When cleaning out the cesspit below the Court of Exchequer in 1854, no one seems to have thought that it might refill even before future barristers conceived in that year had emerged from their chrysalis of devilling.
Certainly not Christopher Palles, when he took on the job of Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer at the ridiculously young age of 42. In 1874, everyone was more concerned with the general Liffey stench and, in any event, Palles was perfectly healthy.
The death of at least one previous young and healthy occupant of the same post was forgotten about until, one Friday in early February 1877, the Lord Chief Baron was unable, due to sudden and rather severe illness, to resume a case partly heard the previous day, with some doubt as to whether he would be sufficiently strong to sit Monday.
He was not in fact strong enough to sit Monday, nor was he capable of sitting any day that week, or indeed the week after. By the 19th February 1877 the irresistible story of an eminent Irish judge fatally incapacitated by foul working conditions had made the Dundee Courier, whose Dublin Correspondent described the invalid as seriously ill with scarlet fever, contracted from a foul smell in the Exchequer Court, under the legal benches.
The same point was underlined by updates attributing Palles’s forthcoming replacement on circuit by a locus tenens to the fetid atmosphere of the court in which he had been obliged to sit for so many hours daily.
Palles recovered, albeit slowly, but the atmosphere in the Court of Exchequer (today’s Court 3) remained unhealthy. On the 20th February 1877 his colleague Baron Dowse was forced to take refuge in the adjoining Court of Common Pleas, but not before remarking that, instead of talking about abolishing the judges, the Government really ought to try to keep alive those that they already had.
In March 1877 the Freeman’s Journal opined that, though hard to say in whose legal custody the Four Courts were, most assuredly judges, jurors, counsel and witnesses could testify that a deadly nuisance therein required to be abated.
The following month the hope was expressed in Parliament that the Chief Secretary would see that the Board of Works did their duty; the state in which the Four Courts generally were in was monstrous and no order could be obtained to put them in a proper state either as regards the condition of the sewage or ventilation.
Finally, in the summer of 1878, the Four Courts were given over to the hands of the painter, the carpenter, and, one hopes, a really excellent plumber, with reports of very substantial improvements in each court. There were no more complaints about the cesspit.
Lord Chief Baron Palles continued to sit in Court 3 for another forty years. Hopefully the minor crisis engendered by his illness, and the improvements effected as a result, helped save some obscurer but no less precious lives as well!