Bullet-Piercings, Bombs, Whiskey and Cigars: The Four Courts after the Rising, May-June 1916

The occupation of the Four Courts by rebel forces in 1916 led to much anxious speculation as to the extent of the resulting destruction.

An initial gloomy report from the Northern Whig of the 1st May 1916 recounted that

“Most extensive and indeed irreparable damage has been done by the Sinn Feiners. They threw a number of the books and documents into the Liffey and tore up and burned many records which it will be impossible to replace.”

Particular ire was provoked by the discovery that the Law Library had been dismantled by the rebels, with the heavier and more bulky books used to take the place of sandbags. It was remarked that any rebels who had felt such a structure would afford any protection from the fire of the troops must have been quickly disillusioned, with the survivors hopefully now having a much better conception and a proportionate appreciation of the penetrative powers of the service bullet.

Annoyance at the rebels had calmed down somewhat by the 3rd May, when an inspection of the entire Four Courts building, carried out by the Lord Chancellor, showed that no wanton damage had been done save that the furniture and other movable woodstuff had been improvised as barricades.

By the following day, the Belfast News-Letter was reporting that:

“It is gratifying to learn that the damage done to the Four Courts is much less serious than was first feared…  Much anxiety was felt as to what was going on in the Record Office, where thousands of valuable historical documents, wills, deeds and conveyances are stored, and great relief was experienced when it was found that the majority of these documents, though much tossed about, had not been seriously damaged.  Some bundles containing wills had been blown out on the adjoining streets, and had been taken away by residents in Church Street, not so much, it is believed, as ‘loot’ but rather curious souvenirs of the rebellion. When these people learnt that the authorities were again in possession of the Record Office it is to their credit that many of them brought these documents back to their custodian, and it is to be hoped that any other documents taken away will also be returned.”

By the opening of the Easter Sittings on the 20th May 1916 the News-Letter was reporting that

“Surprisingly little damage has been done.  True, the wing nearest the river has suffered from shell and rifle fire and the dome is pitted with bullet marks but beyond the breaking of many windows and the disturbing of books and further not much is amiss… A small army of glaziers, charwomen carpenters and such like have been working hard to restore order.  The Law Library was practically untouched.  The windows, of course, were broken, and the books taken from their shelves and piled up in the window frames to former barricades, but there are now no signs beyond a few bullet marks to indicate that it was a rebel stronghold for nearly a week.  Some of the Judges’ rooms were entered and robes and furniture destroyed, but no private papers nor public records appear to have been lost or damaged.  On the whole the rebels seem to have treated the building with respect.”

That is not to say that inspection did not turn up a number of surprises!  A number of bombs, placed by the rebels in the Law Library and found in the initial inspection of May 3rd were carried away and placed in a more secure quarter.

The Illustrated War News of May 1916 also carried the above photograph of a ‘throne room’ allegedly improvised by the rebels in the hall of what is now the current Law Library, adding disapprovingly that bottles of whiskey and boxes of cigars had been scattered around the foot of the throne and that every window on the four sides of the Four Courts was broken.

Not to mention the following interesting relic of the occupation referenced in the Irish Independent of June 16, 1916:

“During the rebellion a bullet pierced a Four Courts window frame, entered a press, slipped across the edges of many volumes, invaded a second press, hustled without discouragement through a haystack of writs and judgments, and reached the rules of court, where it got disgusted with foolishness at page 10 and stopped.  A dismal end to a promising career? The officials don’t think so. They treasure the bullet as an example for Juniors – to get to page 10 of the rules being a test of unusual tenacity and application.”

Little has changed! I wonder if that bullet-pierced copy of the Rules is still about?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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