Briefless Barristers as Marriage Prospects, 1870

From the Freeman’s Journal, 31 May 1870:

“SIR – Can you kindly inform me why business people possess no social position in Dublin? This evil has increased latterly, commencing at the public school, where the children of a respectable trader are despised by those of professionals, whose parents inculcate the doctrine, considering it infra dig to employ a dressmaker who works for such a class… Society (so called) appears to esteem the briefless barristers, medical students and half-paid Government officers, who in middle class society form the chief attraction to the ‘Girl of the Period,’ for, should the… daughter of a trader aim at social position, she must bestow her father’s hard-earned wealth on some penniless gentleman in preference to becoming the wife of a respectable trader. Perhaps you would kindly at your convenience define the proper position of business people. I allude to those who can afford to keep a comfortable establishment equal to a successful professional.


Joseph Meisel, in ‘Public Speech and the Culture of Public Life in the Age of Gladstone,’ remarks that

“Overall, nineteenth century barristers were regarded as gentlemen, but only just barely. Barristers’ gentlemanly status derived in part from the fact that spending time at an Inns of Court (albeit, with no intention of studying for, or being called to the Bar) was an accepted practice among the landed classes. Furthermore, there was always a contingent of active barristers rubbing shoulders with aristocrats and gentry in Parliament. Nevertheless, barristers as a whole were not exactly ‘respectable.’ Ultimately, practising barristers engaged in that most ungentlemanly of economic activities: providing services for a fee. As the bar became a more prominent institution in… public life, the efforts of practicing barristers to overcome the tradesman’s stigma can be seen in the invented tradition (dating from the late eighteenth century) that the small hood attached to the back of barristers’ robes was actually a wallet into which fees could be deposited by the client without embarrassment to the barrister.”

Nineteenth-century barristers’ wives and daughters had one incontestable advantage; they were eligible to be presented at court (in Ireland, this meant Lord Lieutenant’s functions at Dublin Castle), ranking in precedence ahead of the wives and daughters of physicians, military and naval officers (but just behind the wives and daughters of clergymen!)

The facility to effortlessly provide a spouse with a golden ticket to the Irish Social Season must have given even the ‘briefless barristers’ referred to in the letter above a significant advantage in the matrimonial stakes!

Presumably the letter-writer herself did not care about such petty matters and, as a forward-thinking ‘Girl of the Period,’ was more than happy to rise to the challenge of organising her own social functions?

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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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