James Gandon (1743–1823) is today recognised as one of the leading architects to have worked in Ireland in the late 18th century and early 19th century. His better known works include The Custom House, the Four Courts, King’s Inns in Dublin and Emo Court in County Laois, writes JIM REES.
Thomas Cooley of London originally trained as a carpenter, but his passion was architecture. In 1769, he designed a new Royal Exchange in Dublin, which was completed ten years later, and is now Dublin’s City Hall.
Spurred by this and other successful projects in Ireland, he moved here in 1781 and began designing a new centre for the courts of justice. Just three years later, before preparatory work was completed, he died at the age of forty-four.
Into the breach stepped another London-born architect, James Gandon, who would later design the Customs House and King’s Inn. The foundation stone for the new Four Courts was laid on 3 March 1786 – some 231 years ago.
The building was to house the courts of Chancery, King’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas, hence the name. These legal divisions have long ceased to exist, their roles now mainly being the responsibility of the High Court of Ireland, but the name ‘Four Courts’ has survived.
It seems a safe bet that Gandon never envisaged the impressive structure would be used as a military stronghold, but at Easter 1916 that’s exactly what it became. It was one of several public buildings along strategic routes into the city taken over by the insurgents.
Under the command of Ned Daly, the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers took control of the Four Courts to halt British army re-enforcements from arriving into the city centre from the west, especially from the Curragh in Kildare.
It was to see some of the fiercest fighting during that pivotal week, before the insurgents surrendered. Six years later saw the beginning of the Civil War, and the Four Courts was again at the centre of armed conflict, this time with catastrophic consequences.