The Right Honourable

John Philpot Curran

John Philpot Curran, Master of the rolls in Ireland

Master of the Rolls in Ireland, ETC, ETC.

(24th July, 1750 – 14th October, 1817)

AMONG the many remarkable and distinguished men of the last and present generations, which Ireland has produced, it would be difficult to name one raised by pre-eminent talents to a higher degree of celebrity, or encircled with more brilliant fame, than the subject of this Memoir.

JOHN PHILPOT CURRAN was born July 24th, 1750, at Newmarket, a small town in the county of Cork ; where his younger years were passed without any incident to demand our especial notice. It appears that he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in the capacity of a sizar, in 1769 ; and shortly afterwards obtained a scholarship. Here, though he prosecuted his studies with diligence and success, his advance was at first unmarked by any exhibition of superior ability : on the contrary, we are assured that the progress of his mental powers was slow, and signalized by no instance of precocious development.

In conformity to the wishes of his friends, he originally fixed his views on the Church : but very soon altered his destination, and decided, as it should seem fortunately, on adopting the legal profession. The consciousness of intellectual strength, which he could not but have felt, no doubt led to this change ; and he gave himself up with ardour to a career far more congenial to the character of his mind. It is worthy of observation, that the influence of his clerical pursuits is distinctly to be traced in the eloquent effusions of his legal and political life ; both in a religious solemnity of appeal, and a proneness to the use of scriptural imagery and quotation, in the application of which he was peculiarly happy.

Mr. Curran concluded his College course in 1773, and proceeded to London, where he entered himself a student of the Middle Temple. His situation at this time was dreary and unenviable ; for he was solitary and friendless. Dependent for support on scanty and precarious supplies, he was sometimes reduced to difficulties, which even his philosophical temperament and national buoyancy of spirit were unprepared to encounter. Yet his letters about this date depict, his circumstances with admirable humour and effect ; and furnish the earliest evidence of the fertile fancy and original wit which afterwards constituted his prime characteristics. During his stay in the English capital, he sedulously applied to the studies connected with his profession. Experiencing a deficiency in many of the qualifications requisite for a public speaker, especially in the important points of enunciation and delivery, he succeeded, by judicious cultivation and incessant practice, in removing the natural disadvantages under which he laboured in these respects.

In 1775, Mr. Curran was called to the Irish bar, at which, stimulated alike by a sense of his endowments and an honorable ambition, as well as by the imperious necessity for improving his resources, he did not long remain unnoticed or undistinguished, but rather rose rapidly to eminence, and, in a few years, occupied a proud and prominent station. He speedily established a reputation for legal skill, for argumentative tact, and for a style of oratory at once fluent, forcible, and ornate. He was, besides, gifted in a superior degree with moral firmness and personal intrepidity—invaluable qualities, when the advocate was not unfrequently called upon to support his professional opinions at his own immediate peril, and when the courts of law exhibited daily scenes of violent and undignified altercation, not only at the bar, but between the bar and the bench itself. Of this the following dialogue may be cited as a specimen. It occurred in the course of an angry dispute between Judge Robinson and Mr. Curran, caused by the former having indulged in a sneer at the narrowness of the young lawyer's circumstances :-

Mr. C.—" My Lord, when the person who is invested with the dignity of the judgment-seat, lays it aside for a moment to enter into a disgraceful personal contest, it is in vain, when he has been worsted in the conflict, that he seeks to resume it ; it is in vain that he seeks to shelter himself behind an authority which he has abandoned."

Judge .R.—" If you say another word, sir, I'll commit you" -

Mr. C.—" If your Lordship should do so, we shall both of us have the consolation of reflecting that I am not the worst thing your Lordship has committed."

But to return to our subject. From the commencement of his career, Mr. Curran had identified himself with the popular cause, the cause for which his earliest sympathies had been enlisted—and on entering the Irish House of Commons. in 1783. he at once took his seat on the opposition side. The composition of the Irish Parliament, at that period, formed a concentration of talent, and patriotic zeal, and energy, rarely if ever equalled, and certainly never surpassed, in any similar body. Ireland was indeed prolific of powerful minds ; swayed by private interests or public spirit, by views of preferment or the thirst of fame, her intellectual gladiators were precipitated into the senate, ever the fittest and noblest arena for the efforts, the tests, and the victories of talent. Questions of great importance were nightly debated, and the whole country looked to the issue with impatience and anxiety. On the reports of these discussions, the characteristic features of the people were strongly imprinted ;—the ungovernable impetuosity, the glowing imagination, the endless play of wit and repartee, were all truly Irish. And the same may be said, even of the furious denunciations and bitter personalities, habitually launched by the contending champions against each other.

Bearing so evidently the marks of an honest warmth and uncompromising firmness, the least excusable of these, extort, from the candid observer, but a very slow and reluctant censure. In such contests, Mr. Curran took a conspicuous part, though less as a leader than an auxiliary. Yet he never failed to amuse and enlighten his audience ; and we have the testimony of Mr. Hardy, in his life of Lord Charlemont, that " he animated every debate with his powers"— that " he was copious, splendid, and full of life, and wit, and ardour."—Indeed, the remaining fragments of his parliamentary speeches are so replete with vigour and poignancy, and so felicitously sarcastic, that it is much to be regretted these extemporaneous effusions of his oratory have almost totally perished. His indifference to posthumous renown was, we believe, the main obstacle to their perpetuation, and the cause of consequent public loss.

In 1787, Mr. Curran visited France, whence his letters convey an impressive picture of the general decay and misery which existed, though he does not appear to have caught any indication of the impending downfal of the monarchy. Shortly after his return, he participated in the memorable debates, in the Irish Parliament, which arose out of the mental affliction of the Sovereign, and the expediency of providing a substitute or a successor. Mr. Curran bore a prominent share in these deliberations, advocating, with much warmth, the rights of the Heir-apparent, and the independence of the national legislature. The result was one of the few triumphs of his (the Whig) party ; the Prince of Wales being, after an obstinate opposition, recognized as Regent with unrestricted powers. It is well known that the restoration of His Majesty to health happily prevented the extraordinary collision, between England and Ireland, which this difference of decision must have engendered.

In 1790, in consequence of a misunderstanding with Major Hobart, the Irish Secretary, an angry correspondence ensued between that gentleman and Mr. Curran ; followed by a duel, in which neither party was hurt. In the course of his career, Mr. Curran was engaged in numerous encounters of this nature ; a practice more honoured in the breach than in the observance, though then of fatal frequency in Ireland. For the next four years, his public life offers little worth commemorating in our limited sketch, with the exception of a remarkable speech before the Privy Council, in a case involving the elective rights of the citizens of Dublin, and which, among the small number of his surviving orations, is the least mutilated, and conveys the best notion of the speaker's powers. In it will be found, perhaps, the finest example of the argumentum ad absurdum in the. annals of ancient or modern oratory.

The political agitations of Ireland, which broke forth in 1794, exalted Mr. Curran to the height of his forensic fame. His defence of Hamilton Rowan (who is still alive, though his advocate is gathered to the dust) is one of the grandest monuments of his genius. In the progress of delivering his speech against this prosecution for a seditious libel, he was more than once interrupted by enthusiastic plaudits ; a strange and almost unprecedented occurrence in a law court, and singularly indicative, not only of the character of the counsel, but of the prevalent spirit of the times. At its conclusion, the popular feeling was manifested in a still more decided manner : it was truly a Demosthenic triumph. To account, in some measure, for this as a mere question of eloquence, we extract one among many of the splendid passages with which he won the imaginations of his auditors—a passage often quoted, but never to satiety :-

" I speak in the spirit of the British law, which makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from, British soil ; which proclaims, even to the stranger and the sojourner, the moment he sets his foot on British earth, that the ground on which he treads is holy, and consecrated by the genius of universal emancipation. No matter in what language his doom may have  been pronounced—no matter what complexion, incompatible with freedom, an Indian or an African sun may have burnt upon  him—no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have  been cloven down—no matter with what solemnities he may  have been devoted on the altar of slavery—the first moment he  touches the sacred soil of Britain, the altar and the god sink together in the dust : his soul walks abroad in her own majesty; his body swells beyond the measure of his chains, that burst  from around him; and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and  disenthralled, by the irresistible genius of Universal Emancipation."

On the appointment, in 1795, of Earl Fitzwilliam to the Viceroyalty of Ireland, Mr. Curran was about to be elevated to the office of Solicitor-General ; but his expectation was frustrated by the hasty recall of that nobleman, which led to the speedy ebullition of the disaffection—impeded, if not counteracted, by the popularity of his government, and the countenance he gave to the leading men of the party opposed to the ministry at home.

As this is not a political memoir, we beg to refer such of our readers as may be interested on this point, to the alleged causes of the national ferment, as they are eloquently expounded in the Life of Curran, by his Son—a work as interesting from its variety, as it is admirable from the merits of its composition. Whether correct in its details and principles, is not for us to determine ;but we may state the result, which was, that the government determined to suppress the seditious spirit of the country by coercive measures.

The popular party, at the head of which was Grattan, continued to maintain an obstinate, though a fruitless, opposition. At length, in a debate which followed on an abortive motion made by Mr. Ponsonby, for reform and emancipation, and in which Mr. Curran took a distinguished part, the leading members of that side chose a final occasion to record their principles and convictions, to enter a parting protest against the acts of their rulers, and to announce their secession from Parliament, where, as they declared, they could be no longer useful. This memorable scene occurred on the 15th of May, 1797 ; and Mr. Curran concluded thus : " I agree that unanimity at this time is indispensable : the House seems pretty unanimous for force ; I am sorry for it, for I bode the worst from it. I shall retire from a scene where I can do no good, and where I should certainly disturb that unanimity I cannot, however, go without a parting entreaty, that men would reflect on the awful responsibility in which they stand to their country and to their consciences, before they set an example to the people of abandoning the law, and resorting to the terrible expedient of force."—Mr. Grattan followed : " Your system is perilous indeed : I speak without asperity; I speak without resentment ; I speak, perhaps, my delusion, but it is my heartfelt conviction. I speak my apprehension for the immediate state of our liberty, and for the ultimate state of the empire. I hope I am mistaken ; if so, I shall acknowledge my error with more satisfaction than is usual in the acknowledgment of error. We have offered you our measure—you will reject it : we deprecate yours—you will persevere. Having no hopes left to persuade or to dissuade, and having discharged our duty, we will trouble you no more ; and after this day shall not attend the House of Commons."

Mr. Curran was among the number who retired from the representation.

The Rebellion ensued. During the disastrous scenes of that distracted epoch, we find him labouring unremittingly in the discharge of a melancholy, and, for the most part, of an unavailing duty—the defence of political delinquents. Every page of the state trials of that time, (and especially where they refer to the well-known cases of Wolfe Tone, the two Shearers, and Oliver Boyd,) records his untiring and brilliant exertions ; and to this portion of his life, his admirers must ever revert with wonder and delight. In the disheartening struggle against a severe law and an exasperated jury, his energy and resources were striking and unbounded. It is not surprising, therefore, that at a period of social convulsion, he had to encounter intimidation and obloquy ; but when the norm of political passions had somewhat passed away. it is equally true that his principles, which had been assailed. and his character, which had been vilified, were made more amenable to the voice of reason, and estimated by a standard more allied to the calmness of justice. Throughout the whole, happily for his own tranquillity and credit, he had learnt to withstand violence, and contenm detraction. His assistance as an advocate was often tendered at the very moment of exigency ; and his defensive speeches were, we believe, without exception, extemporaneous. The conjuncture was unfortunate for their preservation ; but their disjecta membra, which have been handed down to us, powerfully attest the fire and grandeur of the entire original, and sustain the tradition of the extraordinary effects they produced.

Scarcely had the insurgents been subdued, and Ireland entered on the enjoyment of a season of comparative repose, when the partial rebellion of 1803, (in which the name of Emmet acquired so unhappy a celebrity,) threatened to inflict a renewal of contention and calamity upon the land. Mr. Curran had availed himself of the short peace with France, to revisit that country ; whence this inauspicious event recalled him to the exercise of his legal duties.

On the formation of the Whig ministry in 1806, he came into office as Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and was appointed a member of the Privy Council. His parliamentary duties had previously expired, on the transfer of the national legislature ; and he was not called upon to renew his senatorial labours. The remaining years of his life, in consequence, present but little of event to interest the reader. Deprived of opportunities of public display, he virtually ceased to be a public character. Nor was this the only effect of his promotion. From a natural rest-lessness, cherished and augmented by a long course of professional excitement, his mind had become habituated to activity and exertion. The monotonous routine of the judicial avocations was not calculated to call its powers into play ; his unsatisfied energies were condemned to stagnation, and his spirits, deprived of their accustomed stimulus, sank into dejection and despondency. The deplorable state of Ireland, and the melancholy result of all his patriotic aspirations, conspired in -no slight degree to deepen and confirm this saddened mood, as is but too painfully perceptible in all the correspondence of his later years.

In 1810, Mr. Curran visited Scotland, a country has he said) which he had always valued for its intellectual and moral eminence," and which he had on a former occasion thus characterized—" a nation cast in the happy medium between the spiritless acquiescence of submissive poverty, and the sturdy credulity of pampered wealth—cool, and ardent—adventurous, and persevering—urging her eagle flight against the blaze of every science, with an eye that never winks, and a wing that never tires—crowned with the spoils of every art, and decked with the wreath of every muse." His letters also evince the unqualified gratification which his excursion afforded him, in the spirit and intelligence of the Scottish people. His remarks are no less complimentary to them than they might be useful in pointing out the means by which the condition of other countries, and particularly of Ireland, could be ameliorated.

The last occasion on which Mr. Curran figured in public, was at the election for Newry in 1812, when, at the request of a deputation, he became a candidate for their suffrages, but proved an unsuccessful one. On retiring from the contest, he addressed the electors in a speech, which, by its force and brilliancy, proved how little his powers had suffered from time and disease. In this, his last great effort, he recapitulated the history of Ireland, lamented her disunion and distractions, and felicitated his auditory on the return of calmer days and a milder system of government.

In the following year, 1813, his health received so severe an attack, that he meditated the resignation of his office ; and, though he recovered sufficiently to resume his judicial functions for a short time, his constitution was seriously shaken, and he retired from the bench in the spring of 1814.

About this time he became acquainted with Lord Byron, and impressed that noble poet with the warmest admiration of his talents. " Curran," writes his Lordship, " Curran is the man who struck me most. Such imagination ! there never was any thing like it, that ever I saw or heard of. His published speeches give you no idea of the man—none at all. He was a machine of imagination, as some one said Piron was an epigrammatic machine." And again—" he was wonderful even to me, who had seen many wonderful men."
Mr. Curran shortly after passed over to France, less with the expectation of repairing his shattered health, than to divert the melancholy that oppressed him His constitution finally broke down in 1817 : he was visited at intervals by paralytic symptoms ; his spirits were deplorably reduced, and he complained of having a mountain of lead on his heart. On the 8th of October he was seized with apoplexy, and expired, at his lodgings in Brompton, about a mile from Hyde Park Corner, in the 68th year of his age.

The Print accompanying this Memoir, is taken after a portrait by the late President, and considered a happy likeness. Curran's exterior was neither remarkable nor prepossessing : his stature was low, his person insignificant, his countenance unattractive. The only feature emblematic of the man was the eye, which was dark, full, penetrating, and expressive, and in moments of excitement, flashed with intensity and animation.

Curran's title to fame rests on his reputation for wit and eloquence. Of the latter, as we have already had occasion to lament, but few monuments remain, and those few imperfect and corrupted : which misfortune is less attributable to unskilful reporting and agitated times, than to his own obstinate repugnance to supply and embellish—a task which he repudiated as tedious and irksome, but to which the published speeches of his distinguished contemporaries are materially indebted. Though belonging to what is termed the Irish school of oratory, his style had its very distinctive peculiarities. It possessed little of the deliberative solemnity of Grattan, or of the majestic copiousness of Burke : it sprung from an intellect of vast comprehension and originality, united with an ardent and susceptible soul. Thus he succeeded best in the vehement and impassioned : he directed his appeals to the feelings and emotions ; his aim was rather to gain over the sympathies, than to convince the reason, and secure the judgment, by sober argument or logical deduction. In conversation, all report unites to represent his wit and fluency as perfectly unexampled ; as Johnson said of Burke, " his stream of mind was perpetual." To his conversational capabilities we have also the enthusiastic evidence of Byron—" I have heard that man speak more poetry than I have ever seen written, though I saw him but seldom ;" and Horne Tooke drew the following advantageous comparison between him and one of his most celebrated countrymen : " Sheridan's wit is like steel highly polished, and sharpened for display and use ; Curran's like a mine of virgin gold, incessantly crumbling away from its own richness."

His literary tastes were always dominant. In his later years, in order to beguile his inaction, and employ his mind, he projected several works, and among others a History of his own Times, which, however, never went beyond the exordium. His poetical attempts were pretty numerous, and more successful, though varying greatly in point of merit. He himself appears to have regarded them with complacency ; and we have much satisfaction in selecting two of the best, as specimens with which to conclude this Memoir.


THE wreath of love and friendship twine,                                                                                     And deck it round with flow'rets gay;                                                                                         Paint the lip with rosy wine,
'Tis fair Eliza's natal day.
Old Time restrains his ruthless hand,
And learns one fav'rite form to spare                                                                                          Light o'er her tread, by his command,
The hours, nor print one footstep there.
In amorous sport the purple Spring
Salutes her cheek, in roses drest ;                                                                                              And Winter laughs, and loves to fling
A flake of snow upon her breast.
So may thy days, in happiest pace,                                                                                          Divine Eliza, glide along—                                                                                                          Unclouded as thy angel face,
And sweet as thy celestial song.


Thou emblem of faith, thou sweet pledge of a passion,
By heaven reserv'd for a happier than me,
On the hand of my fair go resume thy loved station,
There bask in the beam that is lavished on thee.—
And if some past scene thy remembrance recalling
Her bosom should heave to the tear that is falling
With the transport of lore may no anguish combine
But be her's all the joy, and the suff'ring all mine.

Yet say, to thy mistress ere yet I restore thee,
Say, why is thy charm so indiff'rent to me ?
To her thou art dear ; then should I not adore thee,
Can the heart that is hers be regardless of thee?
But the eyes of a lover, a friend, or a brother,
Can see nought in thee but the flame of another ;
On me then thou'rt lost, since thou never canst prove
The emblem of faith, or the token of love.

But, ah ! had the ringlet thou lov'st to surround,
Had it e'er kissed the rose on the cheek of my dear,
What ransom to buy thee could ever be found,
What force from my breast the possession could tear !
A mourner, a wand'rer, a sufferer, a stranger,
In sickness, in sadness, in pain, and in danger;
Next my heart thou shouldst dwell till its last sigh were o'er,
Then together we'd sink, and I'd lose thee no more.

Before closing this brief page, we should mention, that Curran married when young, and had several children. His eldest son, having been bred to the sea, has obtained the rank of a Captain in the Navy. A daughter is referred to, in several of the memoirs of the time ; and a romantic interest is thrown over her life by the story of an attachment between her and Mr. Emmet, which has furnished material for narratives of fiction in several publications. We have heard that this lady (and, if we mistake not, Mr. Moore alludes to it) sang the ancient Irish melodies with the most exquisite pathos : and we have heard one of her father's compositions, in that ballad style, so beautiful and affecting as to prove the hereditary link which united both minds to the national feeling.

Mr. Curran's witty repartees, which have given a zest to many volumes, must be familiar to general readers, from the productions of Mr. Charles Phillips, Mr. Egan, Sir Jonah Barrington, and others. Indeed, so happily were the elements mixed up in him, that it was never easy to determine whether the most pointed humour, the most biting retort, or the most touching appeal to the heart, were the predominant feature in his addresses or conversation. He was equally master of the smile and the tear. Of the latter, his beautiful reflections on the Catacombs of Paris furnish a fine specimen—of the former, innumerable instances, which are on record, still serve to enliven the social table, though they could hardly be introduced with propriety into a farewell sketch like ours. Here, therefore, we must end.