No Great Gas: Lighting the Four Courts, 1856-1905

From the Dublin Daily Express, 12 February 1879:


A juror in the last case complained that there was a strong smell of gas in the jury box.

The Lord Chief Baron – Is there anyone in charge of the court?

Mr Walker (court keeper) – Yes, my lord.

The Lord Chief Baron – I can only say, gentlemen, I think this courthouse is a disgrace to any civilised country, much more to the metropolis of Ireland.

A Juror – It is, my lord.

Mr Curran BL – I never leave the court without a cold, or a crick in my neck from looking up at the jury box.

Another Juror – There is a terrible draught up here.

The Lord Chief Baron – All I can say is that any recommendation that you make on the subject I will feel it my duty to forward to the Government.

Mr Murphy KC said the Treasury would not give a six pence to any alteration; neither would the Corporation.

The Lord Chief Baron – It has come to such a point, that I think the Government ought to interfere, even if it became necessary to pass an Act of Parliament. As far as I am concerned, I will not be able to sit in the court house. Can nothing be done to stop this escape of gas?

The Court-keeper – Nothing, my lord. I go round every morning with a candle to try to find it out; but I cannot discover it.

The Lord Chief Baron – Why do you not turn it off at the main?

The Court-keeper – That would leave the passages below in darkness, my lord.

Mr Murphy observed that there was no intermediate cock.

The Lord Chief Baron – So that there is no way of turning it off?

The Court-keeper – No, my Lord.

A Juror – It is a very unfortunate circumstance.

The Lord Chief Baron – I quite understand it; because I go home sick every night myself, and I suppose you do too. Can nothing be done?

The Court-keeper – No, my lord.

A juror suggested that candles should be used in the passages to the cells, and the gas turned off.

The Lord Chief Baron directed that this should be done at once.

The jury, before leaving the box, presented the following requisition:

We, the undersigned jurors, serving on the February Commission of Oyer and Terminer, desire to draw the attention of the authorities to the unsatisfactory condition of this court in regard to the accommodation for jurors, and the bad atmosphere, owing to defective ventilation and sanitary arrangements.”

The above court was in Green Street Courthouse, but similar problems with the gas system applied in the Four Courts, with the Irish Times of 14 January 1888 reporting that, owing to a fog, both judges and counsel had to get candles lit to enable them to read briefs or make notes.

Before gaslight, business in the Four Courts, and the old Four Courts, must regularly have been carried on in this way.

The first record of gaslight in the Four Courts occurs in 1856, when the exterior was illuminated on a gigantic scale for the Proclamation of Peace. The design, prepared by Mr Mooney of Ormond Quay, was described as being of beautiful construction, and the effects splendid.

As gas jets spread throughout the city, litigation from the resulting explosions kept lawyers busy. The courthouse in Green Street had suffered its own gas explosion in 1867, audible as far away as Dominick Street, which blew out a great portion of the roof of the building, as well as the doors of the rooms in which jurors slept. Fortunately no one was injured. Although it was originally thought that the explosion was due to a design to perpetuate an outrage, it turned out that it had been caused by the court-keeper’s servant woman striking a match. This explosion must have been very much in the mind of the Chief Baron when he smelt gas in the court in 1879.

The Four Courts had its own gas fatality in 1888, when a young plumber’s apprentice tragically died as a result of an explosion when repairing the gas in the Bankruptcy Court in Chancery Place. By this time, the statue of Truth in the centre of the Round Hall was wielding her very own gas jet, which, miraculously, never exploded, although there were a few close calls.

By the late 19th century, the famous statue of Truth in the centre of the Round Hall (depicted here during an earlier, candlelit period) was wielding her very own gas jet.

The reign of gaslight in the Four Courts came to an end in October 1905, when the Irish Independent reported that

Visitors who have not seen [the Four Courts] since the commencement of the Long Vacation will get a pleasant surprise. The Capital’s Temple of Justice has undergone a thorough cleaning and renovation…. the most important improvement is the installation of electric light on the three-phase system all over the premises, with the exception of the Hall and a few of the passages, in which gas will continue to be used – at least for the present. Messrs. Egan and Tatlow are the contractors for this extensive alteration in the lighting arrangements. The electric current is supplied from the Corporation mains, the wires being carried in screwed steel conduits. There are four electroliers in the Law Library hung from the centre of the ceiling, each containing seven incadescent lights of thirty two candle power, and there are also several small electroliers introduced into the different recesses.”

One person who must have been pleased at the above was Lord Chief Baron Palles, still presiding in the Court of Exchequer, over thirty years after his dialogue with Mr Walker in Green Street above. It has to be said that the Lord Chief Baron was most unfortunate in his working conditions, as his usual place of business, the Court of Exchequer, located where Court 3 is today, was notorious for its smell, being built above a cesspit. It is reassuring to know that, despite the numerous breaches of health and safety which he had to endure, he continued on the bench until 1916!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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