Curran, John Philpot (1750–1817), politician and lawyer, was born 24 July 1750 at Newmarket, Co. Cork, eldest among five children of James Curran, farmer and steward to the manorial court at Newmarket, and Sarah Curran (née Philpot). Educated in grammar and the classics by Nathaniel Boyse, the rector at Newmarket, he entered Midleton Free School, supported financially by Boyse and the wife of the local landowner. He came second in the entrance examination to TCD in 1767, becoming a scholar (1770), and graduating BA in the summer of 1771. During his time in Trinity he abandoned any thoughts of pursuing a career in the church and instead decided on the law, apparently after impressing friends in a dispute with Patrick Duigenan (qv). During this period he attended regularly debates in the house of commons in College Green and was particularly impressed with the oratory of Henry Flood (qv). Curran later told Charles Phillips (qv) that Flood was the greatest man of his time in Ireland, and Flood is believed to be a major influence on Curran's development of his own speaking style. Entering the Middle Temple, Curran was called to the bar in 1774. The greatest obstacle he faced as an aspiring barrister was a speech impediment which had led to his being mocked as ‘stuttering Jack’ in school (Curran, i, 29). But through constant practice and rigorous study, he gained a complete mastery as a speaker and made a considerable impression at the debating societies at the Middle Temple. At one such society, ‘The Brown Bear’, he was known as ‘the little Jesuit of St Omer’ because of his consistent support for catholic relief and his fondness for wearing a brown coat over a black one. Returning to Ireland in 1774 he married Sarah Creagh, whom he had known since childhood. They had five sons and four daughters, the eldest child, Amelia (qv), was born in 1775. He also had an illegitimate son, Henry Grattan Fitzgerald, who later assumed the surname Curran. Called to the Irish bar in 1775 he gradually built up a steady practice and developed a reputation as a pugnacious and effective pleader.
Rise to prominence, 1780–89 Curran came to prominence in 1780, defending successfully a catholic priest who had been beaten by Lord Doneraile. Afterwards he was challenged to a duel by a witness he had discredited, though he refused to return fire. It was testament to his skill as an advocate that he was made a KC in 1782. Friendly with many of the leading patriot politicians in this period, he was a founder member of the Monks of the Order of St Patrick (known popularly as the Monks of the Screw) in 1779, and became an officer of the society.
When it came to politics Curran was determined to maintain his independence. In 1783 he was offered a seat in parliament by Richard Longfield (1734–1811), a sometime supporter of the government, but he refused because their political views were discordant. It was only when Longfield offered him the seat a second time, with no conditions attached, that he accepted, becoming MP for Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath (1783–90); he was later MP for Rathcormack, Co. Cork (1790–97). His first major speech was on 29 November 1783, when he supported Flood's motion for parliamentary reform. In parliament, certainly in his early years, Curran never quite made the impression that his oratorical powers might have suggested. He himself later claimed that he was so exhausted from defending his clients during the day that he never had the energy for the commons. This is possible, but a more likely explanation is that he had developed a style of speaking which was more suited to the courtroom, especially when it involved convincing a jury, and which was less effective when deployed in a parliamentary chamber. A consistent opponent throughout his career was John FitzGibbon (qv), and their relationship was always acrimonious and frequently explosive. During a debate on 24 February 1785 Curran drew attention to the fact that FitzGibbon had fallen asleep in his seat; FitzGibbon responded by dismissing Curran as ‘a puny babbler’ (Parliamentary Register, iv, 409). Six months later another altercation resulted in a duel between them, and although both men missed it was claimed that FitzGibbon took particular care with his aim. When FitzGibbon became lord chancellor he delighted in tormenting Curran in court, and his chancery practice declined rapidly as a result; Curran later claimed that he lost £30,000 in projected earnings.
During the heated debate over the commercial propositions in 1785, Curran rejected them as an attack on legislative independence. After the withdrawal of the propositions Curran spoke of his happiness at the victory and described the ‘great excesses of joy that almost borders on insanity’ (Parliamentary Register, v, 454). He was vicious in his denunciations of Thomas Orde (qv), the chief secretary, and never missed an opportunity to accuse him of duplicity. During the regency crisis Curran went further than Henry Grattan (qv) in his attacks on the British government and the lord lieutenant, the marquis of Buckingham (qv), over their handling of the matter. Around this time Longfield made his terms with the government and was criticised for failing to control Curran. His sense of honour troubled, Curran purchased a seat for Rathcormack, Co. Cork, with his entire life savings and gave it to Longfield in compensation. Following the regency crisis Curran became a founder of the Irish whig club and this marked the beginning of a new phase in his political career. In 1790 he purchased thirty-five acres at Rathfarnham, outside Dublin, and renamed the house ‘The Priory’. He lived there, and at his house in Ely Place, for the remainder of his life.
Whig politician and radical barrister, 1790–99 Curran was now a leading and outspoken whig in parliament. He made allegations of corruption in the commons in February 1790 and again in February 1791, accusing Dublin Castle of selling peerages and pensions for votes. He refused to produce any evidence, citing his fear of witness-tampering, and was roundly abused for his unsubstantiated allegations. When John Giffard (qv) insulted him in the street, he demanded that Robert Hobart (qv), the chief secretary, dismiss him. Hobart refused and a challenge was issued, but neither man was injured in the duel. During this period Curran opposed the war with France and was a consistent supporter of catholic relief; his demands for full emancipation confirmed his status as one of the most radical members in the chamber. In the wake of the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam (qv) in 1795, Curran engaged in a vigorous defence of his short viceroyalty, and rounded on his fellow MPs for their acquiescence in events, accusing them of being ‘puppets’ on ‘wires’ (Parliamentary Register, xv, 394). Disillusioned with the state of the parliament and the country, Curran joined Grattan in seceding from parliament in May 1797, and he refused to stand in the general election later in the year.
The 1790s was a decade of profound personal turmoil for Curran. His favourite daughter, Gertrude, fell to her death in 1792 and he buried her in the grounds of the Priory where he would spend hours watching her grave from his window. In 1794 he discovered that his wife had become pregnant by a clergyman, the Rev. Michael Sandys, and threw her out of the house in disgust. Unwisely, he brought charges of criminal conversation against Sandys, and was forced to listen in court to humiliating accounts of his own serial adultery. Sandys was represented by William Plunket (qv), Curran's former protégé, who was reduced to tears when Curran asked him: ‘Et tu fili?’ (Geoghegan, 26). Curran was awarded £50 in damages, a tiny sum in the circumstances, and emerged with his reputation damaged. He never saw his wife again and later said that his marriage was the worst mistake he had ever made in his life. The Priory became a sombre place. In 1807 his daughter Sarah Curran (qv), wrote of her unhappiness as a child and blamed it on her ‘unnecessarily parsimonious’ father (Geoghegan, 26), who had never given his children any encouragement.
The 1790s was also the decade of Curran's greatest triumphs. In the courtroom he established himself as the leading defender of the United Irishmen, and was later described as being the barrister most obnoxious to the government. The extent of his connection to the United Irishmen remains unclear, although there is no evidence that he was ever a member. The son of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) always claimed that, on the main point of breaking the connection with England, both men were in agreement; Tone himself insisted that ‘had the project of liberating Ireland succeeded, he [Curran] would have been amongst the foremost to hail and join her independence’ (Bartlett, 879). However, some of Curran's public and private statements suggest otherwise, and the fragmentary evidence does not allow for a clear analysis of his political beliefs at this time. Certainly he had no qualms about defending the leading United Irishmen, and relished the attention it gained for him. On 29 January 1794 he won acclaim for his performance at the trial of Hamilton Rowan (qv), and although he lost the case, he established himself as the leading defence barrister of the time. Over the next four years he defended William Jackson (qv), William Orr (qv), and Henry (qv) and John (qv) Sheares, as well as Tone, and although all were found guilty and sentenced to death his reputation was enhanced each time.
During the later part of the 1790s he was a stern critic of the government's repressive policy, which he believed was goading the people into rebellion. His worst fears were realised in 1798. When the government introduced a bill of attainder against the deceased Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv), Curran denounced it, arguing that because FitzGerald had died without trial the legislation was invalid. In a stirring courtroom oration he insisted ‘I have no case! I have gone to the dungeon of the captive but never have I gone to the grave of the dead to receive instruction for his defence, nor have I ever been at the trial of a dead man’ (Speeches (1817), 324), and though unsuccessful he was widely praised for his efforts.
Career in decline: Curran after the union, 1800–17 When a legislative union was proposed in 1799 Curran decided to return to political life. He made a major speech against the measure to the aggregate meeting of the freemen and freeholders of Dublin on 16 January 1800, and reentered parliament as MP for Banagher, King's Co. in May. It was too late to make much impact, and the union passed. During this period he had become friends with the political philosopher William Godwin, and when Godwin visited Ireland in the summer of 1800 he spent much time with Curran.
In August 1803 Curran agreed to defend Robert Emmet (qv) at his trial for high treason, following the abortive rising on 23 July 1803. Emmet had been a close family friend for some years, and had been at Trinity with Curran's son Richard (qv) (d. 1847). The discovery by the authorities of Emmet's secret relationship with Sarah Curran changed everything. Curran immediately refused the case, and berated Emmet for bringing great pain to his family. At the same time he expelled Sarah from his house and, it seems, never forgave her. When she died in 1808 he refused her final request to be buried at the Priory. At the trial of Owen Kirwan (qv), another of the rebels, Curran astonished James McClelland, the solicitor general, with his ‘extraordinary’ behaviour (Geoghegan, 211). In an ‘extravagant’ closing speech he used the opportunity to proclaim his own personal loyalty to the government, attack the French, deny that a rebellion had taken place, and then sat down, ‘having totally forgotten his client in the transaction’ (ibid.). The strain on his family and his reputation appears to have been great.
Leonard MacNally (qv), the lawyer and informer, had predicted that Curran's ‘refusing to act for Emmet will render him very unpopular’ (MacDonagh, 389), and certainly his career never reached the same heights following the Emmet affair. Offered the mastership of the rolls by the whig ‘ministry of all the talents’ in 1806, he considered declining it because it was not the office of attorney general, before finally accepting under pressure from his friends; he was also made an Irish privy counsellor. Never fully comfortable in his new role, he sought an escape when he stood for election for Newry in 1812, but was defeated. His health in decline, he retired in 1814 with an annual pension of £3,000. Travelling around Europe in his final years, he died 14 October 1817 at his London home, 8 Amelia Place, Brompton, following a fit of apoplexy. Buried at Paddington cemetery, he was reinterred at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin in 1837, underneath an Irish granite sarcophagus.
Assessment Curran was a complex and at times contradictory figure. A passionate reformer committed to catholic relief and constitutional change, he may sometimes have stood on the line of what was constitutional, though he never crossed it. Proud and occasionally ill tempered, he excelled at oratory. In 1789 he was described as having a ‘clear, distinct and well tuned voice’, an ‘elegant and nervous’ language, an ‘exhaustless stream . . . of luminous phrases, poetical allusions, and the most lively turns of fancy’ (Scott, 19). His use of irony was devastating: at his best he could be ‘shrewd, sarcastic, and severe’ (Scott, 20). As a politician his motivation was sometimes challenged. Even his friend and biographer, Charles Phillips, admitted that he ‘had the passion of all great souls, the love of fame’ (Phillips, Recollections, 33). William Drennan (qv), despite being defended successfully by him in 1794, found him ‘a man of no heart and little if any principle’ (Agnew, ii, 12) and claimed that he guarded jealously his role as a public defender. But his enduring reputation was that of a committed patriot and spellbinding orator. Thomas Davis (qv) was influenced greatly by Curran and published a collection of his best speeches in 1843. Certainly no one was better when it came to convincing a jury, and Curran was long regarded as the benchmark for legal oratory. Drennan accurately termed the Curran style as ‘keen and malignant’, and it was with great if grudging respect that he described him as ‘the fiercest imp of the pandemonium’ (Agnew, i, 307).