Roots: The Curran Clan

The Curran Crest.

By Sarah Curran, Contributor
October / November 2000

The surname Curran is common in all four provinces in Ireland, but especially in County Donegal and throughout Ulster. The name is also prevalent in the south of Ireland, appearing many times in the County Tipperary Hearth Money Rolls of 1665-7. Currans showed up frequently as Waterford residents in the census of 1659. The 1901 census in Kerry counted 142 Curran or Currane families.

Though Curran is the standard form of the name, in Kerry the form Currane is more common. Other modern synonyms include Kirrane, Corhen, and Curreen. The origin of the word comes from O Corráin, or O Cooraidhín; both derive from corradh, meaning spear.

In the Middle Ages, the Currans were a family of distinguished ecclesiastics. Simon O Curráin, a Dominican friar who died in 1302, served as Bishop of Kilfenora. Andrew O Currán, a Benedictine, was appointed prior of Glasscarrif in 1411. James O Corren was Bishop of Killaloe from 1526 to 1546.

Perhaps the most famous Currans in Irish history are John Philpot “J.P.” Curran and his daughter, Sarah Curran. J.P. (1750-1817) was born in Newmarket, County Cork, but his political career brought him to Dublin, where he studied at Trinity College. Curran settled his family in Rathfarnam and rose to prominence as an orator, patriot, and lawyer. He was a Protestant, but he earned his initial fame in protecting the rights of an ill-treated Catholic clergyman. During his career he defended many United Irishmen.

John Philpot Curran.

His daughter Sarah (1781-1808) is known historically as a romantic and tragic figure. She was engaged to rebel leader Robert Emmet, who was executed after the rising of 1803. Because her engagement to a rebel risked the ruination of her father’s career, Sarah was outcast from the Rathfarnam home, and was obliged to take refuge with friends in Cork. Curran later married, but it is said that she never recovered from the loss of Emmet, and died of a broken heart. Her story inspired the Thomas Moore ballad “She is far from the Land,” which laments:

She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps
And lovers around her are sighing;
But coldly she turns from their gaze and weeps
For her heart in his grave is lying.

Surprisingly, the most famous Irish-American Curran is none other than legendary star Gene Kelly (1912-1996). Born Eugene Curran Kelly, this singer, dancer, choreographer, actor, and director was the son of one Harriet Curran Kelly. Kelly’s maternal grandfather moved to America from County Clare in the 1800s. Kelly’s dancing skill revolutionized movie musicals, and his 1952 hit Singin’ in the Rain is one of the finest and most loved screen musicals.

Gene Curran Kelly.

Other Currans have also impacted the performing arts. San Franciscans celebrate the thriving Curran Theater, founded in 1922 by Homer Curran (d. 1952). Seán Curran (b.1962) is a choreographer and modern dancer who got his start by training in traditional Irish step dancing. A former member of the Bill T. Jones / Amie Zane Dance Company, he now heads up the Seán Curran Dance Company. He won a Bessie Award in 1996 for performance and choreography. His father, John Curran, hosts The Sound of Erin, a Boston radio show, and is a founding member of the Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Eireann branch in Boston.

Curran artists also include Pearl Gildersleeve Curran (1875-1941), who brought Irish music to the mountains of Colorado. This accomplished pianist and violinist also worked as a composer. Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) was a Kentucky-born impressionist painter.

The monastic Currans of medieval Ireland must have passed on a penchant for the faith to their Irish-American descendants. John Joseph Curran (1859-1936) was the son of Irish immigrants from County Mayo, Ireland. Before becoming a Roman Catholic priest in 1887, he began his working life at the age of eight, as a slate picker in the Pennsylvania Coal Mines, where his older brother also worked.

Curran rose to prominence because of his sympathies with the coal miners. He even served as an intermediary between the White House and the United Mine Workers Union during industry disputes. During those years, he became close to President Theodore Roosevelt, who described Curran as “a first-class type of priest, the kind of priest needed in a democracy.”

Charles E. Curran is another Roman Catholic priest. A professor and writer, he stirred controversy in the Catholic Church during the 1980s for his liberal views on sexual ethics.

Other current notable Irish-American Currans include Denis Curran, the director and president (International) of Bank of Ireland Asset Management, and double honoree of Irish America‘s “Wall Street 50.” John P. Curran, president of Curran Capital Management, was also named to the “Wall Street 50.” In politics, Frank Earl Curran served as mayor of San Diego, California from 1963 to 1972. ♦

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