An Irishman’s Diary about no change and King’s Inns

What a motto can reveal

Former minister for justice Alan Shatter TD has complained that, "the Bar Council's motto Nolumus mutari (We shall not be changed) has triumphed" in the face of demands for a greater reform of legal services (November 30th).

"Nolumus mutari" is actually the motto of King's Inns, not the Bar Council. And Latin scholars say that it can mean either "we do not wish to change" or "we do not wish to be changed."

But either way, the message seems clear. Lawyers are not for turning.

Judges and barristers run King’s Inns, named in honour of King Henry VIII.

In 1541 he granted their new society property that had belonged to the Dominicans before he dissolved religious orders.

Since then the “benchers” of King’s Inns have controlled admissions to the degree of barrister-at-law.

Alan Shatter is not the only former minister for justice irked by their Latin maxim. In 2002 Desmond O’Malley told Dáil Éireann that, “This motto from the reign of Queen Anne is still very much extant in the 21st century.”

In fact it’s not quite as old as that. It was only adopted in 1792, when the Protestant ascendancy grew alarmed by the prospect of Roman Catholics taking over Ireland.

As penal laws were relaxed, Catholics were let practise as barristers (although not as judges or law officers). Lord Chancellor John Fitzgibbon, first earl of Clare and future architect of the Act of Union, was one of those who thought that the admission of Catholics to the bar in 1792 marked the end of all concessions. Enough was enough.

“Black Jack” Fitzgibbon later laid the foundation stone of the present King’s Inns building at Constitution Hill on the very day that the Act of Union received its royal assent.

By 1792 King’s Inns was in the process of moving to its present location, where law students today dine in a hall designed for them by James Gandon.

The benchers wanted a new crest and motto to go with their fine new premises.

Judges schooled in the classics may have been inspired by those whose attitude Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher and civil servant, expressed thus: 'We are unwilling to be reformed, just because we believe ourselves to be the best of men' ("Ideo mutari nolumus quia nos optimos credimus").

But it is more likely that benchers took inspiration from English barons who in 1236 famously declared at the parliament of Merton that they did not wish the laws of England to be changed, "nolumus leges Angliae mutari."

The barons lived in the shadow of Magna Carta, and their assertions when facing a powerful English executive resonated in Ireland at the end of the 18th century.

Irish Protestants claimed, against both the government in London and the Catholics of Ireland, that their “Protestant ascendancy” was founded on the principles of the revolution of 1688 when King William overthrew King James. This was “our glorious revolution, that second Magna Carta”, as John Egan (a member of the Irish Protestant parliament and bencher of King’s Inns) put it in 1792.

By dropping the mention of “laws of England” from the barons’ assertion, King’s Inns graced itself with a motto that annoys Latin scholars as well as ministers. “Take it whatever way you like”, benchers seem to be saying.

A movable motto suits a society that sometimes has styled itself simply “King’s Inns” but other times “The King’s Inns”, now “Queen’s Inns” (reigns of Anne and Victoria) and then “Their Majesties’ Inn” (William and Mary).

When English republicans ruled under Cromwell the society was dubbed simply “the inn of court, Dublin”. Irish republicans, on the bench after 1922, have displayed no such regicidal instinct.

By the late 1700s, the term "a nolumus mutari" was sometimes used in England to signify defiance. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that, "The barons say 'Nolumus mutari'; and the cockneys stifle the curiosity of the foreigner on the reason of any practice, with 'Lord, sir, it was always so.'"

Given the origin of its motto, and the fact that King’s Inns has had it for merely 224 years of its 475-year history, the benchers could stop annoying solicitors such as Alan Shatter and Dessie O’Malley and adopt a more diplomatic maxim.

They might do worse than the opening words of the petition of 1541 that Pale lawyers dispatched when seeking a legal title to the Dominican monastery that Henry VIII later granted them. Those words were, “Our humble duties”.

Or the benchers might opt for “civil order,” from a petition that the lord deputy and privy council in Ireland then sent in support of the Pale lawyers.

But if they wanted a new motto, the benchers would have picked one. In that respect at least, it appears that they do not wish to change.

Colum Kenny is the author of King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland: The Irish 'Inn of Court' 1541-1800 (Irish Academic Press).