Curran, Constantine Peter (‘Con’) (1883–1972), lawyer and writer, was born 30 January 1883 in Dublin, younger of two children of Patrick Curran (d. 1924), head of the General Post Office (GPO) telegraph division, of Dublin, and Mary Elizabeth Curran (née McGahan), daughter of a Monaghan farmer. The family lived at Manor St. and later 6 Cumberland Place, Dublin. Con was educated at a convent school in Gardiner St., and at the Christian Brothers' O'Connell School, North Richmond St., where fellow students included Éamonn Ceannt (qv); Cahir Davitt (qv), son of Michael Davitt (qv); and Con's close friend, Tom Kettle (qv). Like many of the students, Con came from a home rule background. Being a high academic performer, he skipped a year and his parents, fearing he would be too immature for university, arranged a sabbatical year when he was 14, during which he studied in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and spent much time in the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Library, laying the foundations for his future career as art critic and expert on architecture.
Proceeding to University College Dublin (UCD) with a gold medal for first place in English in the senior grade examination, Curran found that his confidence took a dent when he found himself in a lecture hall with James Joyce (qv). It was typical of Curran's modesty, acumen, and generosity that he immediately recognised the other's superiority, and typical of Joyce's egoism that he accepted this admiration as his due. Curran proved loyal enough to maintain a lifelong friendship with the exacting Joyce. He features once by name in Ulysses, when, appropriately enough, Dedalus recalls that he owes him ten guineas. The well known photograph of the becapped Joyce with his hands in his pockets was taken by Curran in his own garden; asked what he was thinking that moment, Joyce said that he was wondering if Con would lend him five shillings. Curran not only made regular loans, but gave an account to Joyce of the last days of J. Stanislaus Joyce (qv), d. 1931, and kept an eye on Lucia Joyce during her stay in Ireland. According to Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann (qv), he was one of three models for Gabriel in Joyce's ‘The dead’ and gave to the character his high colour and nervous manner. A portrait of the artist as a young man represents him as interested in food, and Joyce sent him a case of wine after the lifting of the Ulysses ban in 1933.
He acted in the early years as a sort of literary agent for Joyce, reading the first chapters of Stephen Hero, which were subsequently lost, and petitioning George Roberts (qv) to publish Dubliners. He was, however, among the first to reject a work by Joyce – as editor of the college journal St Stephen's in 1904, he returned the scabrous poem ‘The holy office’ with the comment that it was ‘an unholy thing’. An instinctive diplomat, he managed to be friends with radicals such as Joyce without adopting their views. Known as ‘cautious Con’, he was notably pious – his brother, Monsignor Michael Curran (1880–1960) was rector (1920–39) of the Irish College in Rome – and, with Tom Kettle, Con became honorary secretary in 1906 of the Catholic Graduates and Undergraduates Association. He was among the few in his set who sympathised with those who rioted against the ‘Playboy of the western world’, but combined this with a cosmopolitan outlook – he went on tours of Germany with Kettle in the prewar years and later visited Joyce frequently in Paris. Though an active member of Connradh na Gaeilge at a time when the language movement was militant, and extern lecturer in French and German literature at St Enda's, the school of P. H. Pearse (qv), Con was never drawn into politics.
Graduating Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1902 and Master of Arts (MA) in 1906, he joined the courts service as a second-class clerk in September 1903 and was called to the bar in Trinity term 1910. Although made senior counsel in Michaelmas term 1938, he never practised as a barrister. Promoted to first-class clerk in March 1920, he was appointed high court registrar in August 1921, and between August 1946 and his retirement (October 1952) served as registrar of the supreme court. He flourished more, however, in his other career as a writer on art, architecture, and drama. Marriage in December 1913 to the actress and suffragist Helen Laird (qv) broadened his circle to include actors and playwrights. They counted among their friends George Russell (qv), Padraic Colum (qv), Stephen MacKenna (qv), Sarah Purser (qv), and later, Samuel Beckett (qv), and their Wednesday afternoon salons in their home, 42 Garville Avenue, Rathgar, became a Dublin institution. Sarah Purser commented on the lovely cakes, which she wondered how Curran could afford, and Edward MacLysaght (qv) recalled that the talk turned to economics as much as to the Abbey Theatre.
Between 1916 and 1922 Curran was a regular Dublin correspondent under the pseudonym ‘Michael Gahan’, for the Nation (London), and his theatre criticism was a distinguished feature of the Irish Statesman. Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) thought him the ablest of the Dublin critics. He wrote frequently in Studies on art, including monographs on Jack B. Yeats (qv) and Evie Hone (qv), and he was himself an astute collector. However, the area where he had most expertise and achieved most renown was in architecture – his books include Dublin plasterwork (1940), The Rotunda hospital, its architects and craftsmen (1945), Newman House and University Church (1953), and Dublin decorative plasterwork of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1967). Maurice Craig regarded him as a definitive authority. He has the distinction of having established the native character of much of the best plasterwork in Ireland, which was long attributed to Italian artists, and he also helped save the interior decoration of Mespil House. Believing that before the act of union Dublin had its own distinct culture, he abhorred the term ‘Georgian’. An honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (1968), he was an active member of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) from 1927, and was elected its vice-president in December 1971. Elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA) in 1946, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1949.
In 1968 he published James Joyce remembered, his graceful, occasionally witty reminiscences, which well conveyed his friend's character. This was followed by Under the receding wave (1970), a memoir notable for its attentive portraits of his many friends and former teachers, and for its lack of self-revelation – Curran was throughout his life an observer. The book ends with his college years; another volume was planned, but he died 1 January 1972 in Dublin, having been in failing health, and left an estate valued £37,506. His wife predeceasing him, he was survived by his only child, Elizabeth, who was, like him, an art critic. She married the American economist Josef Solterer. Curran's papers are held at UCD and the National Archives of Ireland.