The Neighbourhood of the Four Courts by Night and Day, 1876

A view of the north-eastern corner of the Four Courts from Chancery Place. In the 19th century Bull Lane – located on the site of the Hilton Hotel and Hughes’ Pub, both visible in the far distance – was home to all sorts of horrors. Image via Google Streetview.

From the Weekly Irish Times, 4 November 1876 (abridged), this account, heavily indebted to Dickens, of the near environs of the Four Courts in the second half of the 19th century.



This now classical locality is situated in the neighbourhood of the Four Courts and Police Courts. It simply beggars description. The worst women in Dublin are huddled together by nines and tens in hovels utterly destitute of furniture, the walls damp and running with slime and matter, and dunghills looking in upon the wretched inmates through holes destitute of glass – the stench being something horrible.

To the right, as you come down the lane, stands an old brick building of three stories. A more dilapidated and generally disreputable building surely never was.  The very walls – black with soot and filth, and seamed ith cracks, seem to leer upon you. The wooden stairs creak and crack under the lightest footstep; every passage is black as midnight; on every hand are groans and shrieks and curses.  In the ground flat, round about a wretched fire were huddled some half dozen drunken women and a couple of frightful looking men. On the floor lay a woman half naked for her nether limbs were all but wholly uncovered, trying to dash out her brains on the floor.  We lifted the poor wretch into the bed, and left her there, her companions calmly looking on – most of them smoking, and almost every one refusing, or to put it more exactly, abstaining from rendering her any assistance.

 Passing up the stairs, we called at almost all the places in the landings until we got to the third storey, when, turning to the left, we entered a place which could hardly be called a room, there being nothing but the bare walls of a place about five feet by three to see, with a low ceiling, and in the furthest corner from the oor, two ‘somethings’ – women they turned out to be – naked, except for a narrow strip of some black and dingy cloth over them and lying on a small heap of straw.  Two such faces surely were never seen. Disfigured by disease, bloated with drink, every vestige of womanhood crushed out of them, there they lay in the very room in which some two years ago Carr murdered the girl Murphy by cutting her throat from ear to ear. As we looked around at the room without a single stick of furniture and caught the eye of the two women glaring out, from under a mass of disheveled black hair, it was impossible not to feel a certain eerie feeling creep over one, and with a sudden gulp at the throat I left the place.

In other rooms equally destitute of furniture. we found women and their ‘fancy men’ lying on the floor, the rain dripping down on them through the cracked and broken ceilings. In one of these rooms, we found as many as twelve girls at a time, and if a policeman had not been with us, as many ‘fancy men’ would have sprung up as if from the ground and surrounded us by magic No single ordinary man would be safe in merely passing through the Lane in the broad daylight.  If his life were not actually taken, his clothes would be, and he would be thrown into the gutters naked and bleeding. In this same lane there were one or two night-houses where methylated spirits and vitriol are sold for whiskey, a glass of which is sufficient to drive anyone mad. Into one place we went a mother was found nursing a child. It was a girl, only two years old, and had a pipe in its mouth, its parent helping it to porter at intervals.

Adjoining Bull Lane is Fisher’s Lane, which is nearly as bad, and in the top rooms in the tenements of which cod liver oil is manufactured out of fishes’ entrails, the rooms being some three feet by four in size.”

The Weekly Irish Times visited Bull Lane again on the 25 November 1876 where it noted that since their former visit the houses at the corner of the Lane and Mary’s Lane, Nos 4 and 5, had been entirely overhauled, and turned into ‘really neat, substantial, and, compared with the rest of the buildings, positively handsome tenements; provided with capital sanitary accommodation.’

The owner of the houses was identified as Mr. K, owner of a shop in Mary’s Lane “a shrewd, dark-faced, respectable-looking man’ and ‘said to be worth a good pile of money.” Asked about the other owners of Bull Lane, he identified “the Rev W__ W__, a minister of the Church of England, Miss T __ ‘a grand lady that lives in one of the fashionable squares’ Mr. H, and Mister W. M. a gentleman.”

Clutching its pearls tightly, the Times reported, regarding the inhabitants of Bull Lane, that

[t]he depravity of the women is shown must more prominently and disgustingly during the day than by night.  Every hag in the tenement stuck her filthy head and bloated face out of the window, and showered down upon us a torrent of the most lewd and ribald language it is possible to conceive, accompanied by actions, the mere recollection of which makes one shudder.  In the whole lane there are some sixteen houses, with, say, seven rooms on an average in each, and from eight to ten and even more persons living in each room, utterly regardless of age or sex. In the house No 14, in one of the rooms in which Carr cut the girl’s throat some two years ago, there are seven rooms, and in these seven rooms, even during the day, when the men or ‘bullies’ are all out and most of the children, we found fifty-one women.”

Meanwhile, around the corner, No. 43 Church Street, “a tramp’s lodging into which 20-30 gentlemen crammed every night… the aristocratic house – the Gresham or Shelbourne of the district” was nothing compared to No. 144, where

“in a large dingy kitchen, seated on table forms, the floor – anywhere – literally swarming all over the place, we found a company of as forbidding, ruffianly, and nimble-fingered young thieves as ever soothed and delighted the artistic sensibilities of the Artful Dodger himself.  Some were smoking, some were drinking, some were cooking, some were eating, some were playing pitch and toss – but everyone was enjoying himself with an evident abandon which might almost fill the breast of many an honest man with envy. How the young rogues did enjoy themselves! And capital grub, and plenty of it, they had too. Before leaving, I may mention that at No 144 gentlemen can be put up for a night at the small charge of from one to two pence each.”

The area around the Four Courts had declined significantly since the glory days of 18th century Pill Lane, Dublin’s premier shopping street of the time. The trial of Andrew Carr for the murder of Margaret Murphy was a highly publicized Victorian crime and more details of it may be found here. After another horrible murder some years later, the houses of Bull Lane were cleared forever – although its clearers, true to the moral superiority of Victorian altruism, notably failed to provide its inhabitants with anywhere else to go. Today, Hughes’s Pub marks the spot where Nos 4 and 5 Bull Lane used to stand.

The name of the clergyman who owned houses in Bull Lane was the Rev. Mr. Walsh, and he resided in England.

Barristers may be interested to note that No 144 would have been next door to today’s Law Library annex at 145-151 Church Street!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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