Curran, Sarah (1782–1808), fiancée of Robert Emmet, was born at her father's residence in Newmarket, Co. Cork, the youngest daughter and seventh child of John Philpot Curran (qv), orator, barrister, and politician, and Sarah (Creagh) Curran, also of Newmarket. In 1790 the family moved to the Priory, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, where Sarah's life was filled with unhappiness from an early age. She was only ten when her sister Gertrude fell from a window and died. Disharmony between her parents reached crisis point when in 1795 her father threw her mother out because she was pregnant from an illicit liaison with Rev. Michael Sandys. He instigated legal proceedings against Sandys, during which his own adultery was exposed, much to the humiliation of the children. For a time Sarah was sent away to stay with the family of Rev. Thomas Crawford of Lismore, Co. Waterford.
The clandestine nature of her romance and engagement to Robert Emmet (qv) in part explains the enduring appeal of their story as doomed lovers. Sarah made her début in 1799 at a ball in Wicklow, where the guests were impressed with her elegance. Small and slender, she had dark hair and ‘eyes large and black’ (Geoghegan, 27). It was then she probably first met Emmet, a college friend of her brother Richard Curran (qv). The romance appears to have started only when Emmet returned from his secret mission to the continent, in autumn 1802. No doubt anticipating her father's opposition, they kept the relationship secret, and it was not until after the insurrection that Emmet revealed it to her brother Richard. It was Emmet's housekeeper Anne Devlin (qv) who facilitated their clandestine correspondence, and she remembers Sarah as soft and sweet, though others found her pensive and melancholic, like Emmet. They had evidently aspired to a lifetime of happiness together, and her humorous side emerges when she wrote to Emmet, in hiding after the insurrection: ‘I long to know how your wife and ten small children are’ (ibid., 27–8). A talented singer, harpist, and pianist, she was coached by Thomas Moore (qv), and also put much effort into completing an elaborately embroidered map of Ireland (1802) (NLI, Acc 5079; reproduced in O'Donnell, 67).
After the failure of his rebellion in July 1803 Emmet went into hiding and through Devlin remained in contact with Sarah, imprudently taking lodgings in Harold's Cross to be near her. When he was arrested there on 25 August her letters were discovered on him and in a military depot, but as they were unsigned she was not immediately implicated in Dublin Castle's investigations. Though he was anxious that her identity would remain unknown, Emmet secretly wrote to her from prison. His letter was passed on to the Castle authorities, after which the Curran home was searched on 9 September by Major Sirr (qv). Her father was not at home and, much to the subsequent embarrassment of the authorities, Sirr entered Sarah's room, where she was still in bed. Her sister Amelia succeeded in burning most of the letters before Sirr's officers stopped her, though Sirr's son Joseph D'Arcy Sirr (qv) would later claim that, ‘out of respect for the feelings of all parties concerned, the correspondence of the unhappy lovers was consigned to the flames’ by his father (IBL, 11). Sarah was thrown into violent convulsions and collapsed. The authorities suspected that the letters to Emmet were written in code and were part of the conspiracy; they were even read by George III, who found them ‘certainly curious’ (Geoghegan, 219). Emmet lied during cross-examination at his trial, determined to protect Sarah from prosecution, and in his final letter to her brother Richard admitted his great sorrow in leaving her, an ‘idol I adored in my heart, the object of my affections’ (ibid., 15).
After Emmet's execution (20 September 1803) Sarah became alienated from her father, who believed himself compromised by her romance. She left Rathfarnham to stay with the family of Cooper Penrose (qv) in Woodhill, Cork, and became close friends with their daughter Anne. There she met Captain Robert Henry Sturgeon (d. 1813), of the Royal Staff Corps. They married in Glanmire, Co. Cork, on 24 November 1805 and, after a brief stay in England, travelled with his regiment to Sicily. Her letters to Anne Penrose indicate her marriage was a happy one, though she was prone to bouts of melancholia. Having become proficient in Italian, she found music a great consolation, and among her social circle in Sicily was Katherine Wilmot (qv). She was pleased to become pregnant in 1807, but also seemed depressed at the accumulation of misfortune in her life. Her husband was recalled to England, and their son John was born during a stormy sea journey on 26 December, but died 10 January 1808. Weakened by the difficult birth, she became increasingly fragile. When back at Hythe in Kent, an officer stationed there, Charles Napier, described her as Emmet's ‘betrothed’ and said she was but a ‘perfect ghost’, suffering from bouts of extreme psychological distress and consumption (Geoghegan, 36). She died 3 May 1808. Her father refused to grant her wish to be laid beside her sister Gertrude in Rathfarnham, and she was buried in Newmarket.
Sarah's love affair with Emmet, a tragic romance in reality, inspired Moore's ‘She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps’ and Washington Irving's story ‘The broken heart’, and in ballads her lament was equated to that of Erin in foklore. Though there was genuine tragedy in her life, it was as an almost fictional heroine that she was portrayed by hagiographers of Robert Emmet's romanticised legend, with ‘a host of poignant, but largely inaccurate details’ (Elliott, 138).