A Most Offensive Stench: Court 3, 1831-54

No one was ever quite sure what lay below the Four Courts, other than the following: the Dominican monks of the Priory of St Saviour’s were reputed to have installed an extensive network of subterranean passages, and a hidden river, the Bradogue, flowed underground from Constitution Hill to Ormond Quay, its exact route shrouded in mystery.

Whether due to this secret tributary, the smell of Anna Livia herself, or something awry in the sanitary arrangements, all four of the Four Courts were malodorous from the start, but the very worst of them was the Court of Exchequer on the river side of the Round Hall, almost exactly where Court 3 is today.  

So bad, in fact, that in March 1831 a respectable man attending there succumbed to a fainting fit, or as a contemporary report described it, a sudden attack of syncope, and had to be removed, in a state of insensibility, to the open air, where effectual means were promptly and humanely used for his recovery.

No one, of course, was more frequently in the Court of Exchequer than the Chief Baron himself, and the death in 1840 of Stephen Woulfe, a very young Chief Baron appointed only two years previously, provoked serious concern about the stink’s cause and effect.

After a decade or so of leisurely exploration, it was discovered that the foundations of the Four Courts lay under the bed of the Liffey, and that, in order to prevent the flooding of the vaults, the sewers in the building had been stopped up many years previously, with no exit provided for drainage.  Consequently, directly under the Court of Exchequer there had formed a cesspool, in which there was the accumulation of many years waste, so as to render the odour completely unbearable.

This discovery was announced at an 1854 meeting of the Dublin Sanitary Authority, which remarked that it was a very extraordinary thing that sensible educated men would allow such a thing to exist, and passed a unanimous resolution to serve a notice to abate on the Board of Works as conservators of the building. Whatever was done on foot of this notice must have provided some respite, as the then Baron of the Exchequer, David Pigot, survived in office for a further two decades.

As far as barristers were concerned, the fees for cases in the Court of Exchequer were higher than for those in the two other common law courts, which may have provided some consolation!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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