The Lord Chief Justice-v-Anna Liffey, 1870-1875

The abatement of the cesspit below Court 3, while resolving, at least temporarily, olfactory issues specific to that court, served to expose – for want of any other criminal – the river Liffey herself as the source of that lingering bad odour still smelt, on warm summer days, in the courts surrounding the Round Hall.

Judges of older vintage would have held their noses and taken a pinch of snuff; the new Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, James Whiteside, was a modern man, and had read with interest news reports of polluted water being the cause of typhoid, and the successful efforts made to cleanse the Thames as a result.

His strong views on the point first became apparent in June 1870, in the course of a trial in which the widow of a man in the employment of Dublin Corporation, sued that body for damages arising from his death by poisonous gases in a riverside sewer.

It was particularly unfortunate for the Corporation that on this particular day the smell in Court 2 (the Court of Common Pleas) was so bad that the case had to be removed to Court 4, and the same with another court, for the same reason.

The Lord Chief Justice said he would give notice to the Corporation that this sorry state of things arose from the citizens being ignorant of their rights.  The Liffey had become one of the greatest nuisances in Europe, and he would strongly recommend those gentlemen who had undertaken to govern the city to see whether they could not do so in a way to prevent life being intolerable at a particular season to a large section of the inhabitants.

It was even more unfortunate that, directly after this, evidence was given as to the presence of purulent organic matter in atoms bouncing around the Liffey at low tide.

“The Chief Justice – This sort of thing is not to be endured.  There is no use in talking about it.  We must get at it some way… I have taken down the evidence as to this affair for another purpose beside the trial.”

Despite the above comments (which were widely reported) and a subsequent petition for purification of the Liffey submitted by members of the bar and merchants, the smell persisted throughout the summers of 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873 and 1874.

It was only in June 1874, on foot of threats by the Bench to resign, or move the courts elsewhere, if the smell were not dealt with, that steps were taken by the Corporation to deal with the problem – by suing the Port and Docks Board, who they claimed was liable in their stead.

Unfortunately for them, the Lord Chief Justice, before whom the case came, had always regarded the question of the Liffey smell as very much the responsibility of the Corporation, and had no hesitation in making a legal finding to this effect. 

In 1875 the Liffey – or at least the part of it outside the Courts – was finally cleared, causing the smell to subside somewhat.

By this stage, however, the original odour of Court 4 had started to return; the cesspit was indeed back, and the health and safety problems associated with it were to threaten the life of Ireland’s greatest Chief Baron!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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