The Mysterious Folding Doors of the Supreme Court, 1937-73

From the Evening Echo, 8 January 1973, this wonderful article about the Irish Supreme Court and its former Chief Justices:

For a whole decade – 1923-1932 – the Four Courts building was not in use and the Courts sat in the room in Dublin Castle which now comprise the State Apartments.

When the repaired Four Courts were opened the Supreme Court looked elegant as befitted the highest tribunal in the land. Directly opposite the Bench, in line with the approach from the Quay through the Round Hall, stood a pair of wide folding doors.

While ample access was available from the side-doors of the Courtroom, the purpose of the folding doors was an enigma, and the rumour spread that they would be used only for the ceremonial entry of any new Chief Justice.

Time passed, and no one asked questions when seats were placed in such a way as to prevent the Doors from opening, and to this day the mystery has remained unsolved.

Too soon a testing time came. In December 1936, during the Edward VII-Mrs Simpson debacle, a bell was rung in the Law Library and all listened to the announcement: ‘The Chief Justice will not sit tomorrow”.

“Has he abdicated too?” asked one of the members. It was an unconsciously grim jest, for the Hon. Hugh Kennedy, Chief Justice, died unexpectedly next day.

Son of a Dublin surgeon, Hugh Kennedy had given his undoubted skill to the formative events of the State – the Treaty negotiations, the drafting of the 1922 Constitution, and the setting up of the new judicial system. From the post of Attorney-General he became the first Chief Justice of the Irish Free State. Apart from law, he used his talents for the cultural advancement of his native city and country. An indefatigable worker, ‘Who’s Who’ gave as his recreation – ‘change of work’.

Tireless in research, he sometimes reserved judgment for an inordinately long time. In the matter of the Erasmus Smith trusts, the humorous lawyers suggested that perhaps he had been given it to the ‘missing postman’ [Larry Griffin, who mysteriously disappeared at Stradbally, Co Waterford, on Christmas Day 1929] to deliver. The Chief died without giving the judgment.

Kennedy CJ was followed by the Hon Timothy Sullivan, who was elevated from the post of President of the High Court – but not through the mystery Doors. A first class lawyer, his appointment was universally approved, but the formative days of the State and its judicial system were over and the spectacular events of the ’20s and early ’30s seemed not to be destined for repetition.

Mr Justice O’Sullivan was one of a group known as the ‘Bantry Band,’ who had graced the Forum and the House of Commons over a long period. We are a cynical race and apt to attribute something other than, or in addition to, ability as a cause of some promotions. One who asked whether Timothy Sullivan had a patriotic career was met with another question – did not his father write ‘God Save Ireland?

Again, on the retirement of Sullivan CJ by reason of ill-health, the President of the High Court passed – not through the Doors, to the highest judicial chair. The Hon. Mr Justice Conor A Maguire came from Mayo. Again, a very deserving and popular choice.

Dublin’s turn arrived again with the Hon. Mr Justice Carroll O’Daly, another distinguished lawyer and patron of the arts. We now pass him over to do us credit in the tribunals of Europe.

Now it’s Cork again, with the well-deserved appointment of the Hon Mr Justice William O’Brien Fitzgerald. If the Doors were ever to have opened they should have been open by now. We have come to accept them as a myth.

A Chief Justice presides at the hearings of the Supreme Court and his abilities must not be confined to legal knowledge and experience. He must, in addition, be a competent chairman or an advocate conducting an appeal might be pressed with questions from the whole Court of five judges simultaneously, and chaos might ensue.

Munster, Connacht and Leinster have given us Chief Justices. Ulster has provided capable Supreme Court Judges, but we must wait another day for a legal Cuchulain to be given the highest chair.”

It took time, but as of October 2021 Ireland now has a Chief Justice from Ulster! The above photograph from UCD Digital Library shows the layout of the Supreme Court in 1937 including the magnificent walnut canopy, constructed by G & T Crampton, which remains in place to this day. The notorious doors lie out of picture behind the photographer.

The decision to locate the Supreme Court just behind the Round Hall is an interesting one. Its curtilage originally formed part of a large room called the Chancery Chamber, which was initially used for general purposes, including early Bar meetings, and later broken up into Nisi Prius and Rolls Courts with the first Law Library (1830s-1897) constructed above. The shades of long-dead barristers and the solicitors who waited on them may well hover somewhere in the upper airspace of today’s court, commenting critically and humorously on the goings-on below. The first Law Library was such a merry place that they could surely be nothing other than benevolent!

The author of the above article, named as John R Coghlan, may have been District Judge John R Coghlan, who holds a unique place in the Irish judiciary to this day by reason of his membership of the Plymouth Brethren. A 1982 obituary in the Munster Express describes Judge Coghlan as ‘a god-fearing gentleman and perhaps too merciful at times.’ If he was in fact the author of this piece, we owe him a debt of gratitude for sharing such wonderful information in such good spirit!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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