The Irish Bar Library

Posted on October 24, 2016 by Cape Rebel

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From Edward Carson QC
by Edward Marjoribanks

The Irish Bar was one of the best clubs to which a young Irish gentleman might belong: in those days it was very much a continuation of Trinity College life, and, with a few exceptions, a close preserve of its Protestant alumni, for most of its members were then Protestants and Unionists. It was a smaller and homelier corporation than the English Bar, and, although its prizes were less and its fees were lower, it made up in good-fellowship what it lacked in guineas.

Barristers had no separate chambers at or near the Four Courts, one of the most beautiful and noble buildings in the Empire, unhappily and wantonly destroyed by Rory O’Connor in 1922. In the main building was the famous ‘Bar Library’, the place ‘where barristers most did congregate’. The main room was rectangular, with narrow galleries round the sides, under which were the bookshelves, a small octagonal room at each corner, and another room, the ‘Long Room’, running at right angles and opening off one side. The entrance used was through one of the small rooms, which became an anteroom in which solicitors and their clerks could speak to counsel.

The barristers sat on forms at long desks, or at ‘the Round Table’, a large table in the centre of the main room and opposite the chief fireplace (where twelve men sat), or at small round tables or separate desks in the corner rooms, or occupied any other available space. The accommodation was quite insufficient for the number requiring it, and the Bar were packed like children in a poor school of the bad old days, but with far more discomfort than would now be tolerated in such a place.

But it will easily be seen that at such close quarters the members of the Bar were a much closer association than their brethren in London, that jealousy and backbiting were so uncomfortable as to become really impossible, and that friendship and good-fellowship were not only general but necessary in such conditions.

Every barrister then lived in the city, and came to Court regularly every morning. Having robed and bewigged himself, whether expecting to be in Court or not, he went to the library and began his work or prepared to go to Court. As in the House of Commons, though not strictly entitled under the regulations to any special seat, each man could acquire by custom his own.

In Ireland, owing to the limited amount of legal business, there was not the same possibility of specialising as in England, and a junior barrister had to be prepared to take a case or advise proceedings in any of the Courts. This general knowledge, perforce acquired, was very useful to Carson when he came to the English Bar, and on many occasions he surprised the English Judges and his own colleagues, such as A H Bremner, with his acquaintance with the most abstruse legal doctrines which are as a closed book to the ordinary English Common lawyer.

Nevertheless, the library had its rough divisions. For instance, the ‘Long Room’ was the abode chiefly of Chancery men and conveyancers. So far as not engaged in Court, everyone spent the day in the library, and the pampered English practitioner, with his private chambers and his senior and junior clerk, may well wonder how these Irishmen managed to transact their business.

At the entrance to the main room stood a ‘crier’ – this formidable official was in Carson’s time an ex-trooper named Bramley, with a clear, powerful voice. Solicitors or their clerks – barristers had none – requiring to see a barrister, or to summon him to Court, came to the library door and mentioned the name of their counsel. Bramley then shouted the name – his voice would have reached far beyond the uttermost corner of the library – and the barrister immediately stopped his drafting or reading and went to the door.

Bramley’s voice retained its power from early morning until the shadows fell, and, in justice be it recorded, the ex-trooper’s throat needed very little lubrication. He kept by him a printed sheet with the names of the barristers, and a man leaving the library would say where he was going – such as ‘Rolls’, ‘Common Pleas’, or ‘Exchequer’. Bramley then entered a note of this address after the man’s name, and if, when subsequently wanted, he did not respond when his name was called, Bramley would tell the enquirer where to look for him.

The shouting of the names and the tramping of the men between their seats and the door made a great noise. In addition to this, the ‘library boys’ (some of these attendants were very old men) were obliged to go trotting or tottering about at their quickest speed in their search of the books called for by the members of the Bar. Further, there was much talk and laughter – quite unrestrained – chiefly at the fire and the Round Table, the centre of legal gossip and scandal of the Kingdom of Ireland.

To the newcomer, like Carson in 1877, the place seemed more like pandemonium than a place to work. He wondered how he would, if a solicitor ever paid a call on him, even hear his name called above the hubbub, let alone do any study in such a place. Soon, however, like everybody else, he became used to it, and grew able to shut his ears to every sound but Bramley’s stentorian ‘E H Carson’, a cry at first rarely heard, but one which grew almost monotonous in its frequence as the years passed. Moreover, Carson learned in the library that a general noise, no matter how loud, is not so distressing to the worker as two persons in close proximity holding a whispered conversation.

The library system had very great advantages: gentlemen of the Bar from the ‘six quarters of Ireland’ – in 1877 there were six circuits – were thrown together, and, as the Catholics and Nationalists began to come to the Bar, the library became a fine centre of friendship and comradeship between men who were politically and religiously opposed. Indeed, the Bar Library was the best social club in Dublin. Moreover, it was a great advantage for a young man to be thrown amongst men older and more experienced than himself: a junior could always ask for assistance from a senior, and such help was freely given.

Counsel engaged together in a case could discuss their business together, and the most useful consultations were those informal ones held in the library. More formal consultations were held in counsel’s houses in the evening, or in consultation rooms at the Courts immediately before or after the Courts rose. The ‘formal’ consultations, however, frequently degenerated into informality, being held at home among Irishmen, and libations in claret and champagne were freely poured out to the legal Muse, who is never thus honoured by her English devotees in their dignified professional chambers.

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