Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Curry, Eugene

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O'CURRY, EUGENE (1796–1862), Irish scholar, who is often mentioned early in his career as Eugene Curry (title-page of his edition of Cath Mhuighe Leana, 1855), but was always known in Irish as Eoghan O'Comhraidhe, was born at Dunaha, near Carrigaholt, co. Clare, in 1796, where his father, Eoghan O'Curry, was a farmer, with a good knowledge of some Irish literature and a taste for Irish music. He traced his descent from Aengus, a chief of the fifth century, ninth in descent from Cormac Cas, the son of Oilill Oluim, and was proud of belonging to the Dal Cais. Eugene was slightly lame, but worked a little on his father's farm, and gave much time to Irish studies. In the agricultural distress of 1815 the farm was ruined, and he got some work in Limerick; and his father, who encouraged his literary tastes, went to live with him. In 1834 he obtained employment in the topographical and historical section of the ordnance survey in Ireland. The scheme of the survey was admirable, but after the volume relating to Templemore was published in 1837, the government discharged the staff, and no use was made of the materials. The work had, however, acted as a university education for O'Curry, by bringing him in contact with learned men and with Irish manuscripts in Dublin, Oxford, and London. He next earned his living by copying, arranging, and examining Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin, and elsewhere. In 1851 he made a translation, with text, of the Irish poems in the beautiful manuscript known as the ‘Codex Maelbrighte,’ which was printed in a memoir on the book by Dr. W. Reeves in 1851 in Dublin. He became a member of the council of the Celtic Society, founded in 1853, and in 1855 the society published a text and translation by him of two mediæval Irish tales: ‘Cath Mhuighe Leana’ (The ‘Battle of the Plain of Leana’) and ‘Tochmarc Moméra’ (‘The courtship of Momera’), the daughter of the king of Spain and mother of Oilill Oluim, the ancestor, according to all Irish writers, of the two ruling families of Munster and their allied tribes. These compositions had never been printed before. A critical spirit was not to be expected in a man of O'Curry's education, but the translation is a faithful reproduction of the original, and the text a good one. In 1849, and again in 1855, he examined the Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, and wrote the useful manuscript catalogue now in that library. He visited the Bodleian Library with Dr. J. H. Todd in 1849, and examined its rich collection of Irish manuscripts. When the Catholic University of Ireland was founded, O'Curry became professor of Irish history and archæology, and delivered his first course of lectures in 1855–6. He did not over-estimate his own qualifications as a professor. He always felt, he declared, the want of early mental training, and had always expected to transcribe and translate manuscripts, not to publicly discuss them. John Henry (afterwards Cardinal) Newman attended every lecture, and constantly encouraged the lecturer. The lectures were published in 1860, at the expense of the university, and fill a volume of more than seven hundred pages. The twenty-one lectures give a full account of the chief Irish mediæval manuscripts and their contents, drawn from a personal perusal, and often transcription, of them by the lecturer. The chronicles, historical romances, imaginative tales and poems, and lives of saints are all described. The appendix contains more than 150 extracts from manuscripts, with translations, all made from the originals by the author. Any one who reads the book will obtain a better knowledge of Irish mediæval literature than he can by the perusal of any other single work. Three further volumes of lectures, delivered between May 1857 and July 1862, ‘On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish,’ were published in 1873, after O'Curry's death, edited by Dr. W. K. Sullivan, and contain a vast collection of information bearing on social and public life in Ireland in past times, and three texts, with translations, besides many smaller extracts from manuscripts. In 1860 was printed, in Dr. Reeves's ‘Ancient Churches of Armagh,’ O'Curry's text and translation of that part of the ‘Dinnsenchus,’ or history of the famous places of Ireland, which refers to Armagh, taken from the manuscript known as the ‘Book of Lecan,’ in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. His transcripts were numerous and exact. In 1836 he made a facsimile copy, for the Royal Irish Academy, of a genealogical manuscript of Duald Mac Firbis, belonging to Lord Roden. The execution of the copy is perfect, and its extent is shown by the fact that if printed it would cover thirteen hundred quarto pages. In 1839 he made for the Royal Irish Academy a facsimile copy, of marvellous beauty, of the ‘Book of Lismore,’ a fifteenth-century manuscript of 262 large pages. He made facsimile copies for the library of Trinity College, Dublin, of the ‘Book of Lecan,’ of the ‘Leabhar Breac,’ and of several other manuscripts. He transcribed, in a distinct and beautiful handwriting in the Irish character, eight large volumes of 2,906 pages in all of the ancient Irish law tracts. The brehons were fond of commentary, and mediæval Irish legal writings are marvels of complicated interlinear and marginal annotation. He also wrote out thirteen volumes of a rough preliminary translation. Some of this has unjustifiably been published; it was in reality only the author's first step to a translation. A precise translation was perhaps beyond his powers, and can only be accomplished by a special study of the intricate and often enigmatical writings of the hereditary lawyers of mediæval Ireland, who never aimed at being understanded of the people. His health was injured by close application to work, and he died in Dublin in July 1862, a fortnight after the delivery of his last lecture, the subject of which was ‘Ancient Irish Music and Dancing.’ The difficulties which O'Curry overcame were extraordinary, and his industry enormous. He was devoted to his subject, and added much to the knowledge of it. His greatest friend was John O'Donovan [q. v.], who married his sister.

His brother, called in English Malachi Curry, and in Irish Maolsheachlainn O'Comhraidhe, was a good Irish scholar and poet. The British Museum collection contains two of his poems in Irish: (1) an epistle in verse from him to Thomas O'Shaughnessy, a Limerick schoolmaster, beginning ‘Taisdil o mhéraibh mo chaolchroibhe a sgríbhinn’ (‘From the fingers of my slender hand, oh writing, travel!’). It was written on returning a copy of an Irish prose composition; (2) a reply to some verses of O'Shaughnessy on the loss of one of his poems by a drunken messenger. He died in 1849.

[Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography, Dublin, 1878; Memoir in Irish Monthly Magazine, April 1874; S. H. O'Grady's Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum.]

N. M.