O'Curry (Curry, Ó Comhraí), Eugene (Eoghan) (1794–1862), Irish scholar, was born 20 November 1794 at Dunaha, about three miles south of Kilkee, Co. Clare, third among four children of Eoghan ‘Mór’ O'Curry (c.1740–1825) and Catherine O'Curry (née Madigan) of Dunaha. His father, an independent-minded small farmer, was also an Irish scholar and had a collection of more than fifty manuscripts, inherited or acquired.
The house seems always to have been a place where Irish scholars, hedge-school teachers, and poets, came together to exchange manuscripts and lore. These included Séamas Mac Consaidín, Diarmaid Ó Maolchaoine and Seán Lloyd (qv) (the latter an author in English also), and particularly Peadar Ó Conaill (qv), the noted scribe and lexicographer. Three of the children became scribes. Malachy O'Curry wrote manuscripts and poetry in Irish, and became a co-worker with Ó Conaill, while Anthony O'Curry, like Eugene, also worked with the ordnance survey.
Irish was O'Curry's first language. Although lame, he used to walk, as a boy, to Kilkee, to find opportunities of practising his English with visitors. His education was traditional and he is said by John O'Donovan (qv) to have travelled as a ‘poor scholar’ for a time, spending time with different teachers. He graduated to becoming a teacher in the hedge-school tradition himself. He was already writing manuscripts by 1812. In his younger days he wrote verse in Irish. For example, a barántas or comic ‘warrant’ that he wrote at about 20 years of age when some local wags stole rafters from a hut that was being constructed as a school building for his use still survives. As early as 1820 he appears to have had contact with Donnchadh Ó Floinn, the well known Cork scribe.
O'Curry is said to have considered emigrating to America for a time, but about 1824 he went to Limerick and worked there originally as a labourer, then a supervisor, before obtaining about 1829 a post as one of the keepers in the lunatic asylum. O'Donovan said that O'Curry was proprietor of a small huckster's shop or shebeen in Limerick for a period but that because of a flaw in the title he lost it, and for a time was imprisoned for debt. He diligently maintained his interest in Irish lore and antiquities in his spare time after he moved to Limerick. His father's death in 1825 caused a sharpening of his interest in such matters. He undertook visits to places that were important in the tradition, such as Knockainy, Ardpatrick, and Lough Gur, and manuscripts survive that he wrote at this time. When he learned that Peadar Ó Conaill's manuscript Irish dictionary had been pawned in Tralee by a nephew after his death, he redeemed it. He was in frequent contact with other Irish scholars and scribes including Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (qv) in Cork, and he addressed a poem in Irish to the RIA about 1829.
About 1833, George Smith, a Dublin bookseller and dealer in Irish manuscripts, became acquainted with O'Curry and sought his help in obtaining Irish manuscripts. Smith became a channel through which John O'Donovan began to correspond with O'Curry and to address queries on Irish words to him. O'Donovan had been working since 1830 in the ordnance survey. This undertaking, a survey to map the entire country, initiated in 1824, required an authoritative orthography for the English versions of the place names to be engraved on the maps. By 1833, under Thomas Larcom (qv) and George Petrie (qv), the artist and antiquarian, such research had broadened into the compilation of a detailed memoir on the topography, antiquities, and natural and other significant features of each locality, as well as the place names. Petrie also entered into correspondence with O'Curry about topography, and in November 1835 O'Curry was employed by the ordnance survey at four shillings a day.
O'Curry's work with the survey was mainly manuscript research, while O'Donovan was mostly engaged in travelling around the country reporting in letter form in relation to antiquities and topography, and recording information from knowledgeable local informants on place names and family names. O'Curry researched and excerpted material from manuscripts that would cast light on archaeological and historic sites, and he wrote notes on names, obsolete words, and technical terms, dealing also with queries from O'Donovan and others carrying on field research. It has been estimated that he examined some 30,000 pages of manuscript. He did some fieldwork in Dublin, Wicklow, Carlow, Kilkenny, and Clare, and reported his observations in letter form.
In Dublin O'Curry also worked for the RIA and for TCD, making copies of important manuscripts. While O'Curry was working in the Academy in 1839, Thomas Moore (qv) was introduced to him by Petrie, and on seeing the Book of Ballymote and other important manuscripts in Irish on O'Curry's desk, and learning for the first time what they contained, Moore exclaimed that if he had been aware of them, he would never have undertaken his History of Ireland.
When in 1842 the ordnance survey was ordered to restrict its brief, O'Curry was let go. He was then employed on the initiative of James Henthorn Todd (qv) and the Rev. Charles Graves (qv) to catalogue the Irish MSS in the RIA, and he was engaged in this task for two years. When Irish scholars became aware of the existence in Brussels of Irish manuscripts (formerly of the library of St Anthony's College, Louvain), arrangements were made for them to be brought to Ireland on loan, where O'Curry copied some himself and paid for others to be copied.
The Irish Archaeological Society, established in 1840, and the Celtic Society, founded in 1845, published texts relating to Ireland. Fourteen of the publications of these societies (which amalgamated in 1854) were texts in Irish. O'Curry generously contributed notes and translations to texts published by other members of these societies, and he himself edited Cath Mhuighe Léana with Tochmarc Moméra (1855). In 1849, as a result of the expertise he had acquired, he was asked to travel to London to give evidence to a select committee on public libraries. While there he acquainted himself with the Irish manuscripts then in the British Museum, identifying a hitherto unrecognised Latin Life of St Patrick. He undertook a catalogue of these at the invitation of the trustees for a payment of £100. During this period, he and Todd visited Oxford and examined some of the Irish manuscripts held at the Bodleian library.
The issue of the publication and translation of the corpus of early Irish legal material had occupied many of those interested in Irish antiquity since the 1780s. Todd and Graves, about 1851, procured an allocation of £50 from the RIA towards translation and transcription of one of the law tracts and entrusted the work to O'Curry. On the basis of an early draft, more support was obtained from the British government, and O'Curry was enabled to undertake research in the British Museum in 1852. O'Donovan was also employed with him to research material in Dublin. On foot of these researches more government funding was made available to enable the material to be edited and translated, and a commission was set up to oversee the project. Initially, O'Donovan was appointed editor, allegedly because of his superior command of Latin, and O'Curry (who may not have been as politically adept as O'Donovan) was only offered a subordinate role. O'Curry, offended, refused the position. He was then appointed co-editor. He worked, with O'Donovan, on the project for several years, transcribing almost 3,000 pages of text and producing a preliminary translation. The unhappy history of the project suggests that it was dogged by academic politics. Inferior or inappropriately qualified scholars were put in charge. The working relationship of O'Donovan and O'Curry became strained as a result of the affair. After the deaths of both scholars, an unreliable edition was eventually published.
O'Curry may have been politically active in his younger days. Although all his life he seems to have identified himself clearly as a nationalist and a catholic, this does not seem to have been an impediment to his warm personal and professional relations with scholars of the unionist political viewpoint and/or with members of the Church of Ireland. At the request of J. H. Todd, O'Curry, in 1854, translated into Irish Introductory lessons on Christian evidences by Dr Richard Whately (qv), Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, published as Aiceachta reambrollaigh ar fhiadhnaisibh na Criostaidheachta (London, 1857). This translation has been faulted for being archaic and literary in tone.
O'Curry was made a member of the RIA in 1853, and in 1854 was invited to become professor of Irish history and archaeology in the newly established Catholic University in Dublin. During the academic year 1855–6 he gave the lectures later published as Lectures on the manuscript materials of ancient Irish history (1861), in which he gave a broad overview of extant Irish manuscripts and a general introduction to the kinds of historical and literary material contained in the texts found in manuscript only. These lectures reflect the knowledge of the manuscript tradition O'Curry had acquired over the years. John Henry Newman (qv), the rector, attended all the lectures and personally approved university funding for their publication. Between 1857 and his death in 1862 O'Curry delivered the lectures published posthumously as Lectures on the manners and customs of the ancient Irish (1873), comprising a general introduction to traditional Irish culture and society. He published regularly in the university's journal, Atlantis. His work and O'Donovan's made the Irish-language scholarly tradition readily accessible to many scholars who were unable to deal with the primary sources themselves.
O'Curry's pioneering translations from Irish, made without the benefit of modern scholarship, are on occasion instinctual guesses and not always right, but his home background and his lifelong research in the manuscript sources gave him an acquaintance with the literary and manuscript tradition that was unrivalled, and even his asides give rich glimpses of the Irish tradition. He inherited a strong interest in traditional music and song from his father, and gave great help to Petrie in his collection and editing of Irish songs, becoming a founder with him in 1851 of the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland, and he is quoted as an authority on almost ninety occasions in Petrie's Ancient music of Ireland (1855).
O'Curry is always linked with John O'Donovan in the history of Irish scholarship. Twelve years older, he appears to have been the more retiring personality of the two, and because O'Donovan was regularly patronising, not to say negative, in his comments about O'Curry, the latter's genius could, in consequence, be underestimated.
O'Curry died of a heart attack at his home in Portland St., Dublin, on 30 July 1862, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. He married (1828) Anne, daughter of John Broughton of Killaderry, near Broadford, Co. Clare, whose younger sister later married John O'Donovan. Two sons and two daughters of the marriage survived. His wife predeceased him by a few years.
A list of O'Curry's principal works (and transcripts) will be found in Síoladóirí (251–7). Upwards of 120 manuscripts by him survive in Irish libraries. Many manuscripts owned by him, as well as uncatalogued papers of his, purchased by the Catholic University after his death, are in the library of St Patrick's College, Maynooth; some are at UCD. Smaller quantities are held in other Dublin libraries. His work for the ordnance survey is still partly held by that body, but some of the material is in the RIA. Several photographs of O'Curry survive. A portrait of him, ascribed to Bernard Mulrenin (1803–68), is reproduced in de hÓir, Seán Ó Donnabháin, by permission of the NLI; a portrait in pencil by F. W. Burton (qv) is held by the NGI; other reproductions appear in Bráthair Críostamhail, Síoladóirí i Eoghan Ó Comhraidhe, and in a brochure published (1992) by the then UCD Faculty of Celtic studies.