Portico Problems, 1786-1925

From the Evening Herald, 5 March 1925:

“A Chara – may one hope, from two lines in your most interesting article on the Four Courts, that Gandon’s original plan for the portico may at long last be executed and the renewed pile be adorned by the grand and noble entrance he designed.

‘The question of the Central Hall and its surroundings is under consideration.’

Your article appropriately appeared on the 3rd of March – the very date on which the foundation stone of the Four Courts was laid in 1786.  An extraordinary incident marred the occasion.  The Lord Chancellor and the chief judges had only retired from the ceremony when, in Gandon’s words, ‘a gentleman of considerable fortune and influence, a Privy Counsellor and a member of the Irish parliament. stopped his travelling carriage to inquire the cause of the enclosures being made on the quay.  Being informed that the ceremony of laying the first stone of the new Courts of Law was the cause, this gentleman left his carriage and addressed me in a manner not very courteous ‘What is all this going on here? Who ordered the quay to be enclosed? Etc etc.’

Gandon explained, saying all the authorities had sanctioned what had been done; had seen, examined, and approved the designs, and had just taken part in the laying of the first tone.  This precious bully then ‘immediately left the ground, observing that if the building proceeded, it should be pulled down!’

Gandon continues: ‘Knowing the gentleman’s influence, and thinking to prevent clamour, I was induced… to set back the portico originally designed to cover the footway.  This I considered a great sacrifice of the beauty of the front; but even this sacrifice of my design was not sufficient, for as the gentleman had not been consulted about the building, he disapproved of the designs, which he condemned in every particular…’

Looked at from the quay on which it stands, the long almost unbroken flatness of the front strikes the eye forcibly from its want of beauty of proportion.  Looked at the from the opposite quay, the splendid relief which would have been given to the front and the great additional beauty to the whole block had Gandon’s design been carried into effect are obvious at a glance.    The dome, the drum of which is so vast, would appear to have much less preponderating weight were the portico to advance, as designed by Gandon, well in front of the rest of the building.  The adjoining arcades would, prospectively, retire, by reason of the projection of the portico, with most graceful effect, from the lightness of their construction; and in the rejuvenated Four Courts the capital would at last have in all the glory of its original conception what the great block was first intended to do.

WL Cole

3 Mountjoy Square”

Gandon’s Four Courts had recently been destroyed in the Civil War of 1922 and their reconstruction was in contemplation at the date of the above letter.   An article in the Dublin Evening Telegraph of the previous September had likewise suggested that the reconstructed building might be improved to embrace the entire footpath – as was the case with one of Gandon’s other buildings, the former Parliament Building in College Green.

Its alleged over-projection was not the only element of the six-columned Corinthian portico which had to be varied.  The Freeman’s Journal of 15 September 1808 notes a recent lowering of the pavement at the entrance and under the portico to ‘obviate the inconvenience or injury resulting from wet weather, and especially a species of nuisance justly censured… a saline and ungracious practice professionally justified on the principal that ‘necessity has no law.’  

Possibly a delicate allusion to the vexed question of public urination? If so, the following letter from ‘JF’ in Saunders’s Newsletter of 1819 suggests that the above works may have been less than successful in achieving their objective:

“Mr Editor

May I, through your valuable Paper, put a question viz Why the principal entrance into the Great Hall of that beautiful edifice, the Four Courts, is so shamefully neglected and abused? It has become the receptable of the greatest filth, to the shame of the person whose province sit to see and keep it otherwise… should the external of the building be without the necessary servants for its preservation, this statement may meet the eyes of the Judges and give employment to some industrious and starving family.  The Watchman stationed near the spot could prevent nightly abuses and the daily attendance of a decent man would entirely do away the abuse contained of.”

A 19th century photograph showing the portico from another angle. Then as now, Edward Smyth’s sculptures of Moses, Mercy, Wisdom, Justice and Authority adorn the pediment above.

Clearly something must have been done since there were no more complaints about the condition of the portico – at least until the occupation of the Four Courts during the 1916 Rising, when its pillars were damaged by bullets – possibly misfires intended for the statue of Moses on the pediment, which myopic British soldiers were convinced was a sniper. 

Moses and companion, post-1922, via Europeana

Irish Free State soldiers knew better during the Battle of the Four Courts in 1922, when Moses survived without a scratch, though his companion statues of Mercy, Authority and Wisdom were described afterwards as ‘grimy and careworn’ and Justice had lost her face from ear to chin.  The portico, in fact, was one of the few portions of the Four Courts to survive the bombardment, its pillars and pediment, gashed and torn by shell-fire, still in place gamely supporting the skeleton of the collapsed dome. 

Perhaps the survival of the portico in outline form operated as a disincentive to follow Mr Cole’s suggestion of extending it – its projection over the pavement after the reconstruction being the same as previously.

Did the Irish Free State miss an opportunity to improve this beautiful building?  Or has it always been simply perfect as it is?  Have a look above at the images side-by-side of the portico as it currently subsists, and its companion portico in College Green, reflecting Gandon’s original plan, and decide!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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