Irish Legal Heritage: John Philpot Curran

Irish Legal Heritage: John Philpot Curran

Engraved portrait plate
(Artist: Sir Thomas Lawrence,
Engraver: CJ Wagstaff)

John Philpot Curran was one of the most accomplished Irish lawyers of the late 18th and early 19th century. An excellent orator, Curran’s speeches in the courtroom were regularly met with great acclaim.

Born in Newmarket, County Cork on 24 July 1750, he was heavily influenced by his mother, Sarah Curran (née Philpot), a “vivacious, talented, and ambitious” woman who he “never tired of attributing his success to”. (D Moore, ‘An Epilogue of the Nineteenth Century: John Philpot Curran and his Family’ (1957) Dublin Historical Record 50).

Unlike many lawyers of his time, Curran came from a relatively modest background, although it is likely that he exaggerated his penury for comic effect on many occasions.

Early biographies suggest that the cost of his legal education at Trinity College Dublin and at London’s Middle Temple was heavily subsidised by the generosity of his wealthy friends (WH Curran, The Life of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, Late Master of the Rolls in Ireland (1820) Chapter II).

Indeed, Curran was described as “the wildest, wittiest, dreamiest student of old Trinity; and, in the event of his being called before the fellows for wearing a dirty shirt, could only plead as an excuse, that he had but one. Poverty followed his steps for some years after this; instead of briefs to argue before the judge, he was amusing the idle crowd in the hall with his wit and eloquence. ‘I had a family for whom I had no dinner …and a landlady for whom I had no rent. I had gone abroad in despondence, I came home almost in desperation” (R Chambers, The Book of Days (1832) 114).

The story of Curran’s somewhat controversial legal career will be continued in next Friday’s Irish Legal News.

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