Fun on Circuit, 1909

‘When the Court rises for the day the members of the Circuit amuse themselves as best they can until dinner-time.’

From the Irish Independent, 2 July 1909:


July is undoubtedly the pleasantest month in the barristers’ working year.  The Circuits are out then, and business is judiciously combined with pleasure.  The old stager, whose hair is whiter than his wig, and to whom briefs are a weariness to the flesh, renews his youth again, and the junior, who hopes timidly that some good-natured solicitor may take pity on him, enjoys himself fully, and forgets his brieflessness.

From the end of the month, when the judges leave in pairs, until the last town is reached, they are accompanied by a swarm of counsel, old and young, expectant of briefs, and sure of amusement, who take possession of hotels, and drive the usually pampered commercial traveller to distraction and profane language – for even that autocratic person has to take a back seat when the Bar arrive.


The Circuits are five in number: North-East, North-West, Connaught, Leinster and Munster, each having its own set of members, and its own Bar rules, which are rigidly enforced.  The rules for admission to a Circuit differ considerably; on one Circuit a barrister after being proposed and seconded, having paid his fees, is, de facto, a member, on another, he must go through a probationary period before he is admitted.  During this period the probationer must dine with the Bar and appear in Court in a certain number of towns.  If he does not misbehave himself in any way, he is elected at the next meeting of the Circuit bar, should he displease the bar he may be blackballed, in which case he must try another Circuit.  Once elected he is permanently attached to that Circuit while he conforms to its rules and may not attend the Assizes on another, without a special retainer much greater than his ordinary fees.

Circuit work was a great way to pick up early briefs. Many inexperienced barristers received their first brief on Circuit.


A junior’s first Circuit is always a novel and interesting experience.  Should the Bar travel in the same train with the judges, he must go first class, no matter how slender his purse.  On the journey he hears discussions on the business of the day and humorous stories of the business of other days.  He is made to feel at home from the first, and soon loses the ‘small boy’ discomfort with which he starts, for there is no other profession in which there is so much good fellowship as there is in the Bar; every man, no matter how young, is treated as the equal of every other.  When the Assize town is reached he sees lines of nervous looking police standing to attention along the railway platform, and the High Sheriff and his attendants ready to receive the judges, who bear with them the Commissions of ‘Oyer and Terminer’ and ‘jail delivery’.  As their lordships alight the police salute and the mounted police (or in garrison towns the military) draw their swords and escort the carriages to the judges’ lodging, where sentries are usually on guard during the Assizes.


The Bar proceed unostentatiously to the Courthouse, and find the ‘wig and gown’ man waiting for them in the dressing room.  They robe at once, and interview the solicitors, who are anxious to see them.  Soon a blaze of trumpets announces the arrival of the judges, who go at once to their respective courts, preceded by the staves.  The senior judge presides in the Crown Court in the first town on the Circuit, after which they take it alternately.  The Commission is read in open court by a (usually) shaky-voiced crier, and the Grand Jury are sworn and charged by the judge.  They almost invariably find true bills, and then the real business begins.  Those counsel who are not engaged in Court remain in the Bar room, where the Circuit library, which always travels with the Circuit, is arranged on the shelves, and writing materials and daily and weekly papers are strewn on the tables. ‘Bar cess’ is usually collected in the morning.  This cess is the amount which each barrister must pay into the common fund, and it goes to the expenses incurred in the town.  In a ‘one day’ town, the Bar, as a rule, lunches in court on cold meats, brought from the city by the Bar butler, except when the High Sheriff invites them to the Grand Jury luncheon, which is always very enjoyable.  In a two or three day town the Bar put up at a hotel, where they breakfast, lunch and dine.

The ‘morning after’ a Circuit dinner could be difficult.

When the Court rises for the day the members of the Circuit amuse themselves as best they can until dinner-time, which is generally about half-past seven.  Some play golf, some go in for fishing, and others either see the places of interest about the town or cycle into the country (the very successful motor).  The Bar dinner is perhaps the pleasantest feature of the day.  A room is reserved in the hotel and no stranger is allowed to enter it.  The ordering of the dinner is left to the Junior for the time being, on whom falls all the humorous blame if it be late or unsatisfactory.  The ‘Father’ of the Bar sits at the head of the table, and the Junior at the foot.  The ‘Father’ is the senior member present, and he must be addressed as ‘Father,’ while he addresses each one as ‘My son.’  Everything at the dinner is of the very best.  The Circuit carries its own wine with it, and champagne is as plentiful as soda water (very little ‘plain’ water is seen, as most of the Bar use lemonade or soda water).  Every member who takes silk or is otherwise advance presents a certain quantity of champagne to his Circuit, so that it seldom runs out.  During the dinner there is much wit and humour flying, almost every man having something good to tell, and the one who is a good mimic or story-teller soon becomes a favourite.


When the coffee is brought around the Junior, using a ‘time-worn formula’ will appeal to the ‘Father;’ ‘Father, may your sons smoke?’ on which the ‘Father’ will reply: ‘Yes, my son, if you think they won’t get sick.’  Then comes, on some Circuits, the greatest ordeal of all for the probationer – the ordeal of the ‘song’.  Whether he has the voice of a Caruso or the croak of a raven he must ‘sing’.  Once the Junior says: ‘Father, might I call attention to the fact that there is a probationer present?’ there is no getting out of it.  He cannot plead that he does not sing, for that is no excuse.  He gets on his feet and blushingly makes a start.  If he can sing he is heard to the end, and ever after may be called on to ‘oblige the company’.  But if he is of the raven order of singers he will not get on very far before there is a chorus of ‘Certificate, Certificate!’ which means that he is awarded a ‘Certificate of Inefficiency,’ and that he will never again be called on to sing, as the Bar has had enough of ‘music.’

Even judges could be mildly amusing on Circuit.


The known and appreciated songsters are called upon in turn and the quiet provincial town is startled by the rousing choruses that float out of hotel windows, the toast to the Father being honoured with the greatest enthusiasm.  Later on, card-tables are produced, and Bridge is played by some until the small hours of the morning; others smoke and chat till bedtime.  The judges, who would perhaps be lonely otherwise, issue invitations to dinner each day to members of the Bar; but these dinners, though highly instructive and sometimes mildly amusing (judges’ jokes are not always of the judicial kind) are not quite so enjoyable; junior members are liable to feel that they are on their good behaviour.

If we did not know that the Circuit was specially instituted for facilitating the administration of justice, we might think that their chief purpose was to make a body of grown-up men as jolly as schoolboys and as courteous as knights errant.  Truly, the Circuits are a great institution – for the Bar, for provincial hotels, and for the facilitation of the administration of Justice.”

A great account of old Irish Circuit life at the turn of the twentieth century! The values of collegiality and humour so described still exist on Circuit today.  Circuit practice is a great way for a determined young barrister without connections to obtain those much sought-after first briefs!

Image Credit: Mr Punch in Wig and Gown

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

Leave a Reply