The Time They Tried to Move the Four Courts to London, 1850

From the Freeman’s Journal, 17 July 1850


The Irish bench and bar are now upon their trial in a way more dangerous to them and to the national interests than at any previous time since the Union.  Not a post leaves Ireland without communications from some of the correspondents of the London press, laying bare every accessible point of their position.  If business be brisk it is pointed out with grudging envy, if it is slack a shout of exultation is set up over the empty bags of the practitioner, and some even of our Irish contemporaries re-echo the fine news as a preliminary to the shutting up of our national tribunals.  Bench and bar had need to look to themselves; and it especially behoves the judges to take care that their conduct shall leave no room for injurious observation; for we can assure these learned functionaries that there is no motive so base but the domestic traitors, who have been employed for our vilification and sale, will be quite ready to impute to them, to their sons, their sons-in-law and their remotest cousins, if any occasion, no matter now trivial, be given for corrupt aspersions.”

What was the cause of this concern? And why was the Freeman, so often their trenchant critic, so concerned for the reputation of the mid-19th century Irish bench and bar?

Follow the money.  On 27 March the same paper had reported that a bill ‘for the abolition of the Irish courts, and for reducing Dublin to the rank of a market town,’ had been communicated to a select few of the Irish members by Prime Minister Lord John Russell. According to the Freeman, Lord John, possessing ‘all the cold-blooded obstinacy of the Russells, added to the cold- blooded dogmatism of a doctrinaire’ would ‘pursue his venesection regardless of the writhings of his victim’ unless the Irish people raised their voices unanimously to object. 

Lord John Russell, reputed to be scheming to move the Four Courts to London, as depicted in Vanity Fair, via Artflakes.

What had actually been proposed was the abolition of the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland, but it was felt that should this office be abolished, ‘then would follow the abolition of the Four Courts, the Custom-House, the Stamp-Office, the Royal Hospital, so that Dublin would be only a city in name, but really a village, requiring gentry, citizens, tradesmen and artisans to proceed with their families across the Atlantic to the shores of that rising country the United States of America to earn for themselves the means of support.’

The thought of the courts being transferred to Westminster created consternation in Dublin, not just among barristers, solicitors and court staff, for whom this would mean either emigration or prolonged annual absences from their family, but also among businessmen who, still feeling the pain of the abolition of the Irish Parliament fifty years previously, anticipated a further disastrous fall in trade. Public upset was such that on 30 April 1851 the Lord Lieutenant himself met with a deputation from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to assure them that no possible removal of the courts of law and equity had ever been contemplated and that he considered their existence essentially necessary to Ireland. 

This reassurance did not alleviate the concerns of the Freeman, whose view was that although it would be a long time – four years at any rate – before the predicted relocation of the courts went ahead, ‘woe to the judge whose temper or connexions might expose him to a showing up as the Irish correspondents of English newspapers would take care that any scene in the Rolls would occupy a prominent place in the column of diurnal preparatory damage to the ancient and permanent seats of justice, the possession of which gives a constitutional dignity to our country and our city, to the befouling of which this covey of evil birds apply themselves.’

Safely removed from the predicted carnage, the Ulster Gazette was less sympathetic, remarking that Ireland (if not Dublin) would not lose one farthing’s work by the removal of the High Court to Westminster, as it was not law courts and lawyers which gave dignity to a country but the honesty and pure morality of its people. 

The 5th Marquess of Londonderry, who thought the Four Courts should stay where it was, via AbeBooks.

One of Ulster’s best-known peers did not agree.  The Marquess of Londonderry spoke against the abolition of the Lord Lieutenancy in the House of Lords, saying that if the office  were abolished, the Four Courts and other establishments would inevitably follow, Dublin would become a desert and grass grow in her streets, particularly at a time when nearly a decade of famine had already educed Ireland to the utmost verge of destitution. 

The above coincided, intentionally or not, with the implementation of a change in jurisdictional rules which stood to remove many previously lucrative cases from the scope of the superior courts. According to the English Sun, this would render the profits of Irish barristers so inconsiderable as to render the profession not worth following by 9/10 of the present practitioners, making it a matter of justice, as well as expediency, that they should be granted the privilege of practising in England, and indeed English barristers likewise in Ireland. 

The Tralee Chronicle sarcastically remarked that there was little graciousness in permitting Irish barristers to abandon their homes, families and connections to plead the cause of their clients before the judges of Westminster Hall and accept verdicts at the hands of ‘Cockney juries,’ nor was there any sense in encouraging English barristers to come to Ireland to gaze at ‘deserted halls and unemployed judges.’ It also suggested that the proposed move was due to embarrassment suffered by the British establishment in the course of a number of recent political trials, such as that of Daniel O’Connell in 1844, when the prosecuting Attorney-General had notoriously challenged opposing counsel to a duel in open court.

Something had to be done to stop the move, and it was.  On 1 June 1850 the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent wrote happily that

“The spirit of the Irish Bar, so long dormant, and by many supposed to be defunct, has at length been resuscitated and the energetic elasticity which characterised its revival yesterday, holds out a hope of better days for Ireland. For the first time since the disastrous period of the Legislative Union, the members of that honoured profession – casting to the winds all political differences and selfish considerations – met in proud array to protest against the fresh wrong to be inflicted on their native country, against the Process and Practice Bill and the bill for extending jurisdiction of the Assistant Barristers as calculated to affect most injuriously the long recognised privileges and the emoluments of both branches of the profession under the plausible pretext of rendering law cheap the real object being to degrade the superior courts of justice in Ireland and pave the way for transferring the principle legal business of the country to Westminster Hall”

James Whiteside QC, later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland (zoomable version here)

The meeting was notable for a speech by James Whiteside QC, who stated that, having lived long enough to listen with distrust to what public men say with respect to Ireland, he was certain that, in the absence of a determined expression of opinion on the part of the Irish people, the courts would be removed to London whenever expedient – something which would be disastrous for Dublin. The difference, he said, that the Four Courts made to the city was palpable – out of legal term the city bore a ‘dull and dreary’ appearance in contrast to the animated aspect it presented whenever the courts were sitting.

The Four Courts never did move to London, although some said it had never been intended to move them there in the first place and the whole debacle had been one almighty and maybe even very Irish fuss about nothing.

The Irish Bar survived the post-Famine years with the help of guineas generated in the Encumbered Estates Court in Henrietta Street. By the following decade, all talk of moving to Westminster was over and the Four Courts itself was expanding again with the erection of new buildings.

By this time, Mr Whiteside, now Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, had transferred his crusading abilities henceforth to another, even more serious problem – the eradication of the Liffey smell. Could his June 1850 speech have swayed parliamentary opinion? And, if so, should we consider another move – a transfer of his statue, currently in Christchurch, back to its original site?

Statue of Lord Chief Justice Whiteside, via Wikimedia Commons

After all, who better deserves to be commemorated within the Four Courts than the man who just may have tipped the balance in saving it for Ireland?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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