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…

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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