Defenders of the Home Front: The Four Courts Veteran Volunteer Corps in 1916

Lord Chancellor Ross, in full judicial robes, as depicted on the frontspiece to his autobiography. Ross, who himself served as a private in the Four Courts Division of the Volunteer Corps, was impressed that these ‘dress robes,’ left hanging in his chambers during the occupation of the Four Courts in 1916, were untouched by rebels.

From the Northern Whig, 25 May 1916:


A great many members of the legal profession and officials of the Four Courts have been for more than a year in military training for home defence, and when the Sinn Fein rebellion broke out and the rebels took possession of the Four Courts these quasi-military officials rendered a good account of themselves.  At a meeting of the Benchers of the King’s Inns, under the presidency of the Lord Chancellor, a few days ago, a resolution was passed placing on record their approval, appreciation, and best thanks to the officers and men of the Four Courts Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade and Veteran Volunteer Corps for the very efficient services provided by them during the Sinn Fein Rebellion.’

The Four Courts Division of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and Veteran Volunteer Corps referenced above was set up by Four Court officials under the command of the Lord Chancellor, Sir John Ross.  In his autobiography, ‘The Years of my Pilgrimage, a good read albeit replete with all the prejudices of his time, Ross describes the Division as consisting mainly of registrars, court criers and messengers. 

‘As the difference in rank among the volunteers presented difficulties, I drilled myself as an ordinary private and was duly yelled at to keep up my head throw out my chest and keep step like the rest.  Some of the company went out to France as stretcher bearers and others proved most useful in unloading hospital ships and conveying patients to hospital.’

David Plunket Barton, another member of the judiciary prepared, in the interests of the War, to tolerate lack of status as a Volunteer Corps private. Image via National Portrait Gallery.

Another judicial member of the Four Courts Division of the Corps was Mr. Justice Barton, who was to remark at a 1915 Volunteer Corps Association meeting in Dundalk that when at drill, he had to salute a young barrister, and the following morning when he took his seat on the bench the barrister with the usual respect saluted him. Perhaps it was Barton’s membership of the Corps that gave rise to later unfounded legal gossip that he was being held prisoner in the Four Courts during the 1916 Rising.

But 1916 was a long way away when initial Corps drilling took place in the yard of the Four Courts, where the sight of august judges being put through their paces created, according to Ross, great amusement among local onlookers:

“While we were engaged in our drill in the yard of the Four Courts, an old woman outside the gate was heard calling to a friend.

Come here Biddy, till you see all the ould Judges practicing to be sodgers.”

Subsequently, a Four Courts Auxiliary Munitions Association was also established by Ross, with a view to keeping factories going over the weekend when regular workers were taking a rest, although he took a less active role in the day-to-day work carried out by it.

Membership of this association, which involved recompense in kind of 1 shilling an hour, was confined to barristers, solicitors and civil servants.

The decision to exclude from this paid work non-professionals working in the Four Courts was criticized by the Freeman’s Journal, which wrote:

‘The minor officials at the Four Courts must feel the slight more keenly because as forming the greater part of the Voluntary Association Brigade they have always given their services free and ungrudging on the occasion of the arrival of hospital ships in Dublin… class barriers have everywhere been demolished in the splendid democracy created by the crisis.’

The multi-talented Alexander Sullivan, whose memoirs, ‘The Last Serjeant,’ are available to read here.

If Ross is to be believed, however, the most unlikely characters turned to weekend factory work with alacrity:

‘Some of the foremost men at the bar proved themselves the most efficient workmen. Serjeant Sullivan, one of the principal leaders, and now winning distinction at the English bar, showing himself as effective at skilled handwork as he is at legal exercitation.’

The Northern Whig’s description of the Four Courts Division of the Volunteer Corps as ‘Defenders of the Four Courts’ during the 1916 Easter Rising is somewhat misleading. When the Rising came, there was no hand-to-hand fighting between the Corps and the rebels occupying its former home, although Mr. JF Browning, an Examiner in the Land Registry, ‘a most accomplished and able lawyer’ was shot and killed in the vicinity of Beggar’s Bush barracks when returning from a route march with a group of unarmed but uniformed Volunteers, whether from the Four Courts Division or a different one is unclear.

Lord Chancellor Ross himself spent the early part of the Rising reading Plutarch in his garden in Stillorgan before witnessing from a neighbour’s house the sight of the Helga gunboat demolishing Liberty Hall.

Mostly, however, as befitted its connection with the St John’s Ambulance, the Four Courts Volunteer Corps was kept busy in ferrying the wounded, with the Northern Whig publishing a list of the following men in the Division whose names had been forwarded to Lord Chancellor Ross for having rendered valuable service:  George W May, John Healy, WH Boyd, IA Tiling, RW Stuart, LW Jewell, HM Whitton, HP May, J Greville, AH Robinson, JC Marlow, MF Linihan, AG Holinshead, W Dick, JL Lynd, Granby Burke and JW Rooney.

The report continued:

‘These gentlemen acted with the greatest bravery, carrying wounded under fire and removing them in ambulance wagons to the hospitals.  Mr. George May specially distinguished himself in the vicinity of the Customs House and was unfortunately wounded while in discharge of his duties when attached to a wagon.  We were very pleased to learn his wound was not serious and he is now making a satisfactory recovery.’

On returning to the Four Courts after the Rising, Ross was surprised that, although the door of his chamber had been broken down by rebels, no other damage had been done – his books, his robes, both full dress and ordinary, and his wigs and papers had been respected.  On a later occasion when acting as chairman of the committee appointed to deal with an internment camp, he found before him the rebel commandant of his wing of the Courts and, in his own words, ‘took the opportunity to thank him for the consideration and care shown.’

A few undetonated bombs in the Law Library aside, the 1916 rebels in the Four Courts showed considerable respect for the contents of the building they were occupying – even leaving the contents of the drinks cupboard in the barristers’ tearoom untouched.  Read more about their decorous occupation here.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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