Hot, and More Often Not: Calibrating the Four Courts, 1796-1922

From the Freeman’s Journal, 15 December 1881:

The Hall of the Four Courts was an exceedingly cold as well as a comparatively deserted place.  In all the Divisional Courts, magnificent fires were kept up – each of them big enough to roast an ox – but these for the most part were engrossed by shivering, ragged individuals, apparently having no legal business inside and who, probably not having good fires of their own at home, were there to get the only thing that can be had in the Four Courts for nothing, and whose presence around each fire grate contributed a great deal towards keeping the heat from the judges, the bar, the solicitors, the clients and the rest of those who had business in the courts.”

Temples of Justice and rare beauty can be chilly places, particularly when the breeze blows cold along the Dublin quays. At one point there was even a suggestion that the dome above the Round Hall should be removed to decisively exclude the wind. Though this thankfully never came to pass, the somewhat rudimentary forms of heating adopted in substitute (such as the ‘hot water tin’ option proffered to the Dublin Jurors’ Association in response to their 1887 application for the heating of jury boxes) often proved less than satisfactory.

The Irish Independent of the first Valentine’s Day of the new century contained a stark and very unromantic account of a frigid February on the Bench:

“Mr Justice Boyd, sitting in the Bankruptcy Court yesterday, complained of an absence of a proper method of heating the court.  He said that when sitting in the adjoining court recently, trying a case with a jury, the cold was so intense that he gave permission to wear their overcoats and hats.  All the people in the court complained of the excessive cold.  It was an intolerable state of things.  Nothing was done by the authorities.  The fireplaces and the chimneys were so constructed that all the heat went up the chimneys, apparently as if the object were to make the jackdaws comfortable.  Something should be done to heat the court properly.  One of the official assignees was absent that day from a cold he got sitting in the court.”

Reassurances from Mr Littledale BL, a member of the Library Committee, that the Bar was similarly unable to control its own heating apparatus, which heated everything other than the Law Library itself, may have provided some (cold) consolation. Sometimes, however, the cure is worse than the disease, with the Freeman’s Journal of 16 May 1907 reporting that the Master of the Rolls had to vacate to another court after his own had been heated up almost to the requirements of a Turkish bath.

Meanwhile, the East Wing remained so chilly as to necessitate a full upgrade of the Law Library heating system proudly installed only a decade previously. The Irish Times of 19 October 1909 contained a full account of the proposed changes:

There has just been completed an entirely new system of heating and ventilation in the Library at the Four Courts, and hopes are entertained by the Library Committee and the Board of Works that the frequent complaints as to defective ventilation, and also as to heating, will now to at least a large extent be removed… The last system in operation, that of introducing currents of hot air, without adequate ventilation, was generally condemned.  The new system is the plenum system of heating and ventilation where the fresh air is introduced from the roof of the building where a special chamber has been constructed for the purpose.  Having been purified, the air current is next conveyed through a coil of steam tubes and heated.  From the heating chamber, a large pipe leads, between the ceiling and the roof, along the whole length of the Library, with the hot air current being distributed throughout the room beneath by means of smaller pipes.  The cold air, and also the foul air, is withdrawn from the building means of two powerful fans, which have been erected at the Chancery Street end of the room. The whole system is completely controlled by a number of ingeniously contrived regulators, which have been placed in a glass case in the public consulting room.”

If all else failed, of course, there was still the Library fire, described in glowing terms in ‘Fun in the Irish Law Courts’ (1920):

I verily believe that there have been more good things said, more good stories told, round the Library fire in the Four Courts than on any other spot on the globe.  Now it is a lively sword-play of wits, thrust and parry, the quick retorts new-minted in the brain of the speaker.  Now it is an old story the better for its age, like a coloured meerschaum or a seasoned violin, or a bottle of mellow old wine, a story flavoured with the varied humor of a score of successful tellers.”

There may have been an element of nostalgia to the above account. According to the Freeman’s Journal of 10 October 1918,

“[a] meeting of the Benchers was held yesterday at the Four Courts to consider the lighting and the heating arrangements and the duration of the sittings of the various courts during the coming law term, in view of the campaign for coal conservation.  It was decided that the courts would sit each day from 10.30 to 3 p.m., with a half-hour interval for luncheon, but that there would be no sittings on Saturdays.”

Did the Law Library fire continue burning outside these hours? We may never know.

What we do know – and what the anonymous writer of ‘Fun’ did not – is that the days of the legal world so lovingly recorded by him were numbered. Change was afoot; the Law Library’s plenum system of heating and ventilation was to become redundant.

The Four Courts, and everything within it, was about to get very, very hot indeed!

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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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