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The Four Courts

James Gandon
Exploring the Four Courts
Tour the Four Courts

Early history

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 Custom 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. 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.

The Dome

The dome - a feature of the city skyline for over a century was destroyed during the 1922 civil war. T.J. Byrne, principal architect at the Office of Public Works, and his team erected an elaboratesystem of scaffolding allowing for careful examination of both the supports and the drum. It was discovered that almost all of the Corinthian columns surrounding the dome had been shattered, although the inner wall of granite remained largely intact. It was found on removal of the columns, (a skilled operation in its own right), that because they had originally been carved on all sides, it was possible to simply rotate them so that the damaged sides face inwards.

Two of the columns which had been destroyed were replaced with replicas cast in artificial stone. An internal system of steel framing was employed to brace the external walls and carry reinforced concrete floors. Using the latest technologies and techniques, T.J. Byrne rebuilt the dome using reinforced concrete. This was achieved in one operation, with twenty men working in a total of thirty hours with just one short interval.

Post 1922

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. Here the Supreme Court has been erected where the Chief Justice sits with her colleagues. The Law Library (a library for barristers) has been built behind the Supreme Court.

James Gandon

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).

He was born in London of Huguenot extraction. At the age of 14 he was sent to Shipley's Drawing Academy where he studied the classics, mathematics, arts and particularly architecture. He met many of his future friends during his two years at Shipley's, at the end of which he became apprenticed to William Chambers. At that time Chambers was in the midst of composing his great work, his Treatise on Civil Architecture. Gandon's drawings are among these. Apart from the Treatise, work included the Arch at Wilton and the Casino at Marino, Kew.

In 1765, Gandon finished his association with William Chambers and began work on Sir Samuel Hillier's estate near Wolverhampton. Gandon's practice grew slowly and remained small. His first major work was Shire Hall in Nottingham, for use by the Grand Jury, which commenced in 1769. At the same time he entered a design in the competition for a new Royal Exchange for Dublin. The design entered by Thomas Cooley was chosen, Gandon's design was second.

He was married on 26th July, 1770 to Miss Eleanor Smullen, Covent Garden. They bought a house in London and had six children. From 1771 to 1777 little is known of his architectural work. In 1780 a Russian Princess invited him to Russia to build in St. Petersburg. This offer included an official post with a military rank. Instead he accepted an offer from the Right Honourable John Beresford, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Revenue, to design a new Custom House in Dublin. Gandon arrived in Dublin on 26th April 1781 but work did not commence for a couple of months as there was angry opposition from the merchants who were against the relocation from the existing Custom House at Capel Street Bridge. The first stone was eventually laid on 8th August 1781 and was completed in 1791. During the building of the Custom House, Gandon went to London to visit his wife and family. He intended to sell his house and return to Dublin with his family but his wife was ill and died soon after his arrival. He returned to Dublin in March 1782 with his three youngest children; James aged eight,Mary Anne aged ten and Elizabeth aged six.

In 1784 Gandon undertook the building of the new courthouse in Waterford. During the 1780's Gandon became a consultant to the Wide Streets Commissioners of Dublin and designed a number of buildings including Carlisle Bridge and improvements to the Rotunda lying-in hospital and gardens. Meanwhile he was commissioned to make extensions to the Parliament House, Westmoreland Street. Work commenced in May 1785 and was completed by 29th April 1789, at a cost of just over twenty thousand pounds.

After the death of Thomas Cooley in 1784, James Gandon was appointed to complete the work of building the new Four Courts. The foundation was laid on 3rd March 1786. 1798 the foundations were laid for the east wing of the remaining offices. Work was finally completed in 1802.

The King's Inns was his last great building in Dublin. Standing with Henrietta Street to its rear and Constitution Hill to its front, it was built between 1795 and 1827. It has recently been extensively restored by the Benchers of the Honorable Society of King's Inns. The dining room there now contains the only Gandon interior (apart from some rooms inside the east portico of the Bank of Ireland building) to survive intact in a major public building. All the others have been burnt or bombed during the wars of the early 20th century or have since been radically altered.

After a long and fruitful life he was buried by his own request in the grave of his lifelong friend, Francis Grose in Drumcondra Cemetery. The inscription reads: "Such was the respect in which Gandon was held by his neighbours and friends from around his home in Lucan that they refused carriages and walked the 16 miles to and from Drumcondra on the day of his funeral."


Exploring the Four Courts

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. Although structurally it is much as James Gandon designed it (see Early History) prior to the fire of 1922, the interior decoration was much more elaborate. Statues of Irish judges and lawyers stood in the niches, the floor was flagged in stone and the dome enriched with the work of sculptor Edward Smyth.

The dome

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 depositary 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, and worked with Gandon on the Custom House. It suffered extensive damage as a result of the fire caused by the shelling of the Four Courts in 1922 when anti Treaty forces led by Rory O'Connor occupied the building. The restoration team led by T.J. Byrne constructed an elaborate scaffold from 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 Corinthian columns in the Four Courts were almost all shattered following the bombardment of the Four Courts in 1922. However the inner wall of granite remained largely intact following their removal. As they had been carved on all sides, it was therefore possible to rotate them so that the damaged sides faced inwards. Two of the columns which were entirely destroyed were replaced with replicas cast in artificial stone and an internal system of steel framing was used to brace the external walls and to carry reinforced concrete floors.

Central Office of the High Court

The Central Office of the High Court is where the vast majority of High Court civil cases begin. Unchanged for the most part since the foundation of the State, the office underwent extensive renovation work in 2002 resulting in a brighter more professional working environment although without taking from the sense of history. This major project included the transfer of the Judges' Library (formerly located on the first floor of this East wing of the building) to the second floor of Áras Uí Dhálaigh. The East Wing works included the construction of a second staircase at the end of the building nearest to the river required for health and safety reasons to facilitate the evacuation of the Wing in the event of an emergency. Also included was the re-wiring of the Wing to provide the power required for modern lighting and ICT systems.

The Central Office occupies the entire ground floor with most of the High Court registrars accommodated on the first floor. The remainder have offices on the second floor, with Court 29 and its jury room and associated judge's chamber having been remodelled to accommodate the new staircase. Staff and public bathrooms have been modernised and the lift has been brought up to current health and safety standards.

Considerable changes were also effected in the public access area. It has specially designed seating with an emphasis on providing a bright and comfortable waiting area which includes the public access computers. The Central Office Registrar and Manager have their offices in this section and the remainder of the staff have their desks in a closed section. the old counters at which customers sit while being dealt with have been replaced with one long curved counter made of mahogany and glass with a brass trim. The workstations at this counter have flat-screen monitors to maximise the space available for the public. The List Room is now on the first floor, close to the Registrars' Offices, and easily accessible to the public.
More Information on the Central Office

The Law Library

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 ofthe 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.