Barristers’ Working Hours, 1820s-1930s

O’Connell on the balcony of his residence, 58 Merrion Square South, Dublin, in 1844. It is unclear whether the window where he could be seen working at daybreak was on the same level as the balcony, or one of the ones below. Image via Heritage Images.

There are two kinds of barristers, those who tend to rise early to work and those who tend to stay up late to work. It appears that legendary Irish politician and barrister Daniel O’Connell was one of the former.

From the Evening Herald (Dublin), 27 August 1921:

“Along the quiet south side of Merrion Square are many interesting old mansions that once housed some notable figures in the public life of Ireland… No 58 (formerly 30 Merrion Square South) was the town residence of Daniel O’Connell during most of his public career.

An interesting sketch of the house during O’Connell’s residence there is to be found in ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar.’  Writing of the year, 1823, the author says –

‘If any of you, my English readers, being a stranger in Dublin, should chance, as you return upon a winter’s morning from one of the ‘small and early’ parties of that raking metropolis – that is to say, between the hours of 5 and 6 o’clock – to pass along the south side of Merrion Square, you will not fail to observe that among those splendid mansions there is one evidently tenanted by a person whose habits differ materially from those of his fashionable neighbours.

58 Merrion Square South, today. Image via
the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The half-open parlour shutters and the light within announce that someone dwells there whose time is precious to permit him to regulate his rising with the sun.  Should your curiosity tempt you to ascend the steps, and, under cover of the darkness, to reconnoiter the interior, you will see a tall, able-bodied man standing at a desk, and immersed in solitary occupation. Upon the wall in front of him hangs a crucifix… 

He is unquestionably a barrister, but apparently of that homely, chamber keeping, plodding cast, who labour hard to make up by assiduity what they want in wit.

Should you happen in the course of the day to stroll down to the hall of the Four Courts, you will not be a little surprised to find the object of your pity miraculously transformed into one of the most bustling, important, and joyous personages in that busy scene.’

On the occasion of O’Connell’s release from prison in 1844, thousands thronged the route from the jail to Merrion Square, and on reaching his house, Dan addressed the people. It was evidently a frequent practice of his to address his admirers from the balcony of this house, and old prints of the period depict him standing outside the window with his outstretch hand expended over the iron railing towards the crowds below.”

In contrast to O’Connell’s early-bird hours, 20th century Irish barrister and politician Cecil Lavery, KC, subsequently Attorney-General and Judge of the Supreme Court , preferred to get all his work done before bedtime.

A bright-eyed Mr Lavery (centre, with binoculars) at the racing at Leopardstown, 1948. Image from the Tatler, via British Newspaper Archives.

A newspaper write-up from the 1930s describes Mr Lavery as having ‘one of the largest practices ever enjoyed by an Irish KC.’  Posing the question – what is the secret of his success – the writer of the article concluded that

 ‘talent has much to say, but industry has even more. Mr. Lavery rarely ceases work before three o’clock in the morning. That is the lot of the successful barrister, though the junior suffers more in this respect as a rule than does the senior. The barrister’s life is one of the hardest though it looks one of the most pleasant. Few of the busy men cease to delve into dusty tomes before 2 o’clock any morning. And they are in the Law Library at 10 o’clock.”

An interesting feature of the O’Connell account is that it describes its subject as working standing up at a desk, without any indication that this was in any way unusual. An 1898 description of the country residence of Chief Baron Palles likewise references a standing desk. It is only now that standing desks are coming back into fashion!

You can learn more about Daniel O’Connell’s bar career by listening to this wonderful lecture by Paul Gallagher SC, part of the superb Green Street Lecture series organised by the Bar of Ireland.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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