On This Day – 24.7.1750 Birth of John Philpot Curran, the man who almost became Robert Emmet’s father in law

John Philpot Curran (24 Jul 1750 – 14 Oct 1817) Irish orator, politician and wit; Black and White Illustration;

John Philpot Curran (b.24 Jul 1750 )

On the morning of his 53rd birthday the leading Irish barrister of his day, John Philpot Curran, would have received news of serious disturbances in the city of Dublin. He would have been horrified to learn of the brutal death of his friend Lord Kilwarden, dragged from his coach along with his nephew and daughter and stabbed repeatedly with pikes.

However the violence of 23rd July 1803 was to come even closer to home for Curran. He would quickly have learned that it was no angry and leaderless mob that had murdered Kilwarden. It was the last throw of the dice of the United Irishmen, supposedly suppressed viciously five years earlier, in a rebellion led by a young Dublin Protestant, Robert Emmet. That name would come to haunt Curran.

John Philpot Curran was one of the most celebrated Irish public figures of his day. He was a politician, having been a member of the Irish parliament for three different constituencies. He was probably the most capable member of the Irish bar and had, in 1798, ably but futilely defended many of the leaders of the United Irishmen’s rebellion. His early career as a barrister had been marred by a serious stammer that had earned him the unenviable nickname ‘Stuttering Jack Curran’. But he had conquered his disability, apparently by spending hours reciting Shakespeare in front of a mirror.

He was also a duellist, having fought up to half a dozen opponents and survived.

One of those encounters highlights his penchant for ‘lost causes’ or, at least, his affiliation to the underdog. In 1780 Curran, himself a wealthy and well-connected Protestant, took on the case of an elderly Catholic priest, Father Neale, who had fallen foul of a distinctly obnoxious aristocrat, Lord Doneraile. The priest had criticized the brother of Doneraile’s mistress for maintaining an adulterous relationship and Doneraile, as you did if you were called– I kid you not – St.Leger St.Leger (his parents must have been extremely attached to the family name) had horsewhipped Father Neale for his croppy effrontery. St.Leger (squared) did not anticipate a jury of his peers deciding to punish him. But he reckoned without Curran’s powers of persuasion. The young advocate’s arguments coaxed the jury into awarding the horsewhipped priest 30 guineas and an affronted Doneraile challenged Curran to a duel. He fired and missed, Curran walked away without shooting.

While Curran may have opposed the Act of Union and defended United Irishmen his tolerance did not extend as far as permitting a relationship to form between his daughter Sarah and Robert Emmet. However, after the capture of the young rebel in the wake of his abortive coup Curran, typically, agreed to defend Emmet. He was unaware, however, of the existence of a correspondence between his client and his daughter. When the authorities came to search his house and he was apprised of the existence of letters between the young rebel and his youngest daughter he threw up the brief. Crucially he was replaced as defence counsel by the Crown’s most valuable intelligence asset in Dublin, the traitorous United Irishman Leonard McNally.

Curran was famous as a wit and phrasemaker. It may well have been he, rather than Edmund Burke, who uttered the immortal line ‘evil prospers when good men do nothing’. He said of an enemy that ‘his smile is like the silver plate on a coffin’. Marx once advised Engels to read Curran’s speeches. In an encounter with the infamous Irish hanging judge, Lord Norbury, the justice inquired of Curran if a particular piece of meat was ‘hung-beef’ to which Curran responded acidly ‘Do try it my Lord, then it is sure to be.’

In his private life he was often unhappy, he disowned his daughter Sarah and later his wife, also called Sarah and with whom he had nine children, ran off with a Protestant rector whom Curran sued for criminal conversation. But as a public figure Curran was a colossus who spanned the period between Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell and was, in many ways, the equal of both.

John Philpot Curran, scholar, poet, wit, barrister, politician, and humanitarian, was born 265 years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 17.7.1938 Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan lands at Baldonnell aerodrome after flying the Atlantic


In the early hours of the 18 July 1938 a rather flimsy, sorry looking, and frankly jerry-built plane landed at Baldonnel Aerodrome. Its arrival had not been expected and the authorities at the airport were astonished to discover that its pilot, 31 year old Douglas Corrigan, casually claimed to have just flown from New York.

Corrigan, a Texan of Irish descent, was a pilot and engineer who had worked with the Ryan Aeronautical Company on the construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. This was the plane that, in 1927, made the first non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris. Corrigan had made his own first solo flight in 1926 and he’d been severely bitten by the flying bug.

He quickly graduated to stunt flying – much to the annoyance of his employers at the Airtech Flying School in San Diego whose planes he was jeopardising. Corrigan paid no attention to their disapproval, simply taking their planes to a more distant airdrome and performing stunts during his lunch hour, unseen by his bosses. As we shall see the watchword for Corrigan seems to have been ‘out of sight out of mind.’

In 1933 he spent $300 on a four-year old Curtiss Robin monoplane and started to modify it. To put this into some perspective Spirt of St. Louis cost more than $10,000 to build. Corrigan had decided he wanted to emulate Lindbergh but he was going to target his ancestral home, Ireland, as his destination.

When he applied for a licence to make the trip in 1935 he was turned down on the, not unreasonable, basis that his plane was a glorified wreck incapable of surviving the trip. No amount of modifications over two years would make the authorities change their minds.

Based in California Corrigan flew his plane across the USA in July 1938 barely making it to New York before a gasoline leak got him first. He then filed a flight plan for a return trip to the West Coast. He took off on 17 July at 5.15 in the morning but instead of turning west he headed east. He afterwards claimed that low cloud and a faulty compass had brought about the slight error that took him out over the Atlantic. Nobody believed him. Most people who knew him were aware of his obsession.

28 hours and 13 minutes after take off Corrigan landed at Baldonnel. He had survived on two bars of chocolate and two fig bars, had to get his bearings by looking out of the side of his airplane – he had placed his fuel tanks in front – had no radio and a twenty-year old compass which he almost certainly didn’t bother to read until he knew he was over the Atlantic and not New Jersey.

An American journalist with the delightful name of H.R.Knickerbocker, who interviewed Corrigan in Ireland after his epic journey, wrote three years later that …

You may say that Corrigan’s flight could not be compared to Lindbergh’s in its sensational appeal as the first solo flight across the ocean. Yes, but in another way the obscure little Irishman’s flight was the more audacious of the two. Lindbergh had a plane specially constructed, the finest money could buy. He had lavish financial backing, friends to help him at every turn. Corrigan had nothing but his own ambition, courage, and ability. His plane, a nine-year-old Curtiss Robin, was the most wretched-looking jalopy.

Corrigan’s ‘mistake’ might not have gone down well in official aviation circles – his licence was suspended for fourteen days and his hero Charles Lindbergh never acknowledged his achievement – but he was a big hit with the general public and returned to a hero’s welcome in the USA. He received a ticker tape parade in New York – reckoned to have been attended by more people than greeted Lindbergh. Later he starred in a movie about his own life called The Flying Irishman, delighted in the nickname ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and endorsed numerous appropriate products such as a watch that told the time backwards.

Douglas ‘Wrong-Way’ Corrigan took off from New York, bound for California and got conveniently lost, 77 years ago, on this day.


On This Day – Drivetime – 10.7.1867 Birth of Finlay Peter Dunne


For more than a decade an irascible bar tender from Roscommon, owner of a saloon in Chicago, became the most famous fictional character in American journalism. The barkeep in question, Mr. Dooley, was the creation of the Irish-American humorist Finley Peter Dunne and every week, in the pages of numerous newspapers across the USA, in a syndicated column, Dooley would hold forth on matters of public and domestic policy to his long-suffering customer Hennessy in an Irish dialect that often has to be read aloud to be properly understood.

Finley Peter Dunne was born in Chicago in 1867, the son of Irish immigrants who came to America as refugees from the Great Famine. He was brought up in the heavily Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport and began working for Chicago newspapers straight out of high school. In his mid twenties he started composing Dooley’s satirical monologues for the Chicago Sunday Evening Post. Many of Dooley’s political views would not have been shared by his author. A latter-day version of Dooley therefore might be TV’s Comedy Central creation Stephen Colbert.

Mr.Dooley was never shy about expressing his opinions. In, for example, a column about the vexed topic of immigration (and remember this was the 1890s) Dooley, himself an immigrant, favours the lowering of the portcullis to prevent the entry of further migrants to the USA. Dooley tells Hennessy, whose own cousin is due to arrive in Chicago shortly

Tis time we put our back agin’ the open door an’ kept out th’ savage horde. If that cousin of yers expects to cross, he’d better tear for th’ ship. In a few minutes th’ gates will be down an’ when th’ oppressed world comes hikin’ acrost to th’ haven of refuge, th’ Goddess of Liberty will meet them at th’ dock with an axe in her hand

Dunne coined a host of well-known aphorisms that have entered the great American lexicon, phrases such as ‘trust everyone, but cut the cards,’ ‘the past only looks pleasant because it isn’t here,’ ‘larceny is the sincerest form of flattery,’ and his pithy appraisal of corrupt big city politics ‘a vote on the tallysheet is worth two in the box.’ He may also have coined the famous truism, ‘All politics are local’ an observation usually ascribed to the late House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Perhaps Dooley’s most pointed observation concerned Dunne’s own profession. He once said of the newspaper business that …

The newspaper does ivrything for us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.

The reference to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable has been adopted and claimed as a mantra by many journalists, writers and activists.

Despite the numerous barbs aimed at his administration President Theodore Roosevelt contrived to be on very friendly terms with Dunne. Roosevelt would regularly read out Dunne’s columns at cabinet meetings to alert the nation’s political leaders to the vox populi – Dooley being seen as a man of the people and as reflecting the opinions of the man in the street.


Dunne himself, in 1902, married one Margaret Ives Abbot, who just happened to be the first American woman to have won an Olympic gold medal, she was the women’s golf champion at the 1900 Paris Olympiad. In 1910, after writing more than 700 columns, Dunne ended the career of the garrulous Roscommon bartender and no more was heard from Mr. Dooley.

Irish-American writer, Finlay Peter Dunne, humorist, journalist and one of America’s most successful newspaper columnists, was born 148 years ago, on this day.