John Philpot Curran


Biography of John Philpot Curran

John Philpot Curran (24 July 1750 – 14 October 1817) was an Irish orator, politician and wit, born in Newmarket, County Cork. He was the son of James and Sarah Curran.

A friend of the family, Rev. Nathaniel Boyse, arranged to have Curran 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 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 Bolingbroke 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 skilful oratory, quick wit and his championing of popular Irish 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 humorous and romantic poetry.

The case which cemented Curran's popularity was that of Father Neale and Lord Doneraile at the County Cork Assizes in 1780. Father Neale, an elderly Catholic priest in County Cork, criticised an adulterous parishioner. The adulterer's sister was mistress to Lord Doneraile, a cruel Protestant landlord. Doneraile demanded that Neale recant his criticism 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. Doneraile 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, allegedly 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 £10000.

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 named his Rathfarnham home "The Priory". The club had no link to the Order of St. Patrick established in 1783.

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