The name of the ‘Four Courts’ has its origins in the four courts of Chancery, Exchequer, Common Pleas, and King’s Bench), which were unified into one High Court by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877. The name was applied, irrespective of the location.
The Four Courts were briefly located on the present site from 1606-08, but were moved to Christ Church at the insistence of Dublin Corporation, to be within the city.
The Courts Service website notes that, in 1775, the courts at Christ Church were dilapidated, with entry gained, literally, through ‘Hell’ – the name of one of the passages, where stood a large wooden statue of the devil.
The construction of the Public Record Office construction had begun on the site in 1776, with the Four Courts integrated into the design.
The original architect was Thomas Cooley, who died after one wing had been completed. His successor was James Gandon, to whom the plaudits for the design, particularly the dome and Round Hall, are ascribed – a further iteration of his design for the Custom House.
The buildings were completed in 1802, becoming and remaining the location of the superior courts, courts administration, the Bar Library, and the Solicitors’ Buildings.
The destruction of the Four Courts was unexpected. The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal was optimistic on 7 January 1922: “The prospects of the term appear as hopeful as in the past few years.”
There was no reference to the vote in Dáil Eireann that day, which accepted the treaty to conclude the Anglo-Irish war, with 64 voting in favour and 57 against.
Optimism was apparent at the Council meeting of the Incorporated law Society of Ireland (as it then was) in the Solicitors’ Buildings on 5 April. The president was absent on holiday; the Suggestions Book was examined – nil, no questions, no notices.
A solicitor from Nenagh asked the Council to request the proprietor of The Irish Law Times and Solicitors Journal to reduce the (annual) subscription of £2-10s-00d, which did not compare favourably with the (London) Times Reports at £1-14s-00d. “Ordered: the Council do not see their way to make suggestion.”
Neither did it decide on the attendance of apprentices in person to collect their certificates, nor the holding of the Solicitors’ Dinner. The Council adjourned until 26 April, following the Easter vacation.
Seized and occupied
The subsequent Council meeting was held on 21 April 1922 at Mills Hall, 8 Merrion Row, when Mr Orr, the vice-president, reported that “on the morning of Friday 14 inst, the entire Four Courts, incl the premises of the Society, had been seized and occupied by armed body of men hostile to the Free State Army, and they continue in occupation”.
The subsequent Council meetings were held at 33 Molesworth Street, which the secretary had secured at “the weekly rent of £2-10s-00d, with 5 shillings for cleaning”.
A stand-off ensued for the following three months between the Provisional Government and the anti-Treaty force.
Sean Lemass, future taoiseach, then aged 23, was the barrack adjutant of the Four Courts’ garrison. He issued passes to the garrison, stamped on the back with the wax seal of the Lord Chief Justice of Southern Ireland. A general election had been scheduled to be held in April, but was deferred to June.
Both sides wished to avoid a civil war, though there were many incidents and contests. The occupation of the Four Courts was merely the most prominent incident.
The month of June was to prove the catalyst. The general election poll on 16 June 1922 results were: pro-Treaty, 239,193 votes; anti-Treaty, 133,864 votes; other parties, 247,226 votes.
The Provisional Government regarded the election result as ratification of the Treaty (contested in the historiography). The anti-Treaty IRA further split on 18 June 1922. The killing of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in London on 22 June 1922 enraged the British government, resulting in extreme pressure on the Provisional Government.
Winston Churchill (colonial secretary) said in the House of Commons on 26 June: “If it [the occupation of the Four Courts] does not end, and a speedy end, it is my duty to say the Treaty has been violated.”
The Provisional Government forces issued an ultimatum to the garrison to surrender on 28 June 1922.
When not complied with, the Four Courts was bombarded with two 18-pounder field guns supplied by the British Army. The Four Courts’ complex, including the Public Records Office, was destroyed on 30 June 1922. The Irish Times reported “about mid-day, an ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin”.
The cause of the explosion is contested in the historiography, though the GHQ Irish Army issued a poster the following day: “Public Records Office destroyed with all its historic documents through fire caused by Irregulars’ explosion of mine.”
This was emphatically denied by the Four Courts’ garrison, particularly Ernie O’Malley, who contended the explosions were caused by the shelling and fires.
The Law Society Council meeting on 12 July at 33 Molesworth Street was informed by the president that the Four Courts was destroyed, “including the Society’s building”. It was resolved to submit a malicious-injury claim for £300,000 to Dublin Corporation, with a similar claim to the Provisional Government, and a claim for the contents (£7,700) to Yorkshire Insurances.
The Benchers of the King’s Inns were informed ‘without prejudice’. The subsequent meeting on 19 July read the lease from the Benchers to the Society, granted in 1871 for a term of 999 years, at 1 shilling per annum, noting that there was a covenant to reinstate. The meeting on 4 October authorised the expenditure of £300 to re-establish the library, with appeals made in the Gazette for donations of books, which was very successful.
The meeting on 15 November was made fractious by a demand from Dublin Corporation for payment of rates on the Society’s premises at the Four Courts from 1 April to 28 June at £87-0s-7d, and for electric lighting at £31-18s-3d.
The secretary was ordered not to reply.
The Master of the Rolls, Sir Charles O’Connor, in his judgment on the habeas corpus application of Erskine Childers in November 1922, determined a “state of war” existed “because one of the noblest buildings in this country, which was erected for the accommodation, and was the home of justice for more than a hundred years, is now a mass of crumbling ruins”.
The report of the Council for the year ending 26 November 1922 was explicit on the destruction of the Solicitors’ Buildings: “That such a disaster should have overtaken the Society is deplorable”, noting that the insurance company had repudiated liability “relying on the circumstances under which the destruction occurred”.
On 17 January 1923, Mr AE Murray BE reported, valuing the destroyed premises at £95,240 and contents at £9,619. Dublin Corporation resumed correspondence on 14 March 1923, seeking payment of one year’s poor rate of £38-1s-10½d on the Solicitors’ Buildings, 1 March to 28 June 1922. [The Council] “ordered secretary to interview City Solicitor and Collector”.
Mr Wakely, the secretary, reported at the following meeting, on 28 March 1923, his offer to pay £38-1s-10d, in full discharge of all claims.
There was no progress in relation to the malicious-injury claims, despite constant inquiry from the Council.
The meeting on 13 February 1924 was informed that counsel for both bodies agreed that the Benchers, under the lease, were liable to rebuild the Solicitors’ Buildings – “the claim of this Society was against the Benchers and not the State”.
It was agreed that both bodies would seek an interview with the Minister of Finance with a view to settlement of the claim on “a cash basis”.
The contents claim was ruled in the Circuit Court on 28 June 1924 in the sum of £7,074, with the Gazette in January 1925 noting the compensation received by the Society: “£2,000 cash and £4,950 compensation stock” – a shortfall of £124, caused by the retention to meet the cost of the Society’s Grant of Arms.
Cash was a scarce commodity in the early years of the Irish Free State.
On 28 January 1925, the secretary reported on the joint deputation meeting with the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe, when it was disclosed that the Government had not decided whether to rebuild the Four Courts. It did, however, intend to rebuild the front portion as government offices.
He also quoted the estimated costs of rebuilding the Solicitors’ Buildings at £26,000.
The question of temporary office accommodation was declared by the minister “for sympathetic consideration”, which found practical conclusion in 45 Kildare Street in May 1925, when the Board of Works agreed to lease it from Sir Stanley Cochrane “for the free temporary occupation of the Society pending settlement of the claim, subject to the drainage being in sound condition”.
Alas, the drainage was defective, delaying the occupation.
Symbol of imperialism
There was uncertainty as to whether the impecunious Free State would rebuild the Four Courts – “a symbol of British justice and imperialism”.
TJ Byrne, principal architect at the Board of Works, had the ear of WT Cosgrave, president of the Executive Council, from his time as an alderman, whom he informed that the existing structures could be used and the work completed at reasonable cost.
The Government, in late 1925, decided to rebuild. It was also engaged in rebuilding the GPO, increasing the expenditure. In May 1926, the plans for the new premises were received – the new Bar Library to be sited on the destroyed premises, with the Solicitors’ Buildings moved to its present location.
Difficulties abounded. The Council meeting on 15 July 1927 was a ‘special meeting’ called by the president, “in order to consider the passing of a resolution in reference to the murder of Mr Kevin O’Higgins, vice-president of the Executive Council, and Minister for Justice and for External Affairs, which occurred on Sunday the 10th inst”.
In consequence of this killing, the Cumann na nGaedheal Government introduced a law requiring all Dáil candidates to agree to swear the oath of allegiance required by the Treaty, providing the catalyst for Mr De Valera to declare the oath of allegiance “an empty formula” and Fianna Fáil to take their seats in the Dáil for the first time.
The Council meetings in October and November 1929 saw movement in the intractable title difficulties, with the attorney general prepared to advise the Government to accept a lease from the Society.
Daire Hogan, solicitor and historian, has noted that the lease was not completed until 1954, which contained provisions for the repairing, servicing and heating of the Solicitors’ Buildings, but crucially, not responsible for the external portions of the building.
The Gazette, in June 1931, reported that the new premises were expected to be ready for occupation in June or July, but “owing however, to the strike in the building trade, the work has been considerably delayed”.
The Council meeting on 1 October 1931 was the first held in the new premises. The secretary reported that he had taken over the new premises on 6 September, and the caretaker had been in residence since 7 September.
The president, at the half-yearly meeting, welcomed members “to our new home”, acknowledging the “architectural skill of Mr TJ Byrne, principal architect of the Board of Works, Messrs Alex Hull & Co, the builders, and Mr R Caulfield Orpen, the Society’s architect, and to our secretary Mr Wakely, who has spared no effort in assuring our premises would be all they should be”.
The Council meeting on 27 October 1932 resolved to give Mr Wakely a gift of £1,000 “in view of the exceptional services rendered by him”.
Resumption of normality
The resumption of normality was demonstrated by the following notice in the Gazette in December 1931: “Members can rent lockers in the Solicitors’ Buildings, Four Courts, for the sum of 5 shillings per annum. Application should be made to the caretaker.”
The normality was a myth. Chief Justice Hugh Kennedy had proposed a formal public opening and corresponded with the Minister for Justice, James FitzGerald-Kenney, who replied, stating that the political situation in the country was far worse than the public was aware: “We are taking all possible precautions to see the Four Courts are not blown up or otherwise destroyed some night.
A formal opening would be a direct incentive to the making of an attempt to wreck the building.” The courts resumed sittings on 12 October 1931, without formal ceremony.
At the time of writing, the Four Courts is subject to further renovation and refurbishment by the OPW. Mr Byrne’s concrete encasement has become time-expired.
The value of the works chimed with the history and purpose, as expressed by Tomás Clancy, barrister and historian: “The Four Courts were, however, more than just the stone and an idea – they became the home of the Irish legal system.”
A portion of the Solicitors’ Buildings was sold to the Bar Council in 1977 to partially fund the acquisition of Blackhall Place, the Law Society’s headquarters.
An office and consultation rooms remain in use by solicitors. It is right and fitting that the solicitors’ profession retains a presence in the Four Courts, which remains the home of the Irish legal system.