Fine Girls and Noisy Instruments: Distracted King’s Inns Students, 1840-1874

Children in Henrietta Street, Dublin. Image via Europeana.

From the Freeman’s Journal, 28 July 1874, this impassioned complaint about distraction of the students of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns by children and other noisy instruments associated with military accommodation in Henrietta Street:

“At first sight there appears ugly contrariety between militia barracks and legal education, and we daresay the conjunction of two such entities is only to be discovered in the city of Dublin.  The public are aware that whatever legal studies are pursued in Ireland are pursued in Henrietta-street. The King’s Inns are there and the Law Library; and the splendid houses of the street are occupied by young gentlemen engaged in the study of the law and by barristers in practice. The Chambers which seem so dingy to the eye of the ordinary traveller have been before now occupied by the great nobles of the land; and the palatial apartments, which in pre-Union times were lighted up by many a festive celebration are now devoted to books and parchments and the sweet seductions of study. Most young men coming to town eating their way to the Bar reside in this home of legal memories, and many a judge, as he walks up to dine in the Inns during term, passes the old familiar place where years ago he had pored over Blackstone and Coke.

In this street, of about a score of houses, there are just four which have no connection with law or study or practice of any intelligent or intelligible kind. Two of these houses are occupied by the depots of militia regiments and two by the wives and family of the men. Anything more offensively incongruous can hardly be imagined, and anything more possibly tantalising can hardly be described. Legions of ill-clad, ill-cleaned, ill-reared children from the surrounding neighbourhood make day hideous. The men are engaged in the deafening duty of practising on wind instruments to the complete bewilderment of the student and the distraction of the reader of briefs. Without blaming these unhappy people – unhappy themselves and the cause of unhappiness in others – it must be conceded that they are matter in the wrong place. They ruin Henrietta-street as the home of legal education, they break down and destroy the quiet and order… and they themselves must be sadly inconvenienced in a thousand ways…

The public will be surprised to hear that the Benchers, including a Lord Chancellor, the three chiefs, the puisne judges, the sergeants and leaders of the Bar, have in vain petitioned the War Secretary to take his red coats and their belongings out of Henrietta Street  The men are at least a couple of miles from any place at which they might pursue gun practice, and in all weathers they must march to and fro. 

The Society of King’s-Inns deserves better treatment, and a more generous consideration from the Government; and, if we are correctly informed, they are seen likely to get both. In 1798 they voted £45000 from their funds towards ‘State exigencies’. The ground on which the Four Courts now stand was once the property of the Society, and it was ceded for the public advantage. The Government did not pay the rent, and arrangement was then made whereby the debt was to be liquidated out of the fees paid by students. In this way the students of successive generation may be said to have discharged a debt due by the Government to the Society; and by way of return the Government insist upon making student life intolerable.”

This was not the first time that the Benchers of King’s Inns had struggled with distractions to their students. According to the Irish Times of 19 November 1886, the Benchers of forty years’ earlier

“finding that Henry Monck Mason, their Librarian, then dwelling in the Library, had some very fine girls for daughters, they thought their beauty troubled the studies of the young barristers, and for the future (after his demise) required the Librarian to dwell in the adjacent house, taken by them for that purpose.”

The reference to a ‘Law Library’ in Henrietta Street is not to the Law Library proper, which was in the Four Courts, but to the library of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns formerly ministered to by Mr Monck Mason above. The description of the street as home to barristers’ chambers is accurate, or was so for at least a portion of the 19th century; in the late 1830s the private Queen’s Inns Chambers opened, advertising ‘vacant chambers… well suited for the accommodation of either barristers or solicitors’; it continued to provide such accommodation for at least the next decade.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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