O’Curry is born at Doonaha, near Carrigaholt, County Clare, the son of Eoghan Ó Comhraí, a farmer, and his wife Cáit. Eoghan has spent some time as a traveling peddler and has developed an interest in Irish folklore and music. Unusual for someone of his background, he is literate and is known to possess a number of Irish manuscripts. It is likely that Eoghan is primarily responsible for his son’s education.
Having spent some years working on his father’s farm and as a school teacher, O’Curry moves to Limerick in 1824 and spends seven years working there at a psychiatric hospital. He marries Anne Broughton, daughter of John Broughton of Killaderry near Broadford, County Limerick on October 3, 1824. He is a supporter of Catholic emancipation and in 1828 writes a poem congratulating Daniel O’Connell on his election as an MP.
During this period O’Curry is establishing a reputation for his knowledge of the Irish language and Irish history, and, by 1834, is in correspondence with the antiquary John O’Donovan. He is employed, from 1835 to 1842, on O’Donovan’s recommendation, in the topographical and historical section of Ordnance Survey Ireland. O’Donovan goes on to marry O’Curry’s sister-in-law, Mary Anne Broughton, in 1840. O’Curry spends much of the remainder of his life in Dublin and earns his living by translating and copying Irish manuscripts. The catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum (1849) is compiled by him for a fee of £100. He is responsible for the transcripts of Irish manuscripts from which O’Donovan edits the Annals of the Four Masters between 1848 and 1851.
In 1851 O’Curry is elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy and, on the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, he is appointed professor of Irish history and archaeology. He works with George Petrie on the Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). In 1852, he and O’Donovan propose the Dictionary of the Irish Language, which is eventually begun by the Royal Irish Academy in 1913 and finally completed in 1976.
O’Curry’s lectures are published by the university in 1860, and give a better knowledge of Irish medieval literature than can be obtained from any other one source. Three other volumes of lectures are published posthumously, under the title On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873). His voluminous transcripts, notably eight huge volumes of early Irish law, testify to his unremitting industry. The Celtic Society, of the council of which he is a member, publishes two of his translations of medieval tales.
Eugene O’Curry dies of a heart attack at his home in Dublin on July 30, 1862, and is survived by two sons and two daughters. He is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. O’Curry Road in the Tenters area of Dublin 8 is named in his honour.