Eugene O’Curry was born in Doonaha in Co. Clare, on the bank of the Shannon some miles east of Loop Head, in November, 1794. He had little formal education, but at an early age took an interest in Irish manuscripts. He was for a time a schoolmaster in his native district. About 1824 he moved to Limerick, where he worked for a period as a labourer until he got a post in the Limerick Lunatic Asylum. While there he continued his study of Irish manuscripts and appears to have become known as an authority on the Irish language.
In 1835 he joined the staff of the Ordnance Survey in Dublin, where he remained until the topographical staff was completely dispersed in 1842. In the survey, O’Curry was principally engaged on the study and interpretation of Irish manuscripts for the historical and topographical work. In the course of these years, he acquired a knowledge of the Irish manuscript material and of the older language that was probably unrivalled in his time. Most of his work in the survey was done in the office and the libraries, but he also did some work in the field. During his period in the Survey, O’Curry also found time to transcribe manuscripts for the Royal Irish Academy and for the library of Trinity College.
When his work in the Survey ended, he was employed by the Academy to catalogue their collection of manuscripts. His success with the interpretation of one of the early law tracts prompted the setting up of the Brehon Law Commission and he, with John O’Donovan, did the tremendous work of transcription and translation involved under the Commission in the years from 1853 until his death.
In 1854 he was appointed Professor of Archaeology and Irish History in the newly-founded Catholic university. In the following year he commenced the first of the two series of public lectures which later led to his most important works, lectures on the manuscript Materials of Irish History and on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. His other publications were few compared with those of O’Donovan, but his contribution to Irish learning was a major one, not only through the two works mentioned, but in the assistance he freely gave his contemporaries, Stokes, Petrie, Todd, Reeves and O’Donovan himself, among others. His transcripts also made many of the early texts more easily accessible.
O’Curry did not long survive his co-scholar, John O’Donovan, with whom his name is constantly joined. He died suddenly in Dublin, 30 July, 1862.