About John Philpot Curran
Patriotic barrister, renowned wit, lawyer on behalf of Wolfe Tone and other United Irishmen. Sarah Curran's father.
A friend of the family, Rev. Nathaniel Boyse, arranged to have Curren educated at Midleton, County Cork. He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin (he was described as "the wildest, wittiest, dreamiest student") and continued his legal studies at King's Inns and the Middle Temple. He was called to the Irish bar in 1775. Upon his first trial, his nerves got the better of him and he couldn't proceed. His short stature, boyish features, shrill voice, and a speech impediment hindered his legal career and earned him the nickname "Stuttering Jack Curran".
However, he could speak passionately in court on subjects close to his heart. He eventually overcame his nerves, and got rid of his speech impediment by constantly reciting Shakespeare and Bolingbrooke in front of a mirror, and became a noted orator and wit.
His occasional tendency of challenging people to duels (he fought five in all) rather than compromise his values, along with his skillful oratory, quick wit and his championing of popular causes such as Catholic Emancipation and the enlargement of the franchise, made him one of the most popular lawyers in Ireland. He also could speak Irish, still the language of the majority at that time. He wrote a large amount of humerous and romantic poetry.
The case which cemented Curran's popularity was that of Father Neale and Lord Donneralle at the County Cork Assizes in 1780. Father Neale, an elderly Catholic priest in County Cork, criticised an adulterous parishioner. The adulterer's sister mas mistress to Lord Doneraile, a cruel Protestant landlord. Doneraile demanded that Neale recant his critism of his mistress' brother. When the priest stood by his principles, Doneraile horse-whipped him, secure in the confidence that a jury of the time would not convict a Protestant on charges brought forward by a Catholic. Curran, who had a passion for lost causes, represented the priest and won over the jury by setting aside the issue of religion. The jury awarded Curran's client 30 guineas. Donoraile challenged Curran to a duel, in which Doneraile fired and missed. Curran declined to fire.
The year 1796 saw Curran again attacking the character of a peer, the Earl of Westmeath, in a civil case. The circumstances were very different from the Doneraile case. Curran was defending another aristocrat, Augustus Bradshaw, alledgedly the lover of Lady Westmeath,in a criminal conversation action. For once, his eloquence went for nothing and despite his attacks on the characters of both Lord and Lady Westmeath, the jury awarded the enormous sum of ten thousand pounds sterling.
His Catholic sympathies earned him the nickname The Little Jesuit of St. Omers. Started in 1780, his drinking club The Order of St. Patrick also included Catholic members along with liberal lawyers (who then had to be Protestant). The Club members were called The Monks of the Screw, as they appreciated wine and corkscrews. Curran was its Prior and consequently nicknamed his Rathfarnham home "The Priory". The club had no link to the Order of St. Patrick established in 1783.
Political causes and views
A liberal Protestant whose views were similar to Henry Gratten, he employed all of his eloquence to oppose the illiberal policy of the Government and also the Union with Britain. Curran stood as Member of Parliament (MP) for Kilbeggan in 1783. He subsequently represented Rathcormick between 1798 and served then for Banagher from 1800 until the Act of Union in 1801, which bitterly disappointed him; he even contemplated emigrating to the United States. He also visited France in the 1780's and 1802, and considered that an Ireland ruled by the United Irishmen under French protection would be as bad as, if not worse than, British rule.
However, he defended several of the United Irishmen in prominent high treason cases in the 1790's. Among them were the Revd. Wlliam Jackson, Archibald Hamilton Rowen, Napper Tandy, The Sheares Brothers, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, William Orr, and William Drennan. His difficulty in defending treason cases was that by law the Dublin administration could rely upon one witness to secure a conviction, while in England law was that the prosecution had to use two or more witnesses. Consequently his success depended on his lengthy examination of a single witness to try to find an inconsistency. He used this technique to great effect in the case of Patrick Finney, a Dublin tobacconist charged with treason in 1798, largely on the evidence of one James O'Brien. Curren destroyed O'Brien's credit and the judges, for once in sympathy with the accused, virtually ordered an acquittal. In the same year he unsuccessfully defended Peter Finnerty for seditious libel in publishing an attack on the judges who heard the William Orr case, and the Lord Lieutenant. Despite an eloquent speech by Curran, Finnerty was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
He was appointed Master of the Rolls in 1806, following Pitt's replacement by a more liberal cabinet. He retired in 1814 and spent his last three years in London. He died in his home in Brompton in 1817. In 1837 his remains were transferred from Paddington Cemetery, London, to Glasnevin Cemetery, where they were laid in an 8-foot high classical-style sarcophagus. In 1845 a white marble memorial to him with a carved bust was placed near the west door of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
He married in 1774, to his cousin Sarah Creagh(1755-1844), the daughter of Richard Creagh, a County Cork physician. His oldest daughter, Amelia, was born in 1775, and eight more children resulted from the union, but this marriage disintegrated, his wife eventually deserting him and eloping with Rev.Abraham Sandys, whom Curran sued afterwards for Criminal conversation in 1795,
His daughter Sarah's brief romance the rebel Robert Emmet, who was hanged for treason in 1803, scandalized Curran, who had tried to split them up at one point. He was arrested and agreed to pass their correspondence on to the Attorney General. In the circumstances he could not defend Emmet. He was suspected with involvement with Emmet's Rebellion, but was completely exonerated. However his friend Lord Kilwarden was killed by the rebels, and he lost any faith in the beliefs of the United Irishmen.
In Dublin, he was a member of Daly's Club.