John Philpot Curran’s Lucky Brief, 1779

The young John Philpot Curran, via Wikipedia.

Because barristers cannot receive instructions directly from the public, and are dependent on solicitors to give them cases, it can be challenging – and sometimes impossible – for a young advocate to get established. It used to be said that, as a rule of thumb, at least two of the following were needed – talent, luck or contacts. Traditionally, even the most talented young barristers were, if without connections, dependent on luck to build up a practice.

From ‘The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction’ published by John Timbs, 1825, this story of the early professional difficulties of Ireland’s greatest advocate, John Philpot Curran, and his first lucky brief:

“When Mr Curran was called to the bar, he was without friends, without connexions, without fortune; conscious of talents far above the mob by which he was elbowed, and cursed with sensibility which rendered him painfully alive to the mortifications he was faced to experience… After toiling for a very inadequate recompense at the sessions in Cork, of Cork, and wearing, as he said himself, his teeth almost to the stumps, he proceeded to the metropolis, taking for his wife and family a miserable lodging on Hog Hill.  Term after term, without any profit or professional reputation, he paced the hall of the five courts; yet even thus he was not altogether undistinguished.  If his pocket was not heavy, his heart was light; he was young and ardent. and he took his station among the crowd of idlers who he amused with his wit or amazed with his eloquence; and some there were who observed the brightness of the infant luminary struggling through the obscurity that clouded its commencement.  Amongst those that had the discrimination to appreciate, and the heart to feel for him, luckily for Mr Curran, was Mr Arthur Wolfe, afterwards the unfortunate but, respected, Lord Kilwarden.  The first fee of any consequence which he received, was through his recommendation, and his recital of the incident cannot be without its interest to the young professional aspirant, whom a temporary neglect may have sunk into dejection.

‘I then lived,’ said Curran, ‘upon Hog Hill, my wife and children were the chief furniture of the apartment, and as to my rent, it stood pretty much the same chance of its liquidation with the national debt.  Mrs Curran was, however, a barrister’s lady, and what was wanted in wealth, she was determined should be supplied in dignity. 

The landlady, on the other hand, had no idea of any other gradation except that of pounds, shillings and pence.  I walked out one morning to avoid the perpetual altercations on the subject, my mind you may imagine in no very enviable temperament.  I fell into the gloom to which from my infancy I had been occasionally subject.  I had a family for whom I had no dinner, and a landlady for whom I had no rent.  I had gone abroad in despondence – I returned home almost in desperation.  When I had opened the door of my study, where Lavater alone could have found a library, the first object which presented itself, was an immense folio brief, and twenty golden guineas, wrapped up beside it, and the name of old Bob Lyons marked upon the back of it.  I paid my landlady – bought a good dinner – gave Bob Lyons a share of it – and that dinner was the date of my prosperity.’”

The brief was in the election petition case of Ormsby v Wynne, and, all in all, netted Curran the sum of 1100 pounds – a huge fortune in those days.  This would all have happened around 1779.  Hog Hill, the street in which Curran had his lodgings, is now known as St Andrew’s Street.  It was a popular residence for lawyers at the time; the Solicitor-General, the Judge of the Prerogative, and various Commissioners of Bankrupts all lived nearby.

St Andrew’s Street, Dublin (formerly Hog Hill) today, via Wikipedia

It was not long before Curran moved with his family to a more salubrious townhouse in Ely Place, and a country estate, the Priory, in Rathfarnham.  Sadly, the absence of landladies failed to placate Mrs Curran, who, after twenty-seven years of marriage, and eight children, ran off with a clergyman by the name of the Reverend Abraham Sandys.   Curran’s subsequent action against Sandys for criminal conversation resulted in merely nominal damages, which suggests that there might have been some fault on his side as well.  The case is said to have cost Curran many of his friends.

Bob Lyons, who gave Curran his lucky brief, was a very successful attorney from Mullaghmore, in Sligo. More about him here.

Arthur Wolfe, Lord Kilwarden, the barrister who reputedly recommended Curran to Lyons, later became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, only to be tragically killed during the 1803 Irish rebellion – a rebellion led by another Irish barrister, Robert Emmet, beloved of Curran’s daughter Sarah. 

The Irish legal world of the time was a small one, but more eventful than any soap opera.

Lord Kilwarden, by universal accord, a lovely man unfortunate enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time during the 1803 Rebellion. His ghostly coach still haunts his residence at Newlands, Clondalkin.

Aficionados of the counterfactual may wonder if things might have turned out differently for Kilwarden had he not so kindly recommended Curran for Ormsby v Wynne… 

Who knows!

The Dictionary of Irish Biography contains much superb information on Irish lawyers. Read Patrick M Geoghegan’s comprehensive entry on Curran here.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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