Discoveries at the Four Courts Bookstalls, 1796-1886

The Four Courts, 1885, by Walter Frederick Osborne, via Irish Art Digital Archive. Can you spot the bookstalls? A zoom in may help, or alternatively there is a larger version of the image at the link above.

From the Freeman’s Journal, 19 February 1921:


Reminiscences of Dublin’s Old Book Stores

(By M. M. O’H.)

The old bookshops of Dublin! What a vista of pleasant thoughts they create.  What delightful experiences of eager prowlings round their shelves, of unexpected ‘finds,’ of surprising bargains, of staunch friends acquired at trifling cost, of jostlings with ardent book-hunters – poets and prosewriters, judges, doctors, artists, musicians, a formidable fraternity bound by one of the strongest and most agreeable of bonds.

As in Paris, our old book shops and stalls have always clung to the river bank, and though Dublin may not be able to boast the secondhand treasures to be seen in the Gay City, this is no case of Eclipse first and the rest nowhere.

Forty years ago there were far more second-hand bookstalls in Dublin than to-day.  The vendors of those days, for the most part, did trade in the open air, not having as yet advanced to the dignity of shops and shutters.  The great rendezvous in the early Eighties was the Four Courts.  The moveable cases, in all stages of Decrepitude, were fixed standing on a low platform running from the main entrance on the quays each side of the gates of the eastern square.  The cases were tied to the railings with bits of rope and straps that had seen many weathers.

It was a queer, quaint show surely.  But when the Courts rose for the day, here could be seen all the legal luminaries prying into decrepid volumes and peering at the titles of the tattered tomes huddled in the cases.

A close-up on one of the bookstalls in the Osborne photograph above, complete with eager browser or perhaps the bookseller himself arranging his wares to best advantage.
The other bookstall shown in the Osborne photograph, with seller and browsers clearly visible.

Two of the chief vendors of the time were the Traynors – all elderly women – and quaint old John Campion, who used to sport a splendiferous top hat on Sundays as befitted one with his literary connections.  It was a time and a place for real, hard, well-contested bargaining, in which the lawyers had not always the best of it.

At the close of the day the cases were taken down, the counters dismantled, and books, shelves, planks and props were shouldered across the Court yard, and left in repose for the night in the basement of what was then the Exchequer and Common Pleas building. What a free and easy age it was.  And this procedure had been going on time out of mind.

Besides John Campion, the doyen of the trade, there was a Mr Traynor, who kept shop near Parliament street bridge.  But his was a more proper, secondhand store – the wares at the Four Courts being rather fifth, sixth, indeed tenth hand stock if their venerable appearance did not woefully belie them.  Traynor kept his books with scrupulous neatness, and they were sufficiently new-looking to grace any library.

Dear old Father CP Meehan, Clarence Mangan’s friend, and himself an author of many gifts, was constantly to be seen delving amidst Traynor’s treasures. Canon O’Hanlon, another eminent Irish historian, was also a frequent visitor, and I have seen the late Professor Galbraith, of Trinity, and the late Mr Justice William O’Brien, in his seedy frock coat and tattered tall hat, going the rounds of the shop together, while the judge’s detective guard stood leaning against the quay wall, doubtless making internal uncomplimentary remarks about his distinguished charge’s addiction to literature…

Hickey, of Bachelor’s Walk, next appeared on the scene, and his store was as dishevelled looking as Traynor’s was neat.  It looked as though the books had wandered into him and flung themselves down any way – tired out with their peregrinations.  One could always ‘cut’ Hickey.  He hated to see anybody leave his shop without a book, and I have known him to toss up with a customer over an odd sixpence.  His description of classics, especially to people who had not a bookish appearance, was sometimes quaint and fearsome.  He was the last of the old school.  Today the second hand book trade has gone holus-bolus to the Southern Quays, the shops are on Crampton Quay and Aston’s quay, and the barrows lined upon the whole length of Aston’s place.  There are pretty much the same kind of hunters and the same kind of jostling…”

Not just books, but poets, could be discovered at the Four Courts.  As recounted in the Limerick Chronicle of 1837, the poet Thomas Dermody owed his brief and tragic success to a chance meeting at one of its bookstalls:

“One day a gentleman, whose name has escaped us, was turning over the leaves of an old volume at a bookstand in the vicinity of the Four Courts, in Dublin, when his attention was attracted by a squalid boy in the ragged dress of a peasant, standing close beside him, devouring in silent abstraction, the contents of a mutilated Greek Homer.  The circumstance naturally excited curiosity, and produced inquiries which led to the discovery that, with the powerful impetus of genius struggling against obstacles, the wretched-looking boy had abandoned his native village, destitute of friends and meant to seek books and mankind in the metropolis.  Fortunately the gentleman was a patron of letters, and a man of great influence: he undertook to advance the fortunes of the stranger, and through his means, Dermody, whom the reader will have recognised in the ragged urchin, was introduced to the Countess of Moira, who continued to patronize him until he exhausted her patience by his irreclaimable vices…”

Thomas Dermody, the ragged country lad with extraordinary poetic gifts ‘discovered’ at one of the Four Courts bookstalls around the time of its opening in 1796. Image via Wikidata.

Another poet often seen standing before the bookstalls of the early 19th century Four Courts was James Clarence Mangan, described in a retrospective account in the Dublin Weekly Nation of 18 August 1883 as ‘spectral-looking’ in appearance, ‘sicklied over with the diaphanous pallor said to distinguish those in whom the fire of genius has burnt to rapidly even from childhood,’ and never without his ‘large malformed umbrella which, when partly covered by his cloak, might easily be mistaken for a scotch bagpipe.’

Architectural purists deplored the bookstalls in front of the courts and there were at least two critical letters written to the Dublin Daily Express in 1857, possibly by the same person, which, however, went nowhere.  In an era before the internet, television, movies and, indeed, the popular press, buying books outside the Four Courts was one of the great Dublin pastimes and no one was going to see it taken away. 

Even the most dog-eared purchases were gloated over with delight and pride. One writer in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent of 1853 recounts joyously that “the other day, rambling about, I stumbled upon an odd volume of an old Magazine of my favourite ‘Ninety Eight.’  This was at a bookstall close to the Four Courts, Dublin, and I immediately became its possessory at the price of seven pence sterling.  The book-stall keeper, who was quite a Sir Chares Grandison of bibliopoles, politely offered to send my purchase home for me, but I took it to my habitat myself, and revelled in Ninety Eight half that night.”

This very early photograph of the Four Courts by William Henry Fox Talbot, via the Bodelian, shows a very extensive collection of bookstalls and advertisements in front of the central block in the mid 19th century.

A generation or so later, another bibliophile, writing in the Church of England Temperance Chronicle of 25 February 1882, enthused about the “venerable book stalls… on the sluggish banks of the Liffey – stalls where one can get old books ‘for a mere song,’ unlike some of the London would-be old bookshops, where all the old books are new, and all the new books old.  In Dublin too, whether one purchaser or not apparently makes little difference to the genially disposed proprietor of the stall.  ‘All the latest news at the court,’ witty comments on current events, deftly woven into a continuous narrative, with sparkling snatches from Tom Moore, and other native bards, why an hour at a Dublin bookstall is a delightful treat, once enjoyed, never to be forgotten.”

Another man of the cloth drawn to the irresistible attractions of Four Courts bookstalls was the aptly named Reverend Robert Herbert Story, whose ‘tendency to bibliomania, leading him to linger in all sorts of dingy and grimy corners in town,’ often became a severe trial to his friends, as it was not at all a pleasant pastime… to have to loiter among the dubious purlieus of the Quays and Four Courts while he was poking around among the bookstalls and conversing with the voluble and ragged Irish gentleman who presided there.‘  The same account notes that Story did manage to acquire as a result a large collection of old and curious editions – some of them of considerable value. 

Not just buyers, but the booksellers themselves, made substantial profits out of the Four Courts trade.  One brother and sister, who kept a stall at the early 19th century Four Courts, are described by the Dublin University Magazine of 1868 as having ‘retired to the country to enjoy a competence, before old age made his approach to either, and this within the recollection of the author.’ 

Rare the barrister practising within its Hall who could hope to achieve as much!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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