Dry Rot, Destitute Juniors and the Law of Cause and Effect: Improving the Second Law Library, 1897-1909

The formal opening of the second Law Library in the Eastern Wing of the Four Courts on 15 April 1897 prompted a gush of admiration in the press, with the next day’s Irish Times describing the new premises as

a splendid building, in which there have been provided tables, desks and chairs affording seating accommodation for 263 members of the Bar… It may be said that never before in the history of Ireland was the Bar of Ireland so magnificently provided for as this fine new library, excellent in design, spacious, affording admirable accommodation both on the ground floor and gallery, well ventilated, well lighted and up to all the modern requirements in respect of sanitation… At the east end – that which faces the visitor as he enters – there is a splendid stained-glass window with figures of Justice, Wisdom and Eloquence and the arms of the four provinces.  The furniture is of carved oak and under the large stained-glass window there is an oak staircase leading to a gallery which runs around three sides of the library.” 

There was only one flaw in paradise – the number of seats provided ran short.

“There are about three hundred practising barristers, and as seating accommodation has not been provided for the full number, some of the members of the Junior Bar will have to find accommodation as best they can until the time comes when in order of time and seniority seats becoming vacant may be allocated to them.” 

Even a year later the new Law Library was still provoking excitement. The Dublin Daily Nation describes it at the opening of Whit term 1898 as “crowded with ladies in all the brilliancy of airy spring toilettes, with most of the Junior Bar busily occupied in acting as squires of dames.”

Alas, pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall and a mere two months later this professed marvel of modern design was excoriated by the Freeman’s Journal of 29 June 1898 as “the latest dreadful example of what the Board of Works is capable of accomplishing.”

The reason?

“It seems that dry rot has got into the woodwork of the ceiling, which will have to come down.  There are great breaches already in the ceiling of the balcony that runs round the main hall which makes the whole building dilapidated and unsightly… It appears that a flue runs up from some buildings on the ground floor and passes through the wall of the new Law Library, the presence of which, conjoined with damp, was almost certain to engender dry rot.  It was admitted that this could have been effectually protected at little cost by a covering of creosote.  But of the reasons, if any, why this precaution was omitted no information is extant… Under these circumstances the explanation of the presence of the dry rot can hardly be regarded as wholly satisfactory…. 

This seems to be the climax of many failures for which the Board is responsible, and one of the worst.  Indeed, many people will believe that the Board of Works itself is hopelessly affected by the dry rot of Castle officialdom, and the only effective remedy or safeguard is to reform it altogether.”

The Freeman, of course, was familiar with the woodwork of the Law Library, having already featured, on the 30th October 1894, a complaint that its main contractor had subcontracted the joinery job to a business based in Portadown.   Was the forgotten flue retribution for favouring a far-away firm over local tradesmen?

As for that other class of persons aggrieved by the arrangement of the new Law Library, the Freeman reported in November 1909 that:

“After the fiercest debates among the members of the profession, a new system of ventilation on a scientific basis has been introduced.  Hitherto, the elder members of the profession had a first charge on the fresh air; their younger brethren perched in eyries under the roof of that famous home of persistent scandal and intermittent labour, the Law Library… Under the new system, air is plumbed in from above.  The effect of the change upon the health of senior practitioners and upon the consequent changes of promotion is, we understand, being eagerly canvassed.”

As all lawyers know, the wheels of Justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine. Perhaps its stained-glass representation above the wooden gallery was working her circumlocutory magic not just on behalf of excluded Dublin tradesmen but also for excluded junior practitioners?

Image Credit: Dublin Evening Telegraph, 10 August 1895.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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