The city of Dublin has many significant landmarks and buildings of historical and architectural interest. However, few buildings have embodied a profession in the way that the Four Courts complex has. It has been at the epicentre of legal life in Ireland for over two hundred years.
The building remains a symbol of the enduring power of common law. It may have from time undergone some redesign or additional rooms built onto the existing structure, but the Four Courts complex like the common law itself, retains a unique identity and more importantly a unique place in Irish social and cultural life.
The 1775 decision to house the country’s legal system under one roof brought to an end the centuries old nomadic nature of the Irish courts. Prior to the 17th century the Courts sat in various locations though mostly in Dublin Castle. The transitory nature of the courts ended in 1608 when they were located in new buildings in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral and in the adjoining Christ Church Place. However, the space proved inadequate and the offices of the courts and the legal records remained dispersed. In 1775 a decision was made to build new premises on the present site.
View of pillar and frieze detail in the Four Courts
Work, based on the designs of Thomas Cooley, architect of Dublin’s Royal Exchange, began in 1776 on the original 13th century site of a Dominican Friary garden which would later become the old King’s Inns, the present Four Courts emerged in the twenty years between 1776 and 1796. 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 another prominent Dublin building, 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. At the hub is the Round Hall, 64ft in diameter, with inner and outer domes and a surround of Corinthian columns. The completed courts opened for business on 8th November 1796.
View of the Round Hall from the top of the inner dome
Like many of Dublin’s finest buildings, the Four Courts suffered the ravages of war. The interior decoration was 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 roof statues which survived have been identified as Moses, Justice, Mercy, Authority and Wisdom.
An irreparable loss was the destruction of the Public Records Office. 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.
Today, significant work is being carried out on the roof at dome level. This OPW-led work centres on repairing damaged capitals on the exterior of the dome. These works also include cleaning and repairing granite stone, replacing copper sheeting and installation of safety systems for future maintenance.