Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Curran, John Philpot
CURRAN, JOHN PHILPOT (1750–1817), Irish judge, belonged to a family said to have originally come from Cumberland, where it bore the name of Curwen. Under the protection of the Aldworth family, on whom was bestowed the forfeited estate in county Cork of thirty-two thousand acres formerly belonging to the Irish McAuliffes, the Currans removed to the south of Ireland, and of this estate James Curran was seneschal of the manor court at Newmarket, co. Cork, about 1750. Here on 24 July 1750 John Philpot Curran was born. The father, James, was a man of some scholarship and a student of Locke, but it was from his mother, a Miss Sarah Philpot, a woman of strong character and very ready wit, that the boy inherited most of his mental characteristics. To his father he was indebted chiefly for his very ugly features. His early training, as he was the eldest of a family of five, was somewhat rough, but his wit soon attracted the attention of the Rev. Nathaniel Boyse of Newmarket, who gave him his first education. His parents at this time desired him to enter the church, and throughout her life, especially after Curran had written in 1775 a most successful assize sermon at Cork for his friend the Rev. Richard Stack, his mother could never be consoled for her son's missing the bench of bishops. From Newmarket he was sent to Mr. Cary's free school at Middleton, partly by the aid of Mr. Boyse, who gave up one of his own ecclesiastical emoluments for his maintenance, partly by the assistance of Mrs. Aldworth. Among his Middleton schoolfellows were his subsequent friends: Yelverton, afterwards Lord Avonmore, lord chief baron; Robert Day, afterwards judge; and Jeremy Keller. He was mischievous and idle at school, and both there and at home associated with the peasantry, and gained his great familiarity with their habits and control over their emotions, whether in cross-examination or in speaking. On 16 June 1769 he was entered a sizar at Trinity College, Dublin, taking the second place at the entrance examination. In right of his sizarship he was entitled to rooms and commons free, but his industry, though considerable, was irregular and ill-directed. He failed to secure a fellowship. He was an ardent classical scholar, and never allowed his knowledge to fall into disuse in after life. He also read a good deal of French, and was powerfully attracted by Rousseau's ‘Héloïse.’
Through the Aldworth family, with whom he spent a considerable part of his vacations, he saw something of Dublin society, and caught here his first ideas of oratory; but he was personally a sloven and a debauchee, and constantly guilty of breaches of college discipline. He was often penniless and often drunk; he was frequently left in the streets after an affray, senseless from loss of blood, and on one occasion publicly and audaciously satirised the censor of Trinity, Dr. Patrick Duigenan, in an oration which had been imposed on him by way of punishment. In after life he always entertained a profound contempt for Trinity College, which had tolerated his misconduct. Though a distant relative promised him a small living, he decided in his second year at college to go to the bar, and accordingly, early in 1773, he left Ireland, entered at the Middle Temple, and spent a couple of years in London. His life was at first dull, hard, and laborious, and he was impeded by a severe attack of fever. He rose at 4.30 a.m., read law and politics some ten hours a day until almost exhausted, and spent his evenings in the galleries of theatres, at coffee-houses, or in debating societies. His knowledge of law, which, though inconsiderable in amount, was not so scanty as was generally supposed, was acquired at this period. In after life he read little of anything, but his time now was given chiefly to history and English literature. His first speech in a debating society was a failure; nor did he discover his power until, at a society called the ‘Devils of Temple Bar,’ he was one night attacked so insolently that he was spurred into a successful and impetuous reply. He now laboured hard to overcome his defects of elocution, his shrill voice, his stutter, and his brogue. He declaimed from Junius before a glass, practised Antony's speech over Cæsar, read Bolingbroke, and argued imaginary cases in his own room. He attended the Robin Hood Debating Society on weekdays, and another on Sundays at the Brown Bear in the Strand, where his zeal for the Roman catholic claims and his strict black coat won him the name of the ‘little jesuit from St. Omer.’ He was often, from his appearance, mistaken for a Roman catholic. Already his friends expected great things of him, but his health, though soon restored, was delicate, and he was now, as always, constitutionally subject to fits of despondency. In the Temple he lived almost exclusively among the Irish. Once he met Goldsmith, and once in St. James's Park, being temporarily penniless, he made Macklin's acquaintance and obtained relief from him. His friend Phillips says that at this time he lived by his pen, and wrote, among other things, a song, ‘The Deserter's Lamentation,’ which became very popular, and was sung by Vaughan, Bartleman, and Mrs. Billington. His son denies that he wrote at all, and declares that he lived upon his parents or his richer friends. He had, however, a taste for versifying, which he continued to exercise all his life, but his compositions were tame and cold. Lines of his ‘On Friendship’ to his friend Weston, ‘On Pope's Cave,’ and ‘On the Poisoning of the Stream at Frenchay,’ and a satire called ‘The Platewarmer,’ are preserved. His vacations were spent at home at Newmarket, moving among the small gentry and the peasantry, whose language he spoke, and with whose sufferings he at all times sympathised. The ‘keening’ at a wake, he said, gave him some of his first inspirations of eloquence. He married in 1774 a daughter of Dr. Creagh, a physician of Newmarket, and an earnest whig, whose slender portion served to maintain her husband till he succeeded at the bar; but this union, a love match, was to him a source of perpetual bitterness. After some thought of trying his fortune in America, Curran was called to the Irish bar in Michaelmas term, 1775. The Irish bar was at this time looked up to by all classes as the nursery of public virtue and services, and the avenue to political success. Eloquence of a somewhat turgid kind was the chief recommendation of a barrister. The course of study pursued was far more literary and far less technical than that followed in England. Curran made at first but a poor figure. His first brief was on a chancery motion, when he was so overcome with nervousness, that when Lord Lifford, the chancellor, bade him speak louder, his papers fell from his hand, and a friend had to finish the motion. Although he had from the first some practice and made as much as eighty-two guineas in his first year and between one and two hundred in his second, he was for some time little more than a witty idler in the Four Courts, and lived in poverty in a lodging on Redmond's Hill, then the legal quarter of Dublin. He attended the Cork sessions, and after a time his friend Arthur Wolfe (afterwards Lord Kilwarden) obtained for him a brief in the Sligo election case of Ormsby v. Wynne from the well-known attorney Lyons, afterwards his great friend and constant client. He was also engaged in the Tullagh election petition, and his fiery temper brought him in another case into very sharp conflict with Mr. Justice Robinson. These circumstances and his wit were already making him well known. Fitzgibbon, afterwards his enemy, gave him his ‘red bag.’ Barry Yelverton (afterwards Lord Avonmore) stood his friend, and when in 1779 he founded a convivial and political society, called the Order of St. Patrick, or Monks of the Screw, which lasted until 1795 and met at the house in Kevin Street afterwards used as the seneschal's court, he made Curran the prior. The first case which made Curran truly popular was at the Cork summer assizes in 1780. Lord Doneraile was sued for a brutal assault upon a priest, Mr. Neale, and so high did religious feeling run that the plaintiff could find no counsel to undertake his case, until Curran, though a protestant, volunteered to represent him, and by dint of great zeal and extraordinary fierceness of language obtained a verdict for thirty guineas. Having stigmatised a relative and accomplice of Lord Doneraile, Captain St. Leger, as a ‘renegade officer,’ Curran was challenged by him. St. Leger missed, and Curran did not return his fire. This trial and duel made Curran popular, both for religious and political reasons, and his practice grew apace. He was a very fine cross-examiner, a perfect actor, and intimately acquainted with every winding of an Irish witness's mind. In 1782, after seven years at the bar, he became, by the influence of Yelverton, a king's counsel, and in 1783, during Lord Northington's administration, was returned to the Irish House of Commons by Mr. Longfield (afterwards Lord Longueville) as the colleague of Flood for one of his two seats at Kilbeggan, Westmeath. Curran had given no pledges, but was no doubt expected to adopt Longfield's party. Being, however, a personal friend of Grattan and one of his warmest admirers, he joined the opposition along with Sir Laurence Parsons and Mr. A. Browne. Finding that Longfield considered himself aggrieved, he laid out his only 500l. and 1,000l. more, which he borrowed, in purchasing another seat for Longfield. During the administration of the Duke of Rutland he continued in opposition, and in the next parliament was elected at his own expense for Rathcormac, county Cork. He spoke frequently in parliament, but with little success in comparison with that he won at the bar. His genius was forensic rather than political; he spoke often late at night or in the small hours of the morning, after an exhausting day in court, and his speeches are ill-reported, most of the reporters being employed by the government. His first speech was on 12 Nov. 1783, on a motion for a new writ for Enniscorthy, and he spoke again on the 18th on the manufacturing distress; but his first considerable appearance was on 29 Nov., on Flood's motion for parliamentary reform, when he cautioned the house not to make a public declaration against the convention of volunteers, which was at that time sitting for the purpose of intimidating the house into passing the motion. The house, however, rejected Flood's motion, and carried a counter-motion against interference by the volunteers. On 14 Feb. 1785 he supported a motion of Flood's for retrenchment, and on the same day pronounced a panegyric on the volunteers, which, in consequence of an attack which he made in it on Mr. Gardiner, brought him for the first time into open collision with Fitzgibbon. They were by this time no longer intimate; they differed in all their associations and tastes. On 24 Feb. a debate took place on the abuse of attachments in the king's bench, in connection with the attachment of O'Reilly, sheriff of Dublin, for complying with a requisition to summon a meeting to elect members for a conventional congress on parliamentary reform. Fitzgibbon and Curran girded openly at one another. Fitzgibbon spoke of him as a ‘puny babbler.’ Curran replied in savage terms, and a duel resulted in which neither was hit, though Fitzgibbon at any rate was observed to take very deliberate aim after Curran had fired and missed. The quarrel was renewed on 12 Aug., in the course of a very able speech of Curran's, begun at six o'clock in the morning, on Mr. Secretary Orde's commercial proposals.
When, in 1789, Lord Lifford resigned the chancellorship, and Fitzgibbon, as Lord Clare, succeeded him, Curran lost his considerable chancery practice owing to the chancellor's visible personal hostility to him in court, and was compelled to confine himself to the less lucrative practice at nisi prius. He estimated his loss by this treatment at 30,000l. His revenge came in the following year. The Dublin board of aldermen had the right to elect a lord mayor, subject to the approval of the common council. In 1790 the burgesses had pledged themselves to accept no placeman or pensioner as mayor. On 16 April the aldermen elected Alderman James, who was a commissioner of police. The common council rejected him without assigning any reason. The aldermen declining to make any other choice, the common council became thereon entitled to elect, and headed by Napper Tandy chose, by eighty-one to eight, Alderman Howison, the popular candidate. The aldermen re-elected James, who thereon petitioned the privy council for a declaration that the common council could only reject him if they assigned a reason. The petition was heard before Lord Clare and the privy council, and a new election was ordered. The farce was repeated, and the matter came before the privy council again on 10 June. Curran, who was a member of the Whig Club, in which the opposition to James had originated, was leading counsel for Howison. He refused any fee, for his reward was of a different kind. Knowing that nothing that he could say could injure his client or affect the result, he attacked Clare with the most undisguised and bitter virulence. Clare cleared the court and endeavoured without success to induce the council to refuse Curran any further hearing, but in vain. The decision was, as a matter of course, in favour of James, but he at length put an end to the dispute by resigning and thus allowed Howison to be elected without opposition.
Curran's practice and his parliamentary importance had meantime been steadily increasing. In 1776 he had been in the well-known case of Newbery v. Burroughs. He went the Munster circuit twice a year and was received in the neighbourhood of his home as a popular hero. On one of his circuits he wrote the plaintive song called the ‘Deserter's Answer,’ ‘If sadly thinking with spirits sinking,’ which was afterwards set to music. As his circumstances improved he had removed his residence in Dublin from Redmond's Hill to Fade Street, and thence in 1781 to 12 Ely Place. About 1786 he leased a site in a glen near Newmarket, and built a house there, which, as prior of the Monks of the Screw, he called the Priory. This he afterwards let, and in 1790 bought Holly Park, an estate of thirty-five acres, at Rathfarnham, about four miles from Dublin, on the road to Whitechurch, situated on a hill and commanding a noble view, which, under the name of the Priory, he retained till his death. He was careless at this time in money matters, and large as was his income he did not trouble himself to keep a regular fee-book. He found relief from work in several visits to the continent, to France with Lord Carleton's family in the autumn of 1787, and in the following August to Holland. His parliamentary importance was also growing during these years. In 1786 he spoke on the question of the Portugal trade on 11 March, and again on the 13th on Forbes's motion for the reform of the pension list. Owing to the distress prevalent in Ireland during these years he moved an amendment to the address in 1787 and spoke on pensions, on tithes, and against the extension of the English Navigation Act to Ireland on 23 Jan., 19 Feb., and 12 and 13 March respectively. His only speech during 1788 was upon contraband trade. At the end of that year George III became insane, and Pitt, who had defeated Fox and secured the imposition of considerable restrictions on the power of the regent, was anxious that they should be adopted by the Irish parliament. Every vote was of moment. Curran was told that a judgeship should be the price of his, with the prospect of a peerage. He, however, refused. A formal opposition was now constructed; the Duke of Leinster, Lord Ponsonby, and his brother George all resigning their places in order to take part in it. Grattan and Curran with Daly and Forbes all joined. The immediate contest, however, dropped on George III's sudden recovery. On 21 April 1789 Curran supported a bill for forbidding excise officers to vote at parliamentary elections, and on the 25th spoke against the government's mode of bestowing the posts in the Dublin police. In 1790 he was betrayed into a duel on political grounds. He fought five duels during his career: one with St. Leger, one with Fitzgibbon, one with Lord Buckinghamshire, one with Egan, chairman of Kilmainham (in which Curran made his famous proposal that he should equalise matters by marking his small outline in chalk on Egan's big body, ‘hits outside not to count’), and lastly, this in 1790, with Major Hobart, Irish chief secretary to the viceroy, Lord Westmore. Having on 4 Feb., in a speech on the salaries of the stamp officers, made a strong attack on the extravagance of the administration, and its bestowal of patronage on venal persons, Curran was insulted in the street a few days after by a government press-writer, who shook a stick at him. He applied to Major Hobart to dismiss the man, and was curtly refused. Curran sent his old antagonist, Egan, with a message to Major Hobart, and a duel was fought, but no one was hurt. In the same year he supported Forbes's motion for a place bill, and Grattan's for an inquiry into the sale of peerages, and also advocated the rights of the catholics and parliamentary reform. He made a fierce attack on the government corruption on 12 Feb. 1791, and spoke on the Roman Catholic Disabilities on 18 Feb. 1792, on the approaching war with France on 11 Jan. 1793, and on parliamentary reform on 9 Feb. 1793. ‘He animated every debate,’ says Hardy, Lord Charlemont's biographer, of him, ‘with all his powers; he was copious, splendid, full of wit and life and ardour.’
From 1789 popular discontent had been growing. In August 1792 Archibald Hamilton Rowan, secretary of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, published, in reply to a proclamation against them, an address to the volunteers of Ireland, inviting them, in view of the public dangers, to resume their arms. The government decided to prosecute him. Rowan desired that Thomas Emmett and the Hon. Simon Butler should defend him, but they finally prevailed on him to entrust the task to Curran, who then entered on that great series of defences in state trials which raised him to his highest fame. The trial did not come on until 29 Jan. 1794. The court was filled with soldiery, who frequently interrupted Curran with menaces. His speech, which occupies twenty-five pages of print (being one of the few which are fully and correctly reported), was delivered from a dozen catchwords on the back of his brief, and was frequently stopped by bursts of applause, and on leaving the court the mob, on this as on many other occasions, took out his horses and dragged his carriage home. Rowan, after a violent summing-up from Lord Clonmel, was convicted and sentenced to two years' imprisonment, followed by seven years' security for good behaviour and a fine of 500l., and a motion on 4 Feb. to set aside the verdict was fruitless. Rowan, however, escaped to France. On 25 June of the same year Curran successfully defended Dr. William Drennan, author of ‘Orellana,’ who had been chairman of the volunteers' meeting at which Rowan's address was adopted; the proof of publication of the seditious libel broke down.
On 23 April he appeared at the Drogheda assizes for the seven ‘Drogheda defenders,’ Kenna, Bird, Hamill, Delahoyde, and three others, on a charge of conspiracy to levy war, and obtained an acquittal. In May he was at Belfast, and obtained an acquittal from a charge of libel for the proprietor of the ‘Northern Star.’ It shows how highly his services were esteemed that at this time there was an initial fee of 10l. necessary to procure the royal license for a king's counsel to appear for a prisoner against the crown. The next in this series of trials was the dramatic case of the Rev. William Jackson, who, after an imprisonment of a year, was at length brought to trial in April 1795 upon the charge of having been sent to Dublin upon a treasonable mission by the committee of public safety. It was the first trial for high treason for a period of a century. The Irish law permitted a conviction upon the testimony of one witness only. Jackson was convicted on such evidence, after a trial which lasted until four o'clock in the morning. He was brought up for judgment on 30 April, and before the arrival of Curran, who was to move in arrest of judgment, died in court of poison taken in prison. Curran had already, two days after the conviction, moved for leave to bring in a bill to assimilate the Irish law of treason to the English. At the attorney-general's request he postponed it lest doubt should seem to be cast on the legality of Jackson's conviction. After this tragic circumstance he dropped it altogether, and the reform was only effected in 1854. In December came the case of James Weldon, who was convicted and hanged for high treason in connection with the ‘Dublin Defenders’ movement. On 22 Dec. 1797 Curran defended Peter Finnerty for a seditious libel, in publishing on 26 Oct. in his newspaper, ‘The Press,’ to which Curran himself had sometimes contributed, a letter by Deane Swift, a grandson of Swift's biographer, fiercely attacking the conduct of the government in Orr's case. William Orr had been tried for administering the ‘United Irishman's’ oaths, and had been convicted by a jury which was alleged to have been drunk and intimidated. The government, however, executed the sentence, and ‘The Press’ virulently attacked them in consequence. In spite of the efforts of Curran and the five other counsel who appeared with him, Finnerty was convicted and sentenced to stand one hour in the pillory, to be imprisoned for two years, and to be fined 20l.
Meantime political events had been taking a darker and darker colour, and Curran had gradually withdrawn from any share in them. From 1789 onwards the government had been endeavouring to secure his adhesion. Kilwarden, when attorney-general, repeatedly pressed him to come over to them. In 1795 only the speedy recall of Lord Fitzwilliam prevented his appointment as solicitor-general. Yet at this juncture, with these hopes, and knowing how short-lived whig administrations were, he had the courage to oppose Grattan's ministerial motion, pledging the House of Commons to a vigorous support of the French war. Many were daily falling away from the opposition. In 1796 he was exposed to fierce attacks on the Roman catholic question from his inveterate foe Dr. Duigenan. But he clung to a broken cause. In May 1795, by way of protest, for he had no chance of success, he moved, in a long speech, for an address to the crown on the Irish distress. The government met him with a motion for adjournment and carried it. In October 1796 he supported Grattan's motion, in face of the projected invasion of Hoche, that union could best be secured by legislation to guarantee ‘the blessings and privileges of the constitution without distinction of religion.’ On 24 Feb. 1797 he supported an address for an increase in the domestic Irish troops, especially the yeomanry. On 20 March he spoke on the disarming of Ulster, and last of all on 15 May he supported Ponsonby's plan for parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation. It was the last effort of the constitutional opposition to obtain a conciliatory policy from the government on domestic grievances. After it had been rejected they withdrew from the commons and ceased to attend its debates until the parliament adjourned on 3 July. This left matters wholly in the hands of the revolutionary party. The insurrection of 1798 was now being prepared, and on the information of Thomas Reynolds of Kilkea Castle, who had been in 1797 treasurer of the United Irishmen for Kildare, Major Swan, on 12 March 1798, arrested, in Bond's house, 12 Bridge Street, Dublin, the general committee of the conspiracy. Whether Curran was connected with them it is hard to say. The government was told by another informer, a member of the general committee, that Curran was to have been proposed for the committee of one hundred, and would have been arrested had Major Swan arrived two hours earlier (Froude, English in Ireland, iii. 330). He was certainly acquainted with Wolfe Tone's designs, and when in 1798 the Hon. Valentine Lawless, afterwards Lord Cloncurry, was arrested in London on suspicion of treason, a letter of his having been found among the papers of Broughall, the secretary of the Irish Catholic Association, Curran chanced to be with him, and was arrested too, but was at once set at liberty. On the appointed day, 23 May 1798, the rising took place, though deprived of its leaders, and after much bloodshed Lord Castlereagh announced on 17 July that it was suppressed. The government proclaimed an amnesty for all but the leaders, and entered on a terrible series of prosecutions. Curran defended the prisoners in nearly every case, and this he did although his own position was insecure. He was threatened with deprivation of his rank as king's counsel; soldiers were vexatiously billeted on him, anonymous letters were sent to him, and, but for the protection of Lord Kilwarden, he would probably have been arrested. The first case was that of the brothers Sheares, who were arrested on 21 May. They were two barristers, sons of a banker in Cork, who, as a member of the Irish parliament, had promoted the act of 5 George III, under which a copy of the indictment was to be furnished to a prisoner and counsel to be assigned him. Under that act Curran, McNally, and Plunket were assigned to defend his sons. The case (after an adjournment) came on on 12 July. After a sixteen hours' sitting, with but twenty minutes' interval, Curran rose to address the court at midnight. Lord Carleton refused to adjourn the court. After an extraordinary display of eloquence, and a prolongation of the trial for eight hours more, the prisoners were convicted and sentenced to be hanged and beheaded. The other cases followed rapidly. McCann was tried on 17 July, and Byrne on the 20th; both were convicted and executed. Curran's speeches were suppressed. On the 23rd Oliver Bond was tried. The principal witness was again Thomas Reynolds of Kilkea. The court was full of soldiers, and Curran, who was in ill-health, was thrice silenced by interruption. ‘You may assassinate me,’ he cried, ‘but you shall not intimidate me.’ Bond was found guilty, but died in prison of apoplexy. On 20 Aug. Curran was heard at bar against the bill of attainder upon the late Lord Edward Fitzgerald on behalf of Lord Henry, his brother, Pamela, his widow, and her children. He was unsuccessful, and this act passed, by which a dead man was declared a traitor, and his estate taken from his heirs. On 10 Nov. Wolfe Tone was tried and sentenced by a court-martial, in spite of his pleading his French commission and rights as a prisoner of war. Curran and Peter Burrowes [q. v.], though uninstructed, applied to the king's bench for a habeas corpus instantly, Tone being that day marked for execution. The court granted it on the ground that Tone not having held the king's commission was not amenable to a court-martial, when word was brought that Tone had attempted suicide and was only barely alive. In spite of the writ he was not removed from military custody, and died of his wound on 19 Nov. The last of Curran's efforts in connection with the rising of 1798 was on 19 May 1800, when he appeared for Napper Tandy, who was charged with not surrendering before 1 Dec. 1798, pursuant to the Attainder Act of that year, on pain of outlawry. Curran was elected to the Irish House of Commons for Banagher in May 1800. There followed the Act of Union, to which Curran was firmly opposed. In 1785 he declared that the union would be ‘the annihilation of Ireland.’ Disheartened with the sufferings of his country, weakened by a surgical operation, he thought of going to America, spent much time in England, especially with his friends Lord Moira and Godwin, and contemplated joining the English bar. In 1802, during the peace, he revisited Paris, and saw much of the Abbé Grégoire. He continued, however, his Irish practice. On 13 April 1801 he prosecuted at the Cork assizes Sir Henry Hayes for the abduction of a quaker heiress, Miss Pike. Hayes was convicted, sentenced to death, and ultimately transported. On 17 May 1802 he appeared for the plaintiff Hevey in an action tried before Lord Kilwarden against Sirr, the town-major of Dublin, for false imprisonment, and alleged against Sirr gross brutality towards Hevey during the insurrectionary period. He obtained a verdict for 150l. In February 1804 he prosecuted Ensign John Castley for a conspiracy to murder Father W. Ledwich; in July he appeared at the Ennis assizes in the celebrated crim. con. case for Mr. Massey against the Marquis of Headfort, and obtained the huge sum of 10,000l. damages. On 4 Feb. 1804 he appeared for Mr. Justice Johnson, who was prosecuted for a libel by him signed ‘Juverna,’ reflecting on Lord Hardwicke and Lord Redesdale and on other judges, and published in Cobbett's ‘Political Register’ on 5 Nov. 1803, Cobbett having given up his name after being convicted at Westminster. Johnson was found guilty and allowed to retire on his pension. Domestic trouble now overwhelmed Curran. His wife eloped with a clergyman named Sandys. When, in 1803, Robert Emmett was arrested after his brief and ill-fated insurrection of 23 July 1803, Curran's house was searched and he himself appeared before the privy council prepared to answer any inquiries, but he was generously treated. It appeared that Emmett was secretly attached to Sarah, Curran's youngest daughter, and had spent the hours when he might have escaped in lingering about the Priory to say farewell to her. Sarah left her father's house and went to a Mr. Penrose's at Cork, where she married a Captain Sturgeon, but in a few months died in Sicily of a broken heart, and was buried at Newmarket. To her Moore's lines, ‘She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,’ are addressed. These circumstances prevented Curran from defending Emmett as had been intended. He appeared, however, on 1 Sept. for several of the nineteen persons who were tried for complicity in this rising, though he spoke only on behalf of the tailor, Owen Kirwan. Kirwan was hanged on 3 Sept.
In 1806 Pitt died and the whigs came in, and Curran looked for his well-earned promotion. He desired the attorney-generalship. In 1789, when the opposition was formally constituted, it had been arranged that when they took office Ponsonby was to have the first and he the second legal post. The heads of the party in London seem to have intended that he should be attorney-general, but Lord Ellenborough refused to join a cabinet which sanctioned the appointment. It was difficult to know what to do for him. He was certainly unfit to be a judge. Grattan suggested an Irish bishopric. Ponsonby remaining silent, Curran employed a friend Burne to expostulate with him. Ponsonby then proposed that he should be master of the rolls, with a seat in the privy council. Curran was disposed to have refused; he was still in the prime of life and did not wish, as he said, ‘to be stuck in a window a spectator of the procession.’ His family, however, pressed him, and he accepted. To induce Sir Michael Smith, the then master of the rolls, to retire, a pension was promised to him and to each of his four inferior officers. Curran was not consulted about this, and when the short-lived ministry went out without having obtained grants for these pensions, Curran found himself expected to pay them to the amount of 800l. a year. This he refused to do, and Ponsonby was compelled to find the money, after which, to the end of their days, Curran and he were never reconciled. On the bench Curran was never at home. In spite of many efforts he could neither grasp the practice nor the principles of equity, and his only decision of any importance was that in Merry v. Power. Since the union Dublin society had lost much of its brilliancy, and after removing in 1807 to a house in Harcourt Street, and afterwards to 80 Stephen's Green South, he spent most of his time at the Priory, and took refuge as often as possible in England among his friends Lord Holland, Lord Erskine, Moore, and Godwin. He had some thoughts of writing a novel, some of writing memoirs, and did indeed commit to paper some of his views on Irish affairs. He spent a portion of the year 1810 in Scotland and at Cheltenham. For some time he and his friends had desired that he should be returned to the United Parliament to assist Grattan in his advocacy of catholic emancipation. This was not incompatible with his Irish judicial position. After some disappointed hopes of a borough formerly belonging to Lord Camelford, he accepted the invitation of the electors of Newry to contest that place in 1812 against General Needham, the government candidate. He was received with enthusiasm, and his horses taken out two miles from the town, but after one speech, almost the only considerable one to a purely popular assembly, he retired on 17 Oct., the sixth day of the contest, the numbers then being Needham 346, Curran 144. In 1814 there was some suggestion that he should contest Westminster, but he was indisposed to do so. Withdrawn from the active life of the bar, his mind preyed on itself, and falling into ill-health and the settled melancholy to which he was always prone, he retired from the bench in 1814 on a pension of 2,700l. a year, receiving on his retirement an address from the Roman catholic board. He travelled in France in June, and during the last year of his life resided entirely at 7 Amelia Place, Brompton. While still master of the rolls his melancholy led him to seek relief and amusement by asking junior barristers picked up in the hall of the Four Courts to the Priory rather than his old associates at the bar. Later, music, of which he was passionately fond, being himself a good performer on the violoncello, exasperated him beyond control. In the spring of 1817, while dining with Moore, he had a slight attack of paralysis and was ordered to Italy, but after a last visit to Dublin to arrange his affairs he returned to London in September, was seized with apoplexy on 8 Oct. and died on the 14th. He was buried privately on 4 Nov., and in 1834 his remains were removed by public subscription to a tomb at Glasnevin, designed by Moore, and at the same time a medallion was placed in St. Patrick's in Dublin. In spite of irregularities in his habits, ‘a prudence almost Scottish’ accumulated a fair fortune. He had at his death the Priory, ten or twelve thousand pounds in Irish 3½ per cents., and some sums in the American funds. To his wife he left 80l. a year for life; the only child mentioned in his will was his daughter Amelia. He had several children, William Henry, a member of the Irish bar and his biographer; Richard, also a barrister, who retired under a mental attack of settled melancholy; John, a captain in the navy; and James, who died in the East Indies. His daughters were Amelia, who died a spinster in Rome, and is buried in the church of St. Isidore; another, who married an English clergyman named Taylor; Sarah; and Gertrude, a child of great musical promise, to whom he was passionately attached, who died on 6 Oct. 1792, at the age of twelve. In figure he was under the middle height, with intensely bright black eyes, perfectly straight jet black hair, a thick complexion, and a protruding under-lip on a retreating face. Yet though very ugly, he was as a young man highly successful in his amours. There are two portraits of him, one, the most characteristic, by J. Comerford of Dublin, engraved in his son's life of him, the other by Sir T. Lawrence in Phillips's book. His knowledge of English literature was considerable, though he had an extraordinary antipathy to Milton; he read French much and with pleasure, and some Italian. His speeches were prepared while walking in his garden or playing the violoncello, but to write them out or even to prepare the words, spoilt, he found, the freedom of his eloquence. Though often turgid and pompous, they abound in passages of extraordinary eloquence, which made him the first orator of his time. But of their effect little judgment can be formed, for they were ill reported, and except in one or two cases he never would prepare them for the press, though offered considerable sums to do so—indeed he offered 500l. to suppress the existing editions. Croker, an observer by no means prejudiced in his favour, says: ‘I have heard four orators, Pitt, Canning, Kirwan, and Curran … perhaps Curran was the most striking, for you began by being prejudiced against him by his bad character and ill-looking appearance, like the devil with his tail cut off, and you were at last carried away by his splendid language and by the power of his metaphors’ (Croker Papers, iii. 215). His wit and conversational powers were so brilliant that they have almost eclipsed his reputation as a statesman and an advocate. At table the servants were frequently incapacitated from attending to the guests by laughter at his talk. During the peace of Amiens, when he was just falling into his later state of settled gloom, Dr. Birkbeck was with him in Paris, and said of him: ‘For five weeks there were not five consecutive minutes in which he could not make me both laugh and cry.’ Byron writes: ‘He has fifty faces and twice as many voices when he mimics. … I have heard that man speak more poetry than I have ever seen written, though I saw him seldom and but occasionally.’ Yet, on the other hand, when irritated or discomposed he could render himself inconceivably disagreeable. His tastes and mode of life were simple; but, partly owing to domestic circumstances, partly to the habits of the times, he was, especially in his earlier life, very convivial, and even dissolute. His dress was very shabby and dirty, and his manners fidgety. Of his judgment and statesmanship there may be much doubt. Of his integrity there can be none. It is true that Moore says of him: ‘Curran no doubt was far above Grattan in wit and genius, but still farther below him in real wisdom and goodness;’ but on the whole he amply deserves O'Connell's epitaph: ‘There never was so honest an Irishman.’
[W. H. Curran's Life of Curran; Ch. Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries, 1850; O'Regan's Memoir of Curran, 1817; A. Stephens's Memoir, 1817; Davis's edition of Curran's Speeches, 1855; Moore's Memoirs, 1853; Reminiscences of Lord Cloncurry; Hardy's Life of Lord Charlemont.]