Welcome to the Four Courts.
The main points of interest are highlighted in this tour of the Four Courts complex. You can find out more about some of the matters referred to in Exploring the Four Courts.
This edifice has stood for over two hundred years as a bastion of law in Ireland. During that time the old building has witnessed a great deal of social and political upheaval. Indeed, it has been at the heart of much of it. The imposing entrance door leads into the great Round Hall and the original Four Courts of Chancery, Exchequer, Kings Bench and Common Pleas. Today these courts are numbered Court 1, Court 2, Court 3 and Court 4.
General introduction to Four Courts history
Under English rule there had been two legal systems in Ireland; English law within the Pale and Brehon law beyond it. This latter, indigenous system continued until the early 17th century by which time English law prevailed. In 1775 it was deemed that the location of the old Four Courts, then in and around the environs of Christ Church cathedral, was so dilapidated, dispersed and inadequate that an entirely new structure should be built on what is the present site. Work began on Thomas Cooley’s designs for the Public Records Office (now part of the west courtyard) in 1776. Upon Cooley’s death in 1784, James Gandon, architect of the Custom House, essentially designed what we recognise as the Four Courts today (the courts, hall, dome and quadrangles were all added to Cooley’s building). Like many of Dublin’s finest buildings, the structure was almost completely destroyed during the civil war of 1922.
James Gandon, Dublin’s best known architect, was responsible for such works in the city as the Four Courts, the Custom House, the King’s Inns and additions to the Parliament House (now the Bank of Ireland). Born in England in 1743 of Huguenot descent, he remained there for his early life and built up a small architecture practice. In the late 1760s he entered a design in the competition for a new Royal Exchange but came second to Thomas Cooley. Little is known of his architectural work during the 1770s, however in 1780 he was invited to build in St. Petersburg by a Russian princess. He declined, but instead accepted an offer the following year to design a new Custom House in Dublin. He arrived in 1781 and so began his long association with the city which continued until his death in 1823. He is buried in Drumcondra cemetery.
The dome of the Four Courts is a prominent feature of Dublin’s skyline and even appeared on former Irish currency (the £20 note). 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.The dome was completely destroyed in1922.However, T.J. Byrne, principal architect at the Office of Public Works subsequent to the Civil War, led a restoration project on the Four Courts. This saw the dome rebuilt with reinforced concrete in an operation involving twenty men working for thirty hours.
Round Hall and Corinthian Columns
The Round Hall of the Four Courts has been described as the ‘physical and spiritual centre of the building’. This central block was at the heart of James Gandon’s changes to Thomas Cooley’s original architectural plans. Structurally, the hall and dome 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. The hall is surrounded by Corinthian columns which, again, were almost all shattered during the bombardment of the Civil War.
The Central Office of the High Court
The Central Office of the High Court is the location where the vast majority of High Court civil cases are initiated It occupies the entire ground floor of the East Wing of the Four Courts. Unchanged for the most part since the foundation of the state, the office underwent extensive renovation work in 2002. Considerable changes were effected in the public access area including a bright and comfortable waiting area with specially designed seating and public access computers. The List Room is now on the first floor, close to the registrars’ offices, and easily accessible to the public.