Early on Wednesday morning Emmet Dalton looked out across the Liffey at the green copper-domed building. Designed by two of the great architects of Georgian Dublin it’s white portland stone facade was reflected off the Liffey. Dalton gave the order and moments later the artillery guns began firing.
Exchequer, Common Pleas, King’s Bench and Chancery – the four medieval courts of law and justice. Since the early 17th century they had been located in buildings around Christ Church.
James Maltons “View of the Law Courts looking up the Liffey.
March 1799” In 1775 Thomas Cooley was commissioned with the design of a new building to combine the courts under one roof. It was to be situated across from Christ Church on the north side of the Liffey. Cooley died before his designs were complete and the commission was given to James Gandon – architect of The Custom House and erstwhile employer of James Malton. He expanded on Cooleys work and building commenced in 1786. Long time collaborator of Gandon, Edward Smyth, created the decorations, both inside and out. Niches filled with statues of judges and lawyers, beautiful stone flagged floor and looking down from the roof the five statues of Moses, Justice, Mercy, Authority and Wisdom. It opened for business in 1796.
Forty years later in 1840 more buildings were added. Offices of the Law Society of Ireland and, in what would turn out to be a fateful decision, a building to hold the Public Record Office.
“Early on the morning of the 28th June my wife wakened me and told me there had been a heavy explosion in the centre of the city. I realised, of course, that the Four Courts had been attacked”
– Michael O’Flanagan
In April 1922 the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a force opposed to the treaty that had partitioned Ireland into two, had occupied The Four Courts. Their intention was to provoke a military confrontation between themselves and what remained of British forces in Ireland in the belief that if this happened then the pro and anti-Treaty sides would unite to fight the British for a united Ireland.
The Four Courts, June 1922
Instead they found themselves facing the very men that they had fought alongside in the War of Independence but now reformed as the fledgling Irish Army of Saorstát Éireann – the Irish Free State. A stand-off developed but events away from the Four Courts would force the issue. The IRA’s assassination of British Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in London and their capture of Irish Chief of Staff J.J. O’Connell would result in action. On the morning of the 28th Major General Emmet Dalton’s two 18 Pounder field guns, borrowed from the British Army, opened fire. Two days later the IRA forces in the building surrendered but the building itself was in ruins.
In one of the most contentious points over the events of these few days the west wing, containing the archives of the Public Records Office – almost six hundred years of Irish history – was destroyed when a large explosion ripped through the building. Whether this happened on purpose or by accident the loss to Ireland of much of it’s documented history was painful.
T.J. Byrne, the then State architect, managed to convinced the leader of the country – W.T. Cosgrave – that the building could be saved and in 1932, slightly modified and lacking the grand interior of Edward Smyth, the building re-opened. By 1940 however steel used to save the building had rusted and further repairs were needed. In 2011 one of the column capitals supporting the dome broke and, like the country itself, highlighted that the dome was in need of some serious repair. This restoration work, under the supervision of conservation architect John Cahill, got underway in late 2013 and is expected to be completed before 2016.
Four Courts, 2013. Note the scaffolding around the dome