O’Curry, EUGENE (EOGHAN O COMHRAIDHE), Irish scholar, b. at Dunaha near Carrigaholt, Co. Clare, 1796; d. 1862. His father, a farmer of modest means, was an Irish scholar, a good singer, and well-informed as to the traditions of his people. His son Eugene, or Owen, grew up amid perfect Irish surroundings, and soon learned to read the Irish MSS. which were still common among the people. After the fall of Napoleon (1815), there followed a period of much agricultural distress in Ireland, and the O’Curry farm was broken up. In 1834 Eugene joined the number of men engaged upon the topographical and historical part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, Petrie, Wakeman, Clarence Mangan the poet, and last but not least John O’Donovan (q.v.). In search of information concerning Irish places O’Curry visited the British Museum (where he catalogued the Irish MSS. for the authorities), the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Library of Trinity College, the Royal Irish Academy, and other places. But the Government, afraid, it is said, of the national memories that the work was evoking, abandoned the. survey three or four years later and dissolved the staff. The great collection of materials, upwards of 400 quarto volumes of letters and documents bearing upon the topography, social history, language, antiquities, and genealogies of the districts surveyed, was stowed away.
After this O’Curry earned his livelihood by reading, copying, and working on the MSS. in Trinity College and the Royal Irish Academy. The first Archaeological Society was founded in 1840, relying chiefly upon the assistance of O’Curry and O’Donovan. In 1853 O’Curry joined the council of the Celtic Society and published for them two Irish texts, the “Battle of Moyleana,” and the “Courtship of Momera”, with excellent translation and notes. In 1855 he was appointed professor of Irish history and archaeology in the recently founded Catholic University of Ireland, whose first rector was John Henry (afterwards Cardinal) Newman. His lectures, published at the expense of the university (1860) under the title of “The Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History”, proved an invaluable mine of information upon the ancient MSS. of Ireland and their contents—annals, genealogies, histories, epics, historical tales, saints’ lives, and other ancient matters ecclesiastical and civil. “O’Curry”, writes D’Arbois De Jubainville (L’Epopee celtique en Irlande, p. xvi), “is the first man who studied at their sources the epics of Ireland.” His book was a revelation, and opened up an entirely new world to European scholars. It was followed by a series of thirty-eight lectures “on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish”, published later (1873) under the editorship of Dr. W. K. Sullivan.
O’Curry, a self-taught man and with little or no classical knowledge, was one of Ireland‘s most energetic workers. Scarcely an Irish book was to be found which he did not read and scarcely a rare manuscript existed in private hands of which he did not make a copy. In this way he gained an outlook over the field of Irish literature, so full and so far-reaching that though strides have been made in scientific scholarship since his day, no one has come ever near him since in his all-round knowledge of the literature of Ireland. He transcribed accurately Duald MacFirbis’s book on Irish genealogies, the Book of Lismore, and scores of others. The last work he was engaged on was the Brehon Laws (q.v.); of these he transcribed eight large volumes, and made a preliminary translation in thirteen volumes. O’Curry was severely tried by government officials who took upon themselves, in crass ignorance and in defiance of all rules of scholar-ship, to dictate to the master how the translation and compilation of the Brehon Laws were to be carried on. O’Curry has left a fully written posthumous statement of the incredible treatment to which he and O’Donovan were subjected, and his account of how he was the first scholar since the death of the great antiquarian, Duald MacFirbis (murdered in 1670), who was able to penetrate and get a grip of the long forgotten language of the ancient law tracts, is one of the most curious things in literature. Many men, such as Todd, Petrie, Graves, Reeves, were deeply indebted to O’Curry, for with a rare generosity he freely communicated the treasures of his knowledge to all who asked him.