Friday, 24 July 2020

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24 July 1750: John Philpot Curran was born on this day. He was one of the great Legal orators of his Age and a defender in the Courts of members of the United Irishmen. He was born in County Cork  and after receiving a local education was sent to Trinity College Dublin. He was intended for the Church of Ireland, and studied divinity, but never wrote more than two sermons! He switched to Law and moved to London to continue his studies at at the Middle Temple.

He suffered from a bad stammer that hampered his ability to speak publicly which he overcame by reciting the works of Shakespeare in front of a mirror until he mastered his impediment. During his second year in London he married his cousin, Miss Sarah Creagh. Her fortune and some money supplied by his family supported them until he was called to the Irish Bar in 1775. After a shaky start he soon built up a decent practise but could never free himself completely from Debt. His most famous early appearance in the Courts was  in Co Cork where he brought a case on behalf of a Catholic Priest Fr. Father Neale who had been horsewhipped by a local landlord Protestant Lord Doneraile. Against the odds Curran won the case and the priest was awarded 30 guineas! He afterwards fought a duel with a Captain St. Leger over this affair but both survived unscathed and indeed Curran was a notable duellist surviving a number of encounters.

In 1783 he entered the Parliament in Dublin  as member for Kilbeggan; three years afterwards he was returned for Rathcormack, which he represented until 1797. But he seems to have left little mark there and his great oratorical powers were confined to the Courts and his wit and intelligence in private conversations. He was an advocate of Catholic Emancipation [namely the right of Catholics to be elected to Parliament] and defended a number of the United Irishmen in the Courts. Amongst his most famous cases being Hamilton Ronan, Napper Tandy, the Sheares Brothers, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone in 1798. He was not a member of any revolutionary organisations himself did not seek or desire the violent overthrow of the Established Order in Ireland at that time. 

It was in 1803 that Curran’s most infamous entanglement in Irish affairs took place when circumstances placed him at the centre of events that involved politics, his legal career and his family. It was not a happy mixture for him. The attempted revolt of Robert Emmet that summer had ended in a bloody Fiasco and in the tumult Lord Kilwarden ( a friend to Curran) had been dragged from his carriage in the streets of Dublin and hacked to pieces. It could have fallen to Curran to defend Robert Emmet of the charges brought against him. However to complicate matters further Curran’s beautiful daughter Sarah was in affair of sorts with Robert. They were secretly engaged but to how deep a degree it went after that we do not know. Correspondence was discovered between them and seen by her father. Thereafter he would have nothing to do with defending Emmet from the charges brought against him and he immediately disowned his daughter forever.

Devastated by the turn of events in Ireland he nevertheless accepted the position of Master of the Rolls for Ireland in 1806 and this brought in a lucrative salary and pension. Whether you could say he was ‘bought’ at this stage is an open question but in fairness to him he never sought Revolution but Reform. 

His life became even more unhappy. His wife of many years left him and he was depressed also by the state Ireland was in after the Act of Union, without a Parliament of its own and under England’s Rule. The affairs of Ireland and the World weighed heavily upon him in his latter years:

"Everything I see disgusts and depresses me: I look back at the streaming of blood for so many years, and everything everywhere relapsed into its former degradation — France rechained, Spain again saddled for the priests, and Ireland, like a bastinadoed elephant, kneeling to receive the paltry rider."

After his resignation of this office in 1814 he resided much at his mansion in Brompton, London where he enjoyed the society of Erskine, Horne Tooke, Sheridan, the Prince Regent, Thomas Moore, and William Godwin.

In the summer of 1817 he was attacked by paralysis at the table of his friend Thomas Moore, in London. After his return home, another attack supervened, and he succumbed in London, 14th October 1817, aged 67. He was initially buried in Paddington Cemetery. His dying wish was to be interred in Ireland. In 1834 his remains arrived in Dublin on a very wet and stormy night and were brought to Glasnevin cemetery by torch light where they were reburied in an impressive sarcophagus that stands intact to this day.

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