Curtis, Patrick (1747/8–1832), college head and catholic archbishop of Armagh, was born either at Drogheda, Co. Louth, or at his family's home at Stamullen, Co. Meath. He attended the classical school at Stamullen and, after a short time in trade, took up ecclesiastical studies in Spain at the Irish College, Salamanca. Though he was ordained priest for the archdiocese of Dublin, he remained in Spain or in the Spanish service abroad for most of his life. Appointed chaplain to a Spanish man-of-war in 1774, he was captured during Anglo–Spanish hostilities and taken to England.
Coming to the attention of the Spanish ambassador in London, he was recommended to the king of Spain and appointed rector of the Irish College, Salamanca, in succession to William Birmingham (d. 1780); Curtis held this post until 1817. He continued his studies at the University of Salamanca and obtained a DD in 1789; later he was appointed professor of astronomy and natural history. A disciplinarian, he succeeded in amalgamating the Irish colleges of Salamanca and Alcalá, despite opposition from the rector and students of the latter. After the French invasion of Spain and consequent disruption of the work of the college, he offered his resignation in 1807, but stayed in charge and aided the commander of the British forces that eventually ousted the French – Arthur Wellesley, the future duke of Wellington (qv). Three times he was driven from Salamanca by the invaders and on one occasion he was arrested as a spy and narrowly escaped execution. During the French occupation of Salamanca in 1812–13, the college was turned into a military hospital and Curtis was banished. In a letter written in January 1813 he stated that he was aged sixty-five. He returned in 1817 to find the college destroyed.
Strongly recommended to the papacy by the archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray (qv), and highly acceptable to the British government, he was nominated archbishop of Armagh on 8 August 1819, and consecrated on 28 October. He took up residence at Fair Street, Drogheda (seat of the catholic primates). Unusually for a catholic prelate, he was granted the freedom of Drogheda by the protestant-controlled corporation in 1820. Curtis introduced Corpus Christi processions and obtained permission for the erection of bells on catholic places of worship; he succeeded in removing some of the jealousies that for long had prevailed among the clergy of his large diocese.
Like his confreres James Doyle (qv) and John MacHale (qv), he replied publicly to the ‘charge’ (1822) of William Magee (qv), the protestant archbishop of Dublin, in which the catholics were denounced as ‘possessing a church without what we can properly call a religion’, an assertion that sparked many years of religious controversy. But, unlike Doyle, he was alarmed at public enthusiasm generated in Ireland by miraculous cures said to have been effected by a Bavarian priest, Prince Alexander Hohenlohe, in 1823, and he privately deplored the public debates taking place between catholic and protestant clergy (1824). Curtis supported the Catholic Association by subscribing to its ‘rent’ and by publicly supporting its candidate at the County Louth election of 1826, though he deplored any alliance with English radicals. He testified to the lords’ and commons’ select committees, of 1825, on the state of Ireland. A private letter he wrote on the catholic question to Wellington (who thought well of him) on 4 December 1828, elicited a reply that became public and was a precipitating factor in the introduction of a successful catholic relief bill in March 1829. Curtis, a tall, handsome man, died on 25 July 1832. Little is known about his family; a nephew, Patrick Curtis, was a stockbroker in Dublin in the 1820s.