The Right Honourable
John Philpot Curran
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
ON MRS. BILLINGTON'S BIRTH-DAY.
THE wreath of love and friendship
And deck it round with flow'rets
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
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
Divine Eliza, glide
Unclouded as thy angel face,
And sweet as thy celestial song.
ON RETURNING A RING TO A LADY.
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.