The Musket and the Brief, 1798

Yesterday’s relaxation of traditional requirements regarding barristers’ court dress brings to mind an earlier decision of the Benchers in Trinity Term 1798 permitting barrister members of the Lawyers’ Corps to appear in court armed and in uniform.

Sheil’s ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar’ records subsequent events in all their colourful fulfilment:

“Justice was stripped of her august ceremony and her reverend forms… the ordinary business of the courts of law was discharged by barristers in regimentals – the plume nodded over the green spectacle – the bag was transmuted into the cartridge-pouch… the chest, which years of study had built into a professional stoop, was straightened in a stiff imprisonment of red; the neck, stretched in the distension of vituperative harangue, enclosed in a high and rigid collar; martial ferocity mimicked in the slouching gait acquired by years of unoccupied perambulation in the Hall; limbs, habituated to yielding silk, were locked in buff – the réveille superseded the voice of the crier, the disquisitions of pleaders were horribly stuffed with epithets of war, the bayonet lay beside the pen, and the musket was collateral to the brief…”

Originally established in the 1770s, the Corps handed over its artillery to much ado in 1793, only to reform again in November 1796.  The first militia regiment to admit Catholics freely, most barristers were members, but not all shared its loyalist views – some of the 1798 rebels used their Corpsmen status as a cloak for undercover activities.  Over-enthusiastic members like Henry Joy, later Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, who proposed at a meeting of the North-East Bar that no man should belong to the Circuit without also belonging to the Corps, might have been better off focusing on potential rebels within their own ranks!

Much marching and drilling ensued in the period 1796-1798, inspiring one junior member to wax poetic in the vein of ‘then firm we will stand at Death’s gaping gulph.’ His lengthy and entirely serious paean anticipating future heroics on the part of named colleagues appeared in the Dublin Evening Post of 16 February 1797.

There is not a lot of contemporaneous newspaper coverage of the Corps’ activities in 1798, but its members did do some hunting for Croppies, and some of the ‘hot loyalists’ – armed with triangles and pitch caps – even attempted to flog one unfortunate victim in the Round Hall. 

We can be grateful to their more humane comrades for intervening to prevent this desecration.  As one of the intervenors, Counsellor Seton, noted many years later in a speech reported in Saunders’ News-Letter of 2 January 1835, it is imperative to be active in order to secure not only the triumph of liberty, but the protection of our unhappy fellow creatures.

Humane and compassionate words apposite to so many situations where zeal unchecked might else spill over into zealotry!

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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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