Eugene O'Curry

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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O'Curry, Eugene, a distinguished Irish scholar, was born at Dunaha, near Carrigaholt, County of Clare, in 1796. [His father, Owen Mor O'Curry, had a thorough knowledge of the antiquities and traditions of the country, was an Irish scholar, possessed a collection of Irish manuscripts, partly inherited from his forefathers, and sang Irish songs with peculiar power and pathos.]

In youth Eugene devoted himself enthusiastically to the study of Irish, acquired much proficiency in deciphering ancient documents, and learned to write a clear, bold, and beautifully-formed hand in Irish. He added to his father's collection of manuscripts by copying those in the possession of others. These pursuits were doubtless favoured by a slight lameness, which prevented him from working as much as his brothers upon his father's farm, and incapacitated him from joining in active outdoor exercises.

During the agricultural distress after the conclusion of the war in 1815, the family was scattered, and Eugene and his brother Anthony procured situations in Limerick, when their father abandoned his farm and went to live near them. Eugene continued to employ his leisure in prosecuting Celtic studies.

Not long before his death, he remarked to a friend: "It was not until my father's death that I fully awoke to the passion of gathering those old fragments of our history. I knew that he was a link between our day and a time when everything was broken, scattered, and hidden; and when I called to mind the knowledge he possessed of every old ruin, every old manuscript, every old legend and tradition in Thomond, I was suddenly filled with consternation to think that all was gone for ever, and no record made of it."

His acquirements ultimately became known beyond his immediate circle, and in 1834 he was associated with Dr. John O'Donovan (afterwards his brother-in-law), Dr. Petrie, Mr. Wakeman, and Clarence Mangan, in the topographical and historical department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. His duties led him into researches amongst Irish manuscripts in the libraries of Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy, Oxford, and the British Museum. After the completion of the ordnance Memoir of Londonderry, Government abandoned the intention of publishing similar memoirs of the other counties of Ireland, the staff was discharged, and the collection of materials, comprising upwards of four hundred quarto volumes of letters and documents relating to the topography, language, history, antiquities, productions, and social state of Ireland was stowed away. Many, of the original documents are available for reference in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.

He next found employment, at a very inadequate salary, in the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, Dublin, restoring, deciphering, and transcribing their collections of Gaelic manuscripts. The Irish Archaeological Society was inaugurated in 1840, mainly trusting to the assistance he and O'Donovan were capable of giving. The Celtic and Ossianic Societies also availed themselves of his services.

In 1849 and 1855 he made some valuable discoveries among the Irish manuscripts in the British Museum; and in 1849 he visited Oxford with Mr. Todd, for the purpose of examining the Celtic manuscripts there. The catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum was compiled by him and is in his hand-writing. On the establishment of the Catholic University, O'Curry was appointed Professor of Irish History and Archaeology. Some of his latest labours were in connexion with the translation and publication of the Brehon Laws, for which he was but moderately paid.

McGee thus describes O'Curry at work in his later years: "In the recess of a distant window there was a half-bald head, bent busily over a desk, the living master-key to all this voiceless learning. It was impossible not to be struck at the first glance with the long, oval, well-spanned cranium, as it glistened in the streaming sunlight. And when the absorbed scholar lifted up his face, massive as became such a capital, but lighted with every kindly inspiration, it was quite impossible not to feel sympathetically drawn towards the man. There, as we often saw him in the flesh, we still see him in fancy. Behind that desk, equipped with ink-stands, acids, and microscope, and covered with half-legible vellum folios, rose cheerfully and buoyantly to instruct the ignorant, to correct the prejudiced, or to bear with the petulant visitor, the first of living Celtic scholars and palaeographers."

Professor O'Curry died in Dublin, 30th July 1862, aged 66, and was buried at Glasnevin. His twenty-one Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, delivered at the Catholic University of Ireland during the sessions 1855 and 1856, were published, with an appendix (Dublin 1861), in one volume, illustrated with numerous fac-simile specimens of ancient manuscripts. They are a veritable mine of information on the subject. His thirty-eight Lectures on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, delivered at the same college, between May 1857 and July 1862 (the last only a fortnight before his death), were published in Dublin, in three volumes in 1873. These last were edited, with an introduction (occupying the whole of the first volume), appendices, and other supplementary matter, by Dr. W. K. Sullivan, and are monuments of the learning and research of both author and editor.

A writer in the University Magazine for 1876 charges him with want of wide culture, and prejudice in favour of whatever seemed to indicate the antiquity of the literary monuments of Ireland; but concludes with the words: "As an indefatigable, enthusiastic collector of materials upon which other men are to pronounce an opinion, he deserves all praise. Moreover, he has given an impulse to the study of the old Irish monuments by his devotion and zeal, and the good work which he has done will yet bear fruit."

Sources

116. Dublin University Magazine. Dublin, 1833-'77.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

259. O'Curry, Eugene, Memoir in Irish Monthly, April, 1874. (Pamphlet.)

260. O'Curry, Eugene: Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History. Dublin, 1861.

261. O'Curry, Eugene: Ancient Irish Manners and Customs: Edited by W. K. Sullivan, Ph.D. 3 vols. London, 1873.

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