That which can separate one great city from another is not always the magnificence of its buildings and institutions but rather its hidden quarters and its quirky stories. One such example in Dublin is the so-called Hungry Tree. Over eighty or ninety years ago this great specimen of a London plane tree was planted a bit too close to an unoffending early 19th century cast-iron park bench. Over the succeeding years the tree has grown to 21 metres in height and its corresponding expansion in girth gradually brought it closer and closer to the unsuspecting bench.
As the developing bark of the tree nudged the seat it began to press its gnarled surface against and subsequently enfold the wood and iron. The bench proved equally stubborn and refused to budge one little bit. In turn the advance of the tree couldn’t be stopped either so the classic clash of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object has unfolded with dramatic effect. It actually looks as if the tree is slowly digesting the bench like some mythical beast. Hence its acquired name of the Hungry Tree.
These conjoined specimens stand on the grounds of the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, a school for lawyers first established in 1541 during the reign of Henry Vlll of England. This was fifty one years before the foundation of Trinity College and is therefore probably the country’s oldest lay learning institution. Initially the Inns were based nearer to the river Liffey on land confiscated from the Dominicans when the king closed their monastery and which site is now occupied by the Four Courts. In the Middle Ages, the need for apprentice lawyers to learn about common law led to the founding of hostels or Inns of Court where they could both study and live. There were chambers or rooms where barristers lived and worked, a hall for eating and drinking, a library for research, a chapel for prayer and gardens for recreation. All very nice but they were ultimately to be discommoded as you will see below.
By 1634 membership of the King’s Inns was made compulsory for barristers wishing to practise in Ireland although legal courses were only available in London until much later. Under the Penal Laws of the 1690s Roman Catholics were excluded from the legal profession until the Catholic Relief Act of 1792 when they were allowed to practise at the outer Bar but not as judges. This remained in effect until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
When the government of the day decided to build the new Four Courts on Inns Quay towards the end of the 18th century the Benchers of the Inns had to find alternative accommodation for their headquarters and their school of law. They chose a site at the top of very fashionable Henrietta Street sold to them by the Primate of Armagh, Archbishop Robinson. James Gandon, also the architect for the Four Courts, was chosen to design the new premises and the foundation stone was laid in 1800. Construction was interrupted several times, probably for lack of cash flow, and Gandon grew weary of all the delays and so handed over the responsibility of finishing to his pupil, Aaron Baker. The work was finally completed in 1817.
While the official address of the King’s Inns is Henrietta Street the main façade of the institution faces onto Constitution Hill. None of James Gandon’s several magnificent buildings in Dublin have survived intact as first built. They have either been burned, shelled or reconstructed and this one is no exception. Two wings were added to the central arrangement and although they merge perfectly with the overall design the extended bulk makes the cupola look too small in proportion.
Today the Honorable Society of King’s Inns is the institution which controls the entry of barristers-at-law into the justice system of Ireland. While the primary focus of the school is the training of barristers it now also offers a range of other legal courses. The Honorable Society of King’s Inns comprises benchers, barristers and students. The benchers include all the judges of the Supreme and High Courts and a number of elected barristers.
Part of the students’ curriculum demands attendance at numerous dinners in the elegant Dining Hall, which is, incidentally, the only important Gandon interior to remain unaltered. The Benchers of old laid great emphasis on the pleasures of the palate, a fact which is amply evidenced by Edward Smyth’s sculptures around the building including the Goddess of Plenty and a Follower of Bacchus, both of which are placed on either side of the entrance to the dining room.
The general public are welcome to enter the grounds of the King’s Inns during daylight hours either from Henrietta Street (passing through an archway, a courtyard and finally under a second archway) or through one of the gates on Constitution Hill. The tree is near to the south gate.