Stories of the Four Courts

Some old stories of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland.

Historical Development of the Four Courts site

  1. St Saviour’s Priory and the Inns of Court

In the beginning, there was St Saviour’s Priory, situated beside the Bridge of Dublin (now Fr Mathew Bridge) and close to the original Ford of the Hurdles. Founded in 1244, the Priory consisted of a building (located approximately where Morgan Place entrance is today), gardens and apple orchards.

The closure of the monasteries by Henry VIII put an end to St Saviour’s Priory.  As with every end, there was also a new beginning.   The King  demised the lands of the Priory to judges and legal officials John Allen, Gerald Aylmer, Thomas Luttrell, Patrick Whyte, Patrick Barnewall, Robert Dillon, Walter Cowley “and… other Professors of the Law” for a trial period of 21 years, renewed for subsequent periods of 21 and 42 years. 

The Priory itself was converted into a dining hall and chambers for judges and barristers.  Its cloister and covered walk were retained and encircled with additional chambers. A further Lease of 1638 required the Steward of the Inns to plant the cloister “with knottes and borders of sweet herbs, pot herbs, flowers, roses and fruit, he finding sufficient pot herbs for the kitchen of the said house and strewing herbs for such of the judges and king’s counsel as shall be resident in the said King’s Inns for the dressing of their chambers in summer.” 

By the the mid-eighteenth century, however, the Inns of Court had left these earlier goals of healthy living far behind and was in a very sorry state indeed. Most of the buildings had been destroyed when James II’s soldiers were garrisoned in them prior to the Battle of the Boyne.

The northern, eastern and western sides of the property had been appropriated by squatters, who had erected on it new buildings of their own. The extent of the appropriation is apparent from the above map (close-up here).

Such accommodation as was left to the Inns consisted of “the mouldering Chambers of Judges, with a few in the occupancy of clerks in the public officers, or abandoned by them to the sojourment of prostitutes and thieves.”

Eventually, it was decided that a new suite of buildings consisting of Public Law Offices, a Barristers’ Hall and Law Library, would be erected on the site. Because Inns Quay was felt to be “a most disagreeable part of town, the sink of it almost,” the project did not include Law Courts. These were intended to be sited in more salubrious surroundings, at Aungier Street, perhaps, or College Green. Inns Quay, on the other hand, was good enough for mere barristers!

The architect appointed for the scheme was Thomas Cooley and his design was for a single quadrangle, with offices on either side.

As you can see from the above map, by the mid 1780s, three wings of Cooley’s public offices had been built on the western side of the Inns Quay site.  In February 1785, the Irish judiciary petitioned the House of Commons for  clarification as to whether the fourth, remaining wing of the building could be adapted for the purpose of new courts.  Shortly thereafter, a Special Act was passed making an annual grant towards ‘building further offices for the public records and courts of justice adjoining.’

2. Gandon’s Four Courts

By this time, Thomas Cooley, had passed away, and was replaced by a new architect, James Gandon, who placed piazzas on either side of Cooley’s original building to create additional office space, and capped it with a dome for balance.  

The drawing above shows Gandon’s amended design and the map below shows his building in the course of construction.

All practitioners will be familiar with those cases where, despite the very best of efforts, everything seems to go wrong. For Gandon, the Four Courts was a bit like that.  Construction was shut down on the very first day, when a nameless gentleman turned up in person raising the very modern concern of traffic flow issues. As a result of his objection, the portico, originally intended to project over the pavement, had to be set back before work could proceed. 

In fact, many important people did not want the Four Courts on Inns Quay at all. They wanted it elsewhere, preferably near their own properties, the value of which would be enhanced as a result. In 1788, Gandon was summoned to appear before Parliament to defend his design. The success or failure of the project hung on his presentation. He prepared as thoroughly as a barrister with their first case. Unlike most barristers with their first case, he was successful, and the building was completed without further incident.

3. Space Limitations and the Problem of the Pill

Within a generation, however, the legal profession was running out of space in Gandon’s original building.

The Dome, originally intended as a law library, was being used to store public records (so many, in fact, that there were concerns that it would collapse under their weight!). Displaced barristers hoping to find refuge for peaceful research and contemplation in the Chancery Chamber behind the Round Hall were disappointed when it commenced use as a Rolls Court instead.

A subsequent proposal to erect a law library in the rear courtyard got as far as the foundation stone before the then Master of the Rolls appropriated the proposed site for his horse’s stable; justice ensured that this stable regularly went on fire thereafter.

You can see here a map of the Four Courts complex and its environs from __. It will be remembered that large part of the old Inns of Court site had been lost to squatters. By 1825, the buildings erected by these squatters on the north and north-eastern portions of the site had become home to numerous hostelries, brothels and fish stalls. The constant verbal abuse (and occasional piscatorial pelting) to which members of the Bar were subjected by the persons in charge of these businesses, only added to the general dislike of what was now known as ‘Pill Lane,’ or, more commonly, ‘the Pill’.

4. Acquisition of the Pill and Subsequent Building Works, 1834-6

In 1834, the Wide Streets Commissioners and the Benchers of the King’s Inns compulsorily acquired the south side of the Pill. There were unkind suggestions that this was ‘making an island’ out of the Courts and matters were not helped by a delay by the Benchers in discharging the compensation payable. 

None of this – not criticism, refusal of residents of Pill Lane to vacate, nor the discovery in the course of the works of a quantity of antique human bones – stood in the way of the project’s completion.

In 1836 the old Chancery Chamber at the rear of the Round Hall was pulled down and replaced with an new structure, shown above, extending onto the former Pill Lane and comprising a new Nisi Prius and Rolls Court, separated at ground level by a hall.

Immediately above this hall, on the first floor, was the Four Courts’ first proper Law Library – described in one account as “a large and spacious room with side galleries… ordinarily resorted to by every barrister attending the hall of the Four Courts”.

Behind it, approximately where the current Law Library is today, was a Solicitors Building with spacious coffee-room and chambers. The opening of the Library had the advantage of reducing demand for the unofficial law librarians whose book-lending stalls had previously been accused of giving a ‘criminal appearance’ to the river side of the Courts.

Unfortunately, this premises was not, on balance, a lucky one for the Bar and did not succeed in becoming its permanent home. It took not just one, but two moves, before the Law Library ended up in its current position not very far from where it began!

In addition to fitting a new Law Library, Rolls Court and Nisi Prius Court into the back of the original building, the 1836 works also involved the erection of an additional rear building comprising a Solicitors Building (situate where the current Law Library is today), Benchers’ rooms and coffee room and various Chancery offices and courts.

Zoom in on the 1836 building plan (and, on the following page, a cross-section of the very elegant first Law Library) here:-

This map from __ shows the completed __ works. You can see the change in configuration of the back of the main building. Further north, there is a separate building comrising he solicitors building is up with offices to the western side. there is a small open passage.

Another map from __. By this time, the open passage had been covered over at barristers’ request.

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