Country Litigants, and Other Frequenters of the Four Courts, 1822

A Flat Between Two Sharps’ by Rowlandson, via Rare Old Prints. The background is Westminster Hall, not the Four Courts, but the litigant seems to fall into the same category as the Irish country litigant described below.

From the Yorkshire Gazette, 21 December 1822:


Some very able papers are now in the course of publication in the New Monthly Magazine entitled ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar;’ giving an account of the various forensic characters in our sister country, and of the mode of practice in the Courts there. The following animated account of the scenes daily occurring in the Hall of the Four Courts is from the last No. of the above-named miscellany:

‘The law, and the practice of the courts, in Ireland, are with some trivial exceptions, precisely the same as with us, but the system of professional life in the sister island is in some respects different. One of the particulars in which they differ may be made a source of interest and recreation to a stranger in Dublin, at least it was so to me. I allude to the custom, which the Irish Bar have long since adopted, of assembling daily for the transaction of business, or in search of it, if they have it not, in the Hall of the Four Courts.

The building itself is a splendid one… in the centre of the interior, and o’er canopied by a lofty dome, is a spacious circular hall, into which the several courts of justice open. I was fond of lounging in this place.

From the hours of twelve to three, it is a busy and a motley scene. When I speak of it as the place of daily resort for the members of the legal profession and their clients, I may be understood to me, that it is the general rendezvous of the whole community; for in Ireland almost every man of any pretensions that you meet, is either a plaintiff or defendant, or on the point of becoming so, and, when in the capital, seldom fails to repair at least once a day to the Hall, in order to look after his cause, and by conferences with his lawyers, to keep up his mind to the true litigating temperature.  It is here, too, that the political idlers of the town resort to or pick up the rumours of the day.

There is also a plentiful admixture of the lower orders, among whom it is not difficult to distinguish the country litigant. You know him by his mantle of frieze, his two boots and one spur, by the tattered lease, the emblem of his tenement, which he unfolds as cautiously as Sir Humphry Davy would a manuscript of Herculaneum, and, best of all, by his rueful visage, in which you can clearly read, that same clause in the last ejectment act lies heavy on his heart. 

These form the principal materials of the scene, but it is not so easy to enumerate the manifold and ever shifting combinations into which they are diversified. The rapid succession of so many objects, passing and repassing eternally before you, perplexes and quickly exhausts the eye. It fares still worse with the ear. The din is tremendous. Beside s the tumult of a thousand voices in ardent discussion, and the most of them raised to the declamatory pitch, you have ever and anon the stentorian cries of the tipstaffs bawling ‘The gentlemen of the Special Jury to the box’ or the still more thrilling vociferations of attorneys and attorneys’ clerks, hallooing to a particular counsel that their case is called on, and all is lost if he delays an instant.  Whereupon the counsel, catching the sound of his name, wafts through the hubbub, breaks precipitately from the circle that engages him, and bustles through the throng, escorted, if he be of any eminence, by a posse of applicants, each of them trying to monopolise him, until he reaches the entrance of the court and plunging in escapes for that time from their importunate solicitations. 

The bustle among the members of the Bar is greatly increased by the circumstance of all of them, with very few exceptions, practicing in all the courts.  Hence at every moment you see the most eminent darting across the hall, flushed and palpitating from the recent conflict and, no breathing time allowed them, advancing with rapid strides and looks of fierce intent, to fling themselves again into the thick of another fight. It daily happens that two cases are to be heard in different courts, and in which the same barrister is the client’s main support, are called on at the same hour… On such occasions it is amusing to witness the contests between the respective attorneys to secure their champion…

The preceding are a few of the constant and ever-acting elements of noise and motion in this busy scene; but an extra sensation is often given to the congregated mass.  The detection of a pickpocket (I am not speaking figuratively) causes a sudden and impetuous rush of heads with wigs and without them to the spot where the culprit has been caught in flagranti.

At other times, the scene is diversified by a ground of fine girls from the country, coming, as they all make a point of doing, to see the courts, and show themselves to the Junior Bar.  A crowd of young and learned gallants instantaneously collects, and follows in their wake; and even the arid veteran will start from his legal reverie as they pass along, or, discontinuing the perusal of his deeds and counterparts, betray by a faint leer, that, with all of love of parchment, a fine skin glowing with the tints that life and nature give it, has yet a more prevailing charm. 

Lastly, I must not omit, that the Hall is not infrequently thrown into ‘Confusion, worse confounded’ by that particular breach of his Majesty’s Irish peace, improperly called a ‘horsewhipping’.  When an insult is to be avenged, that place is often chosen for its publicity as the fittest scene of castigation. Besides this, particular classes in Ireland, who have quarrels on their hands, cherish certain high-minded and chivalrous notions on the subject – The injured feelings of a gentleman, as they view the matter, are to be redressed, not so much by the pain and shame inflicted upon the aggressor, as by a valiant contempt of the laws that would protect the backs of the community from stripes; and hence the point of humour is more completely satisfied by a gentle caning under the nose of justice, than by a sound cudgeling anywhere beyond the sacred precincts.”

The above was the Hall of the Four Courts before the Irish Famine, and the establishment of County Courts, which combined to make the Four Courts a less attractive destination for pickpockets, country litigants, and young ladies seeking husbands among a significantly depleted Junior Bar! The occasional horsewhipping, however, continued to take place in its vicinity…

Sketches of the Irish Bar, available here, was co-authored by Richard Lalor Sheil and John Philpot Curran‘s son William Henry Curran. A statue of Sheil stood in the Hall of the Four Courts for many years, until it was destroyed in 1922.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

Leave a Reply