1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Curran, John Philpot

21631421911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 7 — Curran, John Philpot

CURRAN, JOHN PHILPOT (1750–1817), Irish politician and judge, was born on the 24th of July 1750, at Newmarket, Cork, where his father, a descendant of one of Cromwell’s soldiers, was seneschal to the manor-court. He was educated at Middleton, through the kind help of a friend, the Rev. Nathaniel Boyse, and at Trinity College, Dublin; and in 1773, having taken his M.A. degree, he entered the Middle Temple. In 1774 he married a lady who brought him a small dowry; but the marriage proved unhappy, and Mrs Curran finally eloped from her husband.

In 1775 Curran was called to the Irish bar, where he very soon obtained a practice. On his first rising in court excessive nervousness prevented him from even reading distinctly the few words of a legal form, and when requested by the judge to read more clearly he became so agitated as to be totally unable to proceed. But, his feelings once roused, all nervousness disappeared. His effective and witty attack upon a judge who had sneered at his poverty, the success with which he prosecuted a nobleman for a disgraceful assault upon a priest, the duel which he fought with one of the witnesses for this nobleman, and other similar exploits, gained him such a reputation that he was soon the most popular advocate in Ireland.

In 1783 Curran was appointed king’s counsel; and in the same year he was presented to a seat in the Irish House of Commons. His conduct in connexion with this affair displays his conduct in a most honourable light; finding that he differed radically in politics from the gentleman from whom he had received his seat, he expended £1500 in buying another to replace that which he occupied. In his parliamentary career Curran was throughout sincere and consistent. He spoke vigorously on behalf of Catholic emancipation, and strenuously attacked the ministerial bribery which prevailed. His declamations against the government party led him into two duels—the first with John Fitzgibbon, then attorney-general, afterwards Lord Clare; the second with the secretary of state, Major Hobart, afterwards earl of Buckinghamshire. The Union caused him the bitterest disappointment; he even talked of leaving Ireland, either for America or for England.

Curran’s fame rests most of all upon his speeches on behalf of the accused in the state trials that were so numerous between 1794 and 1803; and among them may be mentioned those in defence of Hamilton Rowan, the Rev. William Jackson, the brothers John and Henry Sheares, Peter Finnerty, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Wolfe Tone and Owen Kirwan. Another of his most famous and characteristic speeches is that against the marquis of Headfort, who had eloped with the wife of a clergyman named Massey. On the arrest of Robert Emmet, who had formed an attachment to his daughter, Curran was himself under suspicion; but, on examination before the privy council, nothing was brought forward to implicate him in the intended rebellion.

In 1806, on the death of Pitt and the formation of the Fox ministry, Curran received the post of master of the rolls, with a seat in the privy council, much to his disappointment, for he had desired a position of greater political influence. For eight years, however, he held this office. He then retired on a pension of £3000; and the three remaining years of his life were spent in London, where he became one of the most brilliant members of the society which included Sheridan, Erskine, Thomas Moore, and William Godwin. He died at his house in Brompton on the 14th of October 1817.

Curran’s legal erudition was never profound; and though he was capable of the most ingenious pleading, his appeal was always to the emotions of his audience. His best speeches are one fiery torrent of invective, pathos, national feeling and wit. His diction was lofty and sonorous. He was, too, a most brilliant wit and of wonderful quickness in repartee. To his personal presence he owed nothing; for he was short, slim and boyish-looking, and his voice was thin and shrill.

See Curran and his Contemporaries, a most entertaining work, by Charles Phillips, a personal friend of Curran’s (1818), and the Life of Curran, by his son, W. H. Curran (1819), and with additions by Dr Shelton Mackenzie, New York, (1855), both of which contain numerous samples of Curran’s eloquence. See also Curran’s Speeches (1805, 1808, 1845); Memoirs of Curran, by Wm. O’Regan (1817); Letters to Rev. H. Weston (1819); T. Moore’s Memoirs (1853).