Four Courts

The Four Courts (Irish: Na Ceithre Cúirteanna[1]) is Ireland's most prominent courts building, located on Inns Quay in Dublin. The Four Courts is the principal seat of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Dublin Circuit Court. Until 2010 the building also housed the Central Criminal Court; this is now located in the Criminal Courts of Justice building.

The building originally housed four superior courts, of Chancery, King's Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas, giving the name to the building.[2]

Under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877, these four courts were replaced by two - the Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chancellor, and the High Court of Justice, headed by the Lord Chief Justice - but the building has retained its historic name.[3]

Under the Courts of Justice Act 1924, courts were established for the new Irish Free State with the Supreme Court of Justice, presided over by the Chief Justice, replacing the Court of Appeal and a reconstituted High Court of Justice, presided over by the President of the High Court, continuing the jurisdiction of the old High Court. The Constitution of Ireland in 1937 provided that courts would be established in a manner provided by the Constitution; this did not in fact occur until the implementation of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act 1961. The Supreme Court and High Court (now dropping "of Justice" from their title) established under this act continued the jurisdiction of the courts established under the 1924 Act.[4]

A new Court of Appeal was established in 2014, following a referendum in 2013, largely taking over the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the old Court of Criminal Appeal. Its civil division sits in the Four Courts.[5]

Part of the original Gandon-designed interior decoration of the dome, lost in the 1922 destruction

Work based on the design of Thomas Cooley for the Public Records Office of Ireland, began in 1776. After his death in 1784 renowned architect James Gandon was appointed to finish the building which we recognise today as the Four Courts. It was built between 1786 and 1796, while the finishing touches to the arcades and wings were completed in 1802.[6] The lands were previously used by the King's Inns.[7]

The Four Courts and surrounding areas were held by Commandant Edward Daly's 1st Battalion during the Easter Rising in 1916. Some of the most intense fighting of Easter Week took place in the Church Street/North King Street/North Brunswick Street area. At the end of the week, the Four Courts building itself became the headquarters of the 1st Battalion.[8]

On 14 April 1922 the courts complex was occupied by IRA forces opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, with Rory O'Connor acting as their spokesman. On 28 June the new National Army attacked the building to dislodge the "rebels", on the orders of the Minister for Defence Richard Mulcahy, authorised by President of Dáil Éireann Arthur Griffith.[9] This attack provoked a week of fighting in Dublin. In the process of the bombardment, the historic building was destroyed. The west wing of the building was obliterated in a huge explosion, destroying the Irish Public Record Office at the rear of the building. Nearly a thousand years of archives were destroyed by this explosion, the ensuing fire, and the water poured onto the fire.[10]

The IRA was accused of mining the records office; however, those present, who included future Taoiseach Seán Lemass, said that, while they had used the archive as a store of their ammunition, they had not deliberately mined it. They suggest that the explosion was caused by the accidental detonation of their ammunition store during the fighting.[9]

For a decade after the destruction of the Civil War, the courts sat in the old viceregal apartments in Dublin Castle. In 1932, a rebuilt and remodelled Four Courts was opened. However, much of the decorative interior of the original building had been lost and, in the absence of documentary archives (some of which had been in the Public Records Office and others of which were among the vast amount of legal records lost also), and also because the new state did not have the funds, the highly decorative interior was not replaced.[2]

The Office of Public Works added a modern two-storey extension to the roof of the old Public Records Office in the late 1960s. They also built River House on Chancery Street, which served as Dublin's only motor tax office for a number of years.[11]

Prior to 2010, both civil and criminal trials were heard in the Four Courts, which was also the location of the Court of Criminal Appeal. When the Criminal Courts of Justice building, near the Phoenix Park, opened in January 2010, all criminal trials were transferred there.[12][13] The Four Courts remain in use for civil matters.[12]

There are plans to relocate the Supreme Court to a new purpose-built building near the Four Courts.[14]