In spring 1808, a young married couple arrived in Hythe. The husband, Captain Henry Sturgeon, was joining his regiment, the Royal Staff Corps, after a posting to Sicily but it was his little Irish wife, Sarah, who attracted attention. She was clearly not long for this world – indeed she resembled a ghost already people said. She also, it was whispered, had a tragic past: she had been the betrothed of Robert Emmett, Irish nationalist, failed revolutionary and eventually martyr to the cause.
Sarah was born in 1782, the youngest in a family of nine. Her father was John Philpot Curran, a barrister and later Master of the Rolls of Ireland, and her mother Sarah Creagh. The family home was The Priory at Rathfarnham near Dublin. Philpot was a hard, domineering father and parsimonious. He bestowed all his love and affection on another daughter, Gertrude, something of a musical prodigy, who died in 1792 aged twelve, after apparently falling from a window. She was buried in the grounds of the Priory. His wife complained openly about the dullness of her life and eventually eloped with the vicar of a neighbouring parish, a Mr Sandys, when Sarah was twelve.
Sarah Curran’s childhood home
Sarah was sent to stay with friends of the family. She wrote how much happier she was there than bearing the ‘tyranny and injustice’ of her own ‘melancholy home’.(1) The respite was not to last long, however and her miserable life at The Priory continued until in 1802, her brother Richard brought a friend to visit. He was Robert Emmett.
Four years older than Sarah, Robert was the son of a Dublin physician. He had studied at Trinity College Dublin but been expelled when his links to a nationalist group were discovered. He and his brother Thomas continued to work for the group – the Society of United Irishmen – and by the time he met Sarah Curran he was involved in planning an uprising against British rule.
The couple became close and Robert’s visits to the Priory more frequent until Sarah’s father made it clear that he was no longer welcome. Inevitably, clandestine trysts were arranged instead.
Robert’s revolutionary plans included amassing and hiding arms in and around Dublin. When one of these makeshift depots was destroyed by an explosion, Robert brought his plans forward and called for revolt on 23 July 1803. It was a fiasco. The Wicklow contingent never arrived and the Kildare men retired thinking the rising had been postponed. The men at Broadstairs waited in vain for the signal to march and the hoped-for French invasion did not materialise. Wearing a green and white uniform, Robert and a small band of co-conspirators marched to Dublin Castle. On the way they encountered the lord chief justice, Lord Kilwarden, and his nephew, pulled them from their carriage and murdered them with pikes. Robert’s followers then rioted in the streets. Appalled by their behaviour and realizing the cause was lost, Robert escaped and hid in the Wicklow mountains.
The uprising as imagined in the 20th century
However, his love for Sarah Curran prevailed and he moved to a house in Harold’s Cross, near Rathfarnham, where he lived under an assumed name and where the couple could meet. The interlude did not last long. Robert was betrayed and arrested on 25 August and in prison tricked into revealing Sarah’s name. He had been foolish enough to keep their correspondence, in which his plans for the revolt were made clear. The town major set off for the Priory and Robert wrote to Sarah: ‘My Dearest Love… I never felt so oppressed in my life at the cruel injury I have done you. I was seized and searched with a pistol over me before I could destroy your letters’.
Robert was tried and convicted of high treason on 19 September. His speech from the dock has become famous, but it is impossible to establish which of the seventy-plus versions in existence is authentic. Whichever it was, the Chief Justice, Lord Norbury, was not moved and sentenced Emmet to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the prescribed penalty for high treason. The following day Robert was executed in Thomas Street by hanging and was then beheaded once dead.
No relatives claimed the body, which was temporarily put in an open grave. At nightfall local artist James Petrie (no relation) went and removed the head to make a death mask. This done, he took the head back, but the body had gone, possibly collected clandestinely by family or friends.
Robert’s death mask
Robert’s last letter to his brother asks him to treat Sarah as a sister ‘I did hope to have had her my companion for life’, he wrote. However, it was sent by Dublin Castle to Sarah’s father. He was furious and disowned her. ‘Blotted, therefore, as she may be from my society, or the place she once held in my affections, she must not go adrift.’ He sent her to live with an acquaintance, Cooper Penrose. in his house near Cork. Penrose, a successful Quaker businessman, had two unmarried daughters, Bessie and Anne, who befriended Sarah. She stayed with the family until 1805. At the time she was there, Cooper Penrose was sheltering two other women who had fallen on hard times, Mary Anne Bulkley and her teenage daughter Margaret. Margaret was also to achieve fame. She spent her adult life as Dr James Barry and performed the first known caesarean section in which both mother and baby survived.
Penrose Cooper and Dr James Barry
Then, in Glanmire church, near Cork, on 24 November 1805, Sarah Curran married Henry Sturgeon. By now the legend of the Betrothed of Robert Emmett was starting to grow, and it was claimed that though she married Sturgeon, her heart really belonged to Robert. She could only give Sturgeon respect and affection and he agreed to those terms. Romantic heroines are not supposed to fall in love twice and certainly should never recover from the death of the beloved.
The church of St Mary in Glanmire
Another story, told by an assistant to the artist James Petrie, was that a heavily-veiled woman visited the studio in summer 1806 to view the portrait Petrie had made of Robert from the death mask. After much sighing and weeping she left. The assistant presumed that it must have been Sarah.
By October 1806, she and Sturgeon were en route to Sicily. Sarah wrote to Anne Penrose that ‘My dearest Henry behaves like an angel to me,’ which does not really suggest a marriage of convenience. They reached their destination in December and Sarah loved Messina with its amphitheatre and ‘high romantic hills’ They had a large comfortable villa where they entertained guests for whom Sarah played the harp and sang. In July 1807 she told Anne Penrose she was pregnant.
Sarah playing the harp
In Autumn, Henry was ordered back to England and told to report to Hythe, where the Royal Staff Corps now had its permanent base and where the building of anti-invasion fortifications was in full swing. He and Sarah arrived back in Portsmouth in December, where, aboard ship on Boxing Day, Sarah gave birth to a son, Johnny.
The child died aged only two weeks and Sarah became ill. She had suffered intermittently from a cough in Sicily, but the cold and damp of an English winter, the stress of the sea voyage while pregnant and the grief of losing her child must have contributed to her worsening condition. She was not long in Hythe.
In March 1808, Major Charles James Napier wrote from the town:
‘I rode here, dear Mother, to see poor Sturgeon, who has lost his little wife, the betrothed of Emmett… Young Cyraan [her brother John] is here. His sister was gone before he arrived. They are going to take the body to Ireland. Mrs Sturgeon was past hope when she first came: she seemed a perfect ghost and could not speak without stopping to get a breath at every word’.
Sarah died on 3 March 1808. She had asked to be buried next to her sister Gertrude at Rathfarnham, but her father, in a final act of paternal malice, refused. She was buried instead at Newmarket, County Cork. Henry survived her by only five years, being killed during he Peninsular Ward in 1813.
Sarah’s grave. The marker is recent as the original gravestone was delivered to the wrong graveyard
But the story of the Betrothed of Robert Emmett lived on, helped along by prose (Washington Irvine’s The Broken Heart in 1819) and by poetry. Thomas Moore was inspired to write three poems about Sarah, the most famous of which, She is Far From the Land’, has been set to music and may be heard here:
With thanks to Andy Curran
Details of Sarah’s life & quotes from her letters are from The Voice of Sarah Curran: Unpublished Letters Together With the Full Story of her Life, H.T. Macmullen, Dublin 1955