The Dome(s) of the Four Courts, 1785-2020

The original Record Office designed for the Four Courts site by Thomas Cooley did not include a dome, but Cooley’s early death in 1784 coincided with an official decision to expand his design to include the Irish Four Courts, previously situate at Christchurch. His successor James Gandon achieved this by incorporating a central hall at the front of Cooley’s partly built pile, and crowning it with not one but two domes, one on top of the other, with a void between containing a large and brightly lit apartment.

The 1844 depiction above shows an interior dome with a rich spherical mosaic ceiling rising above the Round Hall. It had eight windows and a circular opening or ‘lantern’ into the void above, admitting an abundance of light. In the piers between the windows stood eight colossal allegorical statutes by the sculptor Edward Smyth, representing Authority, Punishment, Eloquence, Prudence, Liberty, Mercy, Wisdom and Justice, resting on pedestals or consoles. Above them ran a frieze incorporating medallions of eight great law-makers: Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, Numa, Confucius, Alfred, Manco-Capac and Ollamh Fodla.

Below the statues were bas-reliefs, also carved by Smyth, depicting William the Conqueror establishing the Courts of Justice, King John signing Magna Carta before the Barons, Henry II granting the first Charter of Dublin and James I abolishing the Brehon laws and publishing the Act of Oblivion.

Not everyone approved of the Four Courts dome. Many years after its completion, members of the Royal Institute of Architects were still describing it as a comical covering displaying obvious want of harmony with the vertical outlines of the lofty tambour on which it was placed, which goes to show it is impossible to please everybody.

Thackeray, on the other hand, liked the dome and his Irish Sketchbook of 1842 praised the ‘very brilliant and beautiful prospect’ at Carlisle (O’Connell Street) Bridge with it visible on the right and the Customs House dome (also by Gandon) on the left – a view sadly ended due to subsequent alterations to Carlisle Bridge, though the Freeman’s Journal did suggest that it never existed even prior to these alterations, and that Thackeray was making things up. Possibly he mixed up Carlisle with Essex Bridge downriver, from which it is indeed possible to see both buildings.

The substantial void between the two domes, originally intended for a law library, was found ill-calculated for such purpose and instead used for the storage of public records. It filled up very fast, to the extent that there were soon concerns that the weight of the records would cause the interior dome to collapse. The below image from an official report shows the organisation of the records in 1819, after a clear-out and tidy.

By 1851, however, this beautiful system had become disorganised, resulting in a newspaper campaign to gather together and rescue from destruction what the Freeman’s Journal described as the scattered records lying in confused heaps on the floor of the Dome. Some success appeared to have been achieved in 1854 when the Freeman joyfully reported that those most precious vouchers of Irish history trampled under foot on its floor were finally to be put in order; however there was a subsequent delay in moving the records due to a lack of competent supervision, and it was not until 1872 that the removal was officially complete. Even then, a pile of documents relating to the Court of Queen’s Bench which had fallen to a cavity between the void and the interior dome were inadvertently left behind, and only recovered some years later.

While generally neglected, dusty and filled with pigeons, the dome (or domes) received occasional attention over the years.  The exterior dome was illuminated in 1856 as part of the Peace Celebrations which took place to mark the end of the Crimean War. When, in 1861, the Four Courts served as a venue for the Social Science Congress (above – its one and only stint as a conference venue), the interior dome was removed from dust-laden obscurity by Mr Hamman, of Grafton Street, who oversaw its redecoration in neutral lavender with white and peach accents. There was a later redecoration in 1896, this time in tones of white and blue, with the classic figures and medallions in bas relief painted white on a blue background.

Possible collapse due to the weight of records stored in the void was not the only threat to the dome over the years. A storm of December 1822 caused the copper sheeting around the exterior dome to be raised and cut in may places by the wind.  In 1854 lightning and thunder flashed immediately above, causing dramatic scenes in the hall below unequalled since its invasion by a Smithfield bull twenty years previously.

But it was the 1922 Battle of Dublin, and the sledgehammer-insect determination by forces of the Provisional Government to use an eighteen-pounder to bring down a sniper firing from one of the windows in the void, that finally put paid to Gandon’s beautiful edifice – and most of Smyth’s plasterwork – leaving little more than the pillars and masonry of the dome surviving.

Although there were initial suggestions to demolish what was left of the Four Courts altogether – with one suggestion that it should be rebuilt as a concert hall for the Feis Ceoil, by July 1926 the exterior coppering of the new dome was complete, albeit to the sound of complaints that it was higher than its predecessor, and it was floodlit again in 1932 for the Eucharistic Congress.

Concerns about the safety of the replacement dome grew during the Second World War. In January 1941, not long after the Sandycove bombings of December 1940, a Board of Works electrician, Robert Norris, was tragically found hanging from its void. A subsequent inquest attributed his death to unsound mind caused by anxiety about future bombings. Although there were in fact subsequent bombings at North Strand, Dublin, in May of that year, both the city and the Four Courts Dome managed to survive the Emergency generally intact.

The dome was renovated again in 1970, almost half a century after its reconstruction, at a cost of several thousand pounds. Described as the most awkward job of its kind carried out in Dublin in recent years, the renovation led to a compensation claim by Dublin Corporation in respect of lead and copper allegedly removed by thieves who had climbed the dome while in the course of reconstruction. Later, in 1997, the dome was visited by other creatures of prey – a pair of peregrine falcons who used its high roof line as a hunting base.

Over the years the Four Courts dome has been compared to many things: a mosque in Baghdad (Irish Independent, May 1941), a golden rose in a great bronze cup (Sean O’Casey, ‘Pictures in the Hallway’), a ‘prostate bub’ (JP Donleavy, The Ginger Man), a ‘reverser whose fine clothes have been somewhat torn and muddled but who still keeps his fee‘, St Paul’s Cathedral, London (which also has a double-dome) and even the Pantheon at Rome (Pictorial Times, 25 November 1843). The second image in the above slideshow shows how it also served as a newspaper comparator to illustrate the height of waves at sea during a storm.

A less obvious but equally apt comparison was Trafalgar Square, due to the pigeons who moved into the interior dome after removal of the records, occasionally depositing their detritus on unlucky individuals in the hall below. An article from the Dublin Evening Telegraph, of 30 June 1922 describes the number of birds within the dome at this time as having been in the hundreds, and states that one of the great amusements of Dublin in the 1880s was for immediate residents with sporting proclivities to shoot pigeons in the Four Courts after hours.

Queen Victoria’s statue sat on Leinster Lawn for a while, but might have ended up on the Four Courts too, if an 1897 suggestion of the Dublin Daily Express that readers contribute 2s 6d towards the erection of a statute in her honour on its very top had been followed. I am sure that, if so installed, she would not have been in the least amused by the events of 1922, but perhaps her presence on the top of the dome might have made the forces of the Provisional Government a little more careful about how indiscriminately they directed their fire.

It may be too late to restore Edward Smyth’s beautiful sculptures and bas-reliefs, of which only limited secondary evidence survive, but what is the current status of the void between the domes? It will be interesting to see what, if anything is done with it in the future.

The dome(s), currently under renovation yet again, will, no doubt, have many more stories to tell!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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