The Rush to the Bar, 1840-1841

From the Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 21 November 1840:

“The French war, and the other more prominent national mischiefs having been disposed of, and set, we hope, for the term of our natural life, to rest, we naturally turn our eyes upon the minor calamities which threaten our domestic system.  Among the latter, we regard as unequivocally the most formidable, ‘the rising Bar of Ireland.’  This excrescence from society is becoming so alarmingly developed, that if prompt measures be not taken to check its growth, some fearful catastrophe must ensue.

The Bar of Ireland comprises, we should suppose in all, attendants and non-attendants, about two thousand gentlemen of all ages and complexions.  To this force, a quarterly accession takes place; and this quarterly accession has been increasing with a prodigiously accumulating radio, one which does not appear to possess what mathematicians call a ‘maximum limit’.  Term by Term the legal demon hauls in a miraculous draught of odd fishes, more copious than the last;  must burst, or – humanity recoils from the picture.

Melancholy must be the duty of the Irish Lord Chancellor, whose province it is to launch into the Hall of the Four Courts this periodical immigration of predestined hunger.  A touching sight it is to behold the lamb-like unconscious victims, arrayed before their virtual executioner, in their new whalebone wigs, every man full of lofty aspirations, and likely to be filled with very little else.

We hear much of the advantages of the legal profession; and these advantages are generally classified under the heads – ‘princely fortune’ and ‘proud independence.’  Now, as to princely fortune, we have calculated, that if the incomings of the Bar were balanced against its inevitable outgoings, and equally distributed among all the members of that profession, the professional income of each would exactly amount to £47.15s.3d. per annum; a provision upon which, if it be princely, Prince Albert would hardly congratulate himself.  But unfortunately the wealth of the profession is not thus equably distributed – about two dozen and a half of legal gentlemen monopolise pretty nearly the profits of the Irish Bar and the consequence is, that the remaining portion of the profession, of all ages, form one and twenty up to fourscore – in other words, the junior bar of Ireland – is in a state of extreme destitution.

In the first place, the wear and tear of the junior bar is fearful.  In shoes alone their expenses treble those of less studious men – the quantity they walk is perfectly prodigious.  This discipline is performed round the hall of the Four Courts, and the circularity of the course furnishes a melancholy symbol of their legal pursuits – the fatigue without the reality of progress.   The worst feature, however, in the case of ‘the rising bar of Ireland,’ is this – that their income is a negative one – that is, that their professional emoluments assume the form not of an addition, but of a subtraction.  This phenomenon results from the fact, that the expenditure of circuit considerably exceeds the profits of the Courts.

But enough of the professional income.  Some men dissolve in raptures over the independence of the Bar. ‘It is,’ say they, ‘the most independent profession upon the face of the earth.’  Independent enough it is – and perfectly independent it is likely soon to be – for if its members continue to exist much longer, they must prove themselves independent of food, raiment, and all the other ordinary encumbrances of this our sublunary condition.  Why is it that parents will not weigh these terrible facts before it is too late?  It is said that two thousand Irish Barristers are in existence.  About six hundred alone appear.  Where are the remainder?  The question is an appalling one.

Oh! If these invisible Barristers could stalk forth from the subterranean caverns, or wherever else they are hidden, and move, upon the first day of every term, in awful procession around the hall of the Four Courts, how many a thoughtless youth might the spectacle rescue from the jaws of the Bar?

Why will parents persist in immolating their best beloved to ‘the most independent profession on the face of the earth?’  Why is he who is supposed to carry the brains, sentenced also to carry the sins of his family – and why is he condemned to a mode of life in which he shares the miseries and starvation of genius, with the obscurity of ordinary men?  Thirty-one barristers, we believe, were called at the beginning of this term – if matters go on as they have been proceeding, the rising Bar of Ireland will soon have to take refuge in reciprocal and promiscuous cannibalism…”

On 17 April 1841 the Warder reported happily that its caution of the previous year had not been given in vain, stating that

“We point with feelings of honest pride to the statistical proof afforded by the declining scale of admissions for the Bar, when compared with the list of admissions of the previous term – the periodical influx has diminished by more than one half – a serious alleviation of the pressure from without.  We have, therefore, to congratulate ourselves upon having effected a complicated benefit for society at large.  We have saved the young blood of Ireland from the Irish Bar, and we have saved the Irish Bar from the young blood of Ireland.  We have conferred upon our country at least a negative blessing, and rest in the happy assurance that we have earned the gratitude of every gentleman who is a member of the Irish bar, and every gentleman who is not.”

Some have said that the rising Junior Bar is always in crisis… but usually manages to survive and often even prosper, immediately forgetting its previous troubles when it does! But there was a specific context to the above pieces: the Junior Bar was in the middle of a mid-19th century campaign – unprecedented before or after – to fight for its rights against seniors and solicitors alike, using the media as one of its weapons. It certainly had the best writers! More stories from the same campaign here.

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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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