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THE IMPERIAL MAGAZINE.
MEMOIR OF TIE RIGHT HONOURABLE JOIIN PITILPOT CURRAN.
(With a Portrait.) The pulpit, the bar, the bench, and the senate of the united kingdom of Great Britain, may be surveyed in the light of distinct and harmonious constellations, which irradiate the hemisphere of our moral, judicial, and legislative world. England has produced many stars of the first magnitude, and the lustre which beams from those of Ireland is not less intense. The rays emitted from these sources of light, in both countries, have done much to illuminate mankind, and, unimpaired and uneclipsed, we can scarcely doubt that their brilliancy will be transmitted to generations yet unborn.
Among those orbs of splendour, which, during the last and present generations, have risen above the horizon in Ireland, we know but few of greater celebrity, or who will present a stronger claim to lasting fame, than the subject of this memoir. Without wealth, patronage, or prospect, but with talents of the highest order, he found means to surmount every obstacle, to obtain an elevation at the head of his profession, and to stand as a lasting monument to posterity, of what intellectual vigour, accompanied with unceasing perseverance, may accomplish.
John PHILPOT CURRAN was born July 24th, 1748, or 1750, for we have seen each date assigned as the period of his birth, at Newmarket, a small town in the county of Cork. Here his younger years were passed in comparative obscurity, without any incident to demand particular notice. It has been said, that his alertness and decision of character, when at play with some of his companions, attracted the attention of an eccentric individual, who, from this circumstance, predicted his future greatness, and even furnished pecuniary aid to promote his education. As this report, however, rests on tradition, we can only give it as such, without vouching for its authenticity.
But, whatever were the means employed by either Mr. Curran or his friends, it appears, that in 1769 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in the capacity of a sizer, and, not long afterwards, obtained a scholarship. In this college he pursued his studies with reputation and success, but without being rendered remarkable for any transcendency of talents, or furnishing any indications of that decided superiority which marked his future career.
It has often been noticed, that talents of the highest order are of tardy growth. Years frequently elapse without affording any presages of masculine development: and even when they first appear, some unexpected occasion, or some singular incident, has occurred, apparently through accident, to call the latent fire into active operation. A precocity of intellectual energy, on the contrary, generally falls short of that splendid maturity which it indicated ; and, even where it ripens to perfection, is ephemeral in its duration. Precocious talents may be compared to the early blossoms of 2D. SERIES, NO. 16.-VOL. II.
the spring, displaying brilliant colours, and even scattering fragrance on the lingering gales of retiring winter : but, unable to withstand the nipping frosts and piercing blasts which await them, wither at the moment when hope has given strength to expectation, and die without rewarding the cultivator with the anticipated harvest.
It appears that, in conformity to the wishes of his friends, Mr. Curran originally intended to fix his station in the church, and to this object his early studies were almost exclusively directed. To the clerical office he, however, never manifested any personal attachment. For him, the senate and the bar had more powerful charms, and, communicating his predilection to his friends, his destination was rendered conformable to his desires, and the legal profession was adopted for him by the consent of all parties.
Placed thus in a path congenial with his wishes, all his mental powers were absorbed in the ardour of his pursuits, and it was not long before he found himself making rapid advances in the acquirement of knowledge, to which, in his theological studies, he had been an almost entire stranger. It has, however, been observed, that the influence of his clerical pursuits frequently became apparent in the effusions of eloquence which subsequently marked his legal and political career. In the solemnity of his appeals, his habitual recurrence to scriptural imagery, and readiness in quotation from the sacred volume, uniformly evinced that his previous studies had made an indelible impression on his mind.
In 1773, Mr. Curran concluded his college education, and proceeded to London, where he became a student of the Middle Temple.
At this period of his life, his situation was dreary and uncomfortable in a painful degree. Solitary, and almost friendless, in a demi-foreign country, dependent for his subsistence upon precarious and scanty supplies, having poverty for his companion, and prospects which presented little but a gloomy blank, he was sometimes reduced to difficulties, which neither his philosophy nor buoyancy of spirits was fully, able to withstand. Yet, even at this time, his letters delineate his circumstances and pecuniary embarrassments with a degree of humour, which at once excite our pity and our smiles. These letters furnish the earliest specimens that have been preserved of that fertility of fancy, and exuberance of wit, which, in after life, formed one of the great and leading features of his character.
But, amidst these pecuniary difficulties and attendant evils, his attention to studies connected with his profession was unremitting: and great were the advantages he derived from his residence in the British metropolis. At this time his enunciation and delivery, as a public speaker, were very deficient. Of this he was not insensible, and no small portion of his time and attention was devoted to the remedy of this defect. Happily, success crowned his exertions. By judicious care, and incessant practice, he surmounted this natural disadvantage, and soon acquired a power of utterance correspondent to the luxuriance of his mental resources.
In 1775, Mr. Curran was called to the Irish bar, where he did not long remain unnoticed or unknown. To strenuous exertion, he was stimulated by the combined influence of honourable ambition, a consciousness of his own acquirements and abilities, and, above all, by the pressing necessities of his unprovided wants. Through the opportunities thus afforded him, he soon established a reputation for extensive legal knowledge, strong argumentative powers, and a style of oratory, Auent, commanding, energetic, and ornamental. This character speedily gave publicity to his fame, and rising rapidly in eminence, a few years placed him beyond the reach of
indigence, and saw him occupy an exalted station, for which many of his cotemporaries had toiled and striven in vain.
To the abilities already noticed, Mr. Curran added a degree of firmness and intrepidity, which no talents could intimidate, no authority could shake. At the bar, and before the bench, he never lost sight of his independence; and whenever occasion called upon him to assert it, language always energetic and cutting was ready at his command. Of this peculiar tact the following may be regarded as a specimen.
When Judge Robinson was on the bench, a dispute took place between him and Mr. Curran, on some point connected with a case then before the court. During the altercation, his lordship indulged in some sarcastic remark on the embarrassed circumstances of the young lawyer. The latter feeling indignant at the personality of the allusión, addressed him in the following words.
“ My lord, when the person who is invested with the dignity of the judgment-seat, lays it aside for a moment to enter into a disgraceful personal contest, it is in vain, when he has been worsted in the conflict, that he seeks to resume it; it is in vain that he seeks to shelter himself behind an authority which he has abandoned.”
Judge R. “ If you say another word, Sir, I'll commit you."
your lordship should do so, we shall both of us have the consolation of reflecting, that I am not the worst thing your lordship has committed.” Here this caustic dialogue ended.
As a politician, Mr. Curran, from the commencement of his career, espoused the popular cause, the advocates of which hailed him as an important acquisition to their ranks. On all occasions he seized every opportunity to promote its interest, and when, in 1783, he obtained a seat in the Irish House of Commons, he immediately took his place on the opposition side.
Ireland has at all times been prolific in producing powerful minds, but at this period its parliament exhibited a concentration of talent and patriotic zeal, which has rarely been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed, in any similar public assembly. Into this arena, men of superior talents, whether actuated by private interest, public spirit, or a thirst for fame, speedily found their way; and in the important questions that successively came under discussion, eloquence exerted all its energies, imagination all its fervency; while wit, sarcasm, repartee, and even tempestuous impetuosity, conspired to give an ample development to the Irish character.
On the great questions which were agitated in this august assembly, Mr. Curran took an active part, and was uniformly distinguished by an honest warmth and uncompromising firmness; and although he appeared rather as an auxiliary than a leader in the opposition, he was one on whose assistance much reliance was placed. On these occasions, one of his contemporaries has observed, that" he animated every debate with his powers, was copious, splendid, and full of life, and wit, and ardour." Few of his speeches, however, have been preserved entire; but, from the volume which was published in 1805, it is evident that the above epithets have not been misapplied, and it is to be regretted that the greater portion of his extemporaneous effusions have been doomed to perish.
In 1787, Mr. Curran visited France, where he was not an inattentive observer of the general decay of its trade, and of the miseries which followed as a natural consequence. Of the prevailing distresses, his letters give a lively but melancholy picture. The causes which speedily issued