The Four Courts has stood for over 200 years as a bastion of law in Ireland. During that time it has witnessed a great deal of social and political upheaval. Indeed, it has often been at the heart of it.
The centuries old nomadic nature of the Irish courts ended with the 1775 decision to house the country's legal system under one roof. Under English rule in Ireland there had been two legal systems. Within the Pale, with Dublin at its centre, English law prevailed. Justice beyond the Pale was administered under the old Brehon laws. Passed on orally from at least the first century BC, the Brehon Laws, named for Ireland's wandering jurists, were first set down on parchment in the 7th century A.D. using the newly developed written Irish language and continued in use until the beginning of the 17th century. Prior to the 17th century, the courts sat in various locations - though mostly in Dublin Castle.
In 1606 the court moved across the river to its present location for a short time but due to pressure from Dublin Corporation, which wanted to keep them within the confines of the old city, the courts moved back across the Liffey in 1608 to a new home in the grounds of Christ Church and in the adjoining Christ Church Place. By the end of the 17th century the space proved inadequate and the offices of the courts and the legal records remained dispersed. The courts were in a very dilapidated condition and the architect William Robinson was commissioned to rebuild them. Despite Robinson's efforts, by 1775 the Four Courts were in ruins again and a decision was made to build a new structure on the present site. In order to gain entry to the old Four Courts, visitors had literally to go through 'Hell'. Christchurch was at one time surrounded by a warren of narrow lanes and alleyways. One of these passages to the west of the cathedral known as 'Hell' is said to have taken its name from underground cellar known by the same name. A large wooden statue of the devil adorned the arched entrance to the alley.
Work based on the designs of Thomas Cooley, architect of the Royal Exchange (now City Hall), began in 1776. Cooley's building concentrated in the area of the west courtyard and was intended to house only the Public Records Office and King's Inns.
When Cooley died in 1784, James Gandon, architect of the Customs House, was appointed to add the courts to the plan. Into his completed design he incorporated Cooley's building, adding two quadrangles and a central block. The quadrangles were given to the record and legal offices, the centre to the four courts of Chancery, Exchequer, Kings Bench and Common Pleas.
At the hub is the Round Hall, 64ft in diameter, with inner and outer domes and a surround of Corinthian columns. It was once described as ‘both the physical and spiritual centre of the building’.
Like many of Dublin's finest buildings, the Four Courts suffered the ravages of war. During the civil war, which followed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it was almost completely demolished. An irreparable loss was the destruction of the Public Records Office adjoining the Four Courts. Priceless legal and historical records were lost, including the complete records of the Irish Parliament, the original wills of every Irish testator from the 16th century, and the registers of hundreds of Irish parishes.
The alterations made since 1922 have not materially changed the aspect of the older building. An arcaded passage ran along the southern front of the quadrangles. This arcade has been enclosed with offices and a new corridor constructed on their northern side. The library on the first floor has been removed. The passageway which was built out from the central hall to the solicitors buildings has been built over, where the Supreme Court now stands.
James Gandon, Dublin's best known architect was responsible for such works in Dublin as the Four Courts, the Custom House, the King's Inns and additions to the Parliament House (now the Bank of Ireland).
In 1784, James Gandon was appointed to complete the work of building the new Four Courts.
The dome of the Four Courts is a prominent feature of Dublin's skyline and prior to the introduction of the euro even appeared on former Irish currency (the £20 note).
Gandon's initial intention was to vault the inner dome in brick but he eventually opted instead for plaster on timber framing. It may have been initially intended as a library but instead became a depository for the records of the Auditor General. By 1812, the weight of these documents had reached fifty two tons and they had to be removed to ensure the structural safety of the building. While the inner dome remains similar to Gandon's original design, the outer dome was (like the Round Hall) more richly decorated with stucco work by Edward Smyth. He also sculpted the statues on the roof of the building.
The dome suffered extensive damage as a result of the fire caused by the shelling of the Four Courts in 1922 following its occupation by anti-Treaty forces led by Rory O'Connor. The restoration team led by T.J. Byrne constructed an elaborate scaffold to inspect the extent of the restoration project. The dome was rebuilt with reinforced concrete which was achieved in just one operation involving twenty men working for thirty hours with just one short interval.
The Round Hall
The Round Hall
The Round Hall of the Four Courts has been described as the 'physical and spiritual centre of the building'. Here, barristers, solicitor's law clerks, clients and court staff gather to meet and mingle before and after trials. This central block was at the heart of Gandon's changes to Thomas Cooley's original architectural plans for the building.
The four courts off the hall which gave rise to the building's name were Chancery, Exchequer, Kings Bench and Common Pleas. It measures 64 feet in diameter with inner and outer domes and a surround of Corinthian columns.
Structurally, the hall and domes are largely as Gandon left them. The interior decoration was, however, much richer before the civil war damage of 1922. Statues of Irish judges and lawyers stood in the niches, the floor was flagged in stone and the dome enriched with the stucco work of sculptor Edward Smyth. Smyth's five roofline statues which survived have been identified as Moses, Justice, Mercy, Authority and Wisdom.
Supreme Court & Law Library
Supreme Court & Law Library
The Supreme Court is Ireland’s highest court and the court of final appeal in all constitutional and civil matters. It has been located in the Four Courts since shortly after the foundation of the State. It is located on the ground floor of the building, just behind the Round Hall and Information Desk.
The Law Library is located on the ground floor of the Four Courts just behind the Supreme Court. It provides changing and dining facilities for barristers in addition to its primary function as a library. It has undergone many changes from James Gandon's original plans and even since the renovation work of 1897. In his plans for the building, James Gandon placed the 'robing' room for barristers underneath the Round Hall. This area proved to be uncomfortable as the cavern like location had a tendency to flood and consequently become dank and unwelcoming. The Law Library in the original building was located above the Round Hall of the Four Courts. With the introduction of the Four Courts Library Act in 1894, funds were made available to facilitate a library in the east wing (as the 'wings' of Four Courts complex were completed in 1803). This library comprises the two upper floors of this wing. Among the impressive features of this 'new' library were two staircases and three large stained glass windows. The layout of the library was similar to the present day library with long desks and a centre aisle but located between large columns. The collegiate atmosphere of this library was enhanced by the addition of open fireplaces. As a result of the bombardment of the building in 1922, Dublin Castle became a temporary home for the library. Prior to its relocation by the Bar, the present location of the Law Library was used by the Incorporated Law Society as both a dining hall and theatre on different floors. Interestingly the west side of this block is the bar side and the east side that of the Incorporated Law Society.