The Four Courts as a Sightseeing Destination, 1816-1919

The interior of the Four Courts might not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of a tourist destination, but once upon a time it was unmissable for sightseers visiting Dublin. J & W Gregory’s ‘Picture of Dublin’ (1816) describes the ‘new’ Courts of Justice as ‘one grand pile of excellent architecture’ and the Round Hall as ‘crowded with lawyers and loungers,’ not to mention pickpockets. It also includes an old map from 1610 showing the original layout of the old Inns of Court previously on the site.

Thomas Cromwell’s ‘Excursions through Ireland’ (1820) describes the interior of the Round Hall as ‘so extremely beautiful, that no verbal description can convey an adequate idea of it: ’tis simple! ’tis elegant! ’tis magnificent.’ We learn that the courts are separated from the Hall by curtains – no doors – and that the judges sit in a cove with sounding-boards over their heads. Cromwell also includes some gems of information about Irish barristers and how they were perceived abroad: more agreeable companions than their secluded English counterparts; greatly distinguished for their conviviality and social talents; possessed of much eloquence, though usually more witty than profound, and with a predilection for punning; irreproachable in moral character; fascinating in manner; amiable and exemplary in their conduct in private life, though inclined to be lighthearted even on the most solemn of occasions, which he attributes to the absence of the wig at county assizes.

Many of the images of the early Four Courts originate in old tourist guides. Wright’s ‘Historical Guide to the City of Dublin’ contains an engraving of a drawing by George Petrie showing goings-on around the Four Courts of the time. From it, we learn the history of the old Four Courts in Christchurch and also discover that the very first coffee-room in the new Courts was in the basement, along with numerous other apartments. Is this extensive subterranean layout – which presumably survived the destruction of 1922 – still accessible today?

Starrat’s ‘Visitor’s Guide to the Metropolis of Ireland’ (1830) contains some interesting information about the different courts. From it we learn about the Court of Chancery’s role in giving relief for and against infants and married women, the role of the Court of Common Pleas in civil cases between private individuals, and the role of the Court of Exchequer in recovering revenue and as a court of record, with additional equitable jurisdiction. We also find out that, prior to 1695, the Law Courts were ambulatory and held in Carlow and Drogheda as well as Dublin. Perhaps we need to rediscover the legal history of these two towns?

An updated New Picture of Dublin’ by Philip Dixon Hardy (1831). Not much new information here, but a great illustration of the front of the Courts!

Another great illustration of the Four Courts from ‘Ireland Illustrated’ by Petrie, Bartlett and Wright (1831), which references the ‘beautifully finished quay walls, of chiseled granite’ outside the courts’. Included is the usual complaint that the building is situated too close to the river.

The Irish Tourist’s Illustrated Handbook of 1852 references a recent falling off in business in the Round Hall, previously ‘a scene of wonderful bustle and excitement’. It suggests venturing into the ‘large and commodious’ courts in the hope of catching a glimpse of some of the great judges occupying ‘the always distinguished Irish bench.’

A fascinating nugget of information here in Heffernan’s ‘Handbook of Dublin (1861), which describes a pedestal in the centre of the Round Hall on which stands ‘a colossal statue of truth holding a torch, through which, is conveyed a gas tube by which the hall is illuminated during the sittings in the winter evenings.’

The same statue is referenced again in Black’s ‘Picturesque Tourist of Ireland,’ 1877. You can view an image of it here. It seems to have been originally called ‘Themis’, then ‘Truth’. Originally described as pretty, it was subsequently felt to be too large, and removed to the park beside King’s Inns, where it acquired its third name of ‘Henrietta’. This almost certainly saved it from being destroyed in 1922. Sadly – and somewhat controversially – trifurcated by a film truck some years ago during the filming of ‘Jack the Ripper,’ it was last heard of wrapped up in the basement of King’s Inns – hopefully just a phase of restorative resting before a third act!

According to ‘What’s to be Seen in Dublin’ (1888), during term time the scene within the Hall is animated and striking: clients hunting for solicitors, solicitors hunting for clients, established barristers and those who hope to be so, and groups of all sorts talking on all manner of subjects, from the affairs of State to the state of the weather.

One of the most beautiful tourist guides to Dublin is Frances Gerard’s Picturesque Dublin Old and New’ (1898), containing many illustrations by Rose Barton, including a depiction of Chancery Lane, near Christchurch, close to the area informally known as ‘Hell,’ where the Four Courts were located before they moved across the river. According to Barton, the two great possessions of Dublin are the Castle and the Four Courts, and whatever about the first-named, ‘the legal element dominates society in Dublin and is held in the highest respect,’ doing duty for the absentee nobility. She also discusses the vaults of St Michan’s.

Belying its name, the ‘Thorough Guide’ (1906) is fairly sparse on the Four Courts, although it does mention the 1887 fire in the Vice-Chancellor’s court.

It seems that by the early 20th century the Four Courts was losing its attraction as a tourist destination. Black’s 1912 ‘Guide to Dublin’ has the cheek to describe the Round Hall as inferior to its counterparts in City Hall and the National Museum. It also complains that the view of the Courts is spoiled by huge advertisements on the Ha’penny Bridge.

By now illustrations had been replaced by the camera and A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to Dublin’ (1919) contains a somewhat forbidding photograph of the Four Courts. In such a politically charged era it is unlikely that visits to the Courts would have been encouraged. Even barristers were occasionally removed by the Black and Tans.

This would be the last tourist guide to feature the original Four Courts. The Four Courts rebuilt after the destruction of 1922 would be a more workmanlike, less ornate place and – in a city which once again had its own parliament – no longer the centre of Dublin political and social life. In the absence – as yet – of time travel, old tourist guides fill an important gap in reconstructing the lost but enticing world of the Four Courts of the past!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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