the new library show that proper space has been set aside for a room in which solicitors can see counsel, and it is hoped that the library will shortly be completed… It will be seen that the Society is on every side watchful for the interests of solicitors, and that its care and energy are productive of much good.”


And so the first Law Library came to an end. How did the second Law Library (1897-22) work out for the Bar? Find out here!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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