Eugene O'Curry (1796-1862)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

Eugene O'Curry, an indefatigable collector and transcriber of Irish manuscripts and a highly-cultivated scholar, was born in Dunaha, county Clare, in the year 1796. His father was thoroughly acquainted with the Irish language, and had a wonderful knowledge of the traditions and antiquities of his country. He possessed, besides, as an heirloom handed down from his ancestors, a number of Irish manuscripts. He did not, as Irish parents have too frequently done, keep this knowledge to himself, but taught his son Eugene the Irish language, and stored his young mind with the legends and stories of his native country. A slight lameness with which the boy was afflicted tended to increase his delight in study. While still a youth he could read and write Irish fluently. On account of this accomplishment he was chosen in 1834, in conjunction with O'Donovan, and under the direction of Dr. George Petrie, to make extracts from Irish manuscripts in the various museums. His labours in this congenial pursuit were unremitting, and when government in a fit of economy put a stop to the work, over four hundred quarto volumes had been collected, relating to the laws, language, customs, antiquities, &c., of ancient Ireland, a considerable portion of the research and transcription having been accomplished by O'Curry.

He next found employment in the Royal Irish Academy, copying various Irish manuscripts and making catalogues in company with Dr. Todd, for use by the Irish Archaeological Society. The Irish manuscripts in the British Museum were also placed in order and catalogued by him. He was appointed professor of Irish history and archaeology to the Catholic University on the establishment of that institution. In his latter days he transcribed and translated the Irish laws, in conjunction with his learned colleague O'Donovan, for which it seems he received a very poor remuneration from the Brehon Law Commissioners who employed him.

A volume of Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, delivered in his capacity of professor in the Catholic University, was published in 1861. It gave an account of the lost books of the earlier period of Irish history, namely, The Yellow Book of Slane; The Psalters of Tara and Cashel; The Books of Cluainmic-Nois; The Speckled Book of St. Buithe's Monastery; The Book of Clonfert; The Black Book of St. Molaga. This work contained perhaps profounder knowledge and deeper research in Irish literature than any up to that time published.

To this earnest worker also we are indebted for a translation of the oldest part of the Annals of the Four Masters. He continued labouring energetically both as a lecturer and a writer almost till his final hour; indeed, his last lecture was delivered only a fortnight before his death, which took place in Dublin, July 30th, 1862. Dr. W. K. Sullivan published in 1873 three volumes of his scattered writings under the title Lectures on the Social Life, Manners, and Civilization of the People of Ancient Erinn.

It is highly creditable to the Irish people that they appreciated duly the work of O'Curry. He received from the government but paltry acknowledgment of his great services, but it might perhaps be some recompense for this, that, quiet and retiring scholar though he was, his name was known and respected by the masses of his countrymen. His death was regarded as in some sense a national calamity. The feelings which were universally felt are well expressed in the following lines by the national poet, Mr. T. D. Sullivan:—

"In history's page to write a name—
To win the laurels or the bays—
For power, for wealth, for rank or fame,
Will mortals strive a hundred ways.

"But who will labour all alone
Till youth's and manhood's bloom are o'er,
Uncheered, unpaid, unprized, unknown,
A student of forgotten lore?—

"See life's high prizes lightly won
By little worth—yet not repine;
Hear vain pretences brawling run,
And never make an angry sign?

"But still retrace with patient hand
The blotted record of the past,
Content to think the dear old land
Will know her servant true at last?

"Oh, great old man, enough she knows
To make her feel her loss is sore;
Day after day the knowledge grows,
And Erin loves thy memory more."