Farrell, James Gordon (1935–79), novelist, was born 23 January 1935 in Liverpool, England, second of three sons of William Farrell, broker's clerk and accountant, and Josephine Farrell (née Russell), born in Ireland of an English timber dealer. He moved with his family to Stockport in 1939. Educated at Terra Nova school in Cheshire from 1944, before his family moved to Dalkey, Co. Dublin (1947), he was sent to Rossall public school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, in 1948. He worked in Dublin for one year from 1954 as a junior master at Castlepark preparatory school and moved to Canada in 1955, where he worked for seven months in Baffin Island in the Arctic on the Distant Early Warning strategic defence system. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, to study law in October 1956 but contracted polio in December that year. The illness affected him from the waist up, permanently weakening his shoulder muscles and right arm. He subsequently typed all his personal letters because polio changed his handwriting so much. Prone to subsequent bouts of depression, he returned to Oxford to study modern languages (October 1957) and graduated with a BA (1960). He spent the next three years teaching in France before returning to London to publish A man from elsewhere (1963). A brief sojourn in Paris in 1964 ended with his moving back to London, from where he published The lung (1965). Recipient of a Harkness fellowship to attend the Yale drama school in 1966, he stayed in New York for two years and brought out his least successful novel, A girl in the head (1967).
Back in London he lived in a decrepit Notting Hill hotel and wrote Troubles (1970), the first novel of what became known as his ‘Empire trilogy’. Winner of the 1971 Faber memorial prize, it is set in rural Ireland during the war of independence. By turns tragic and absurd, the text's ironic sensibility marks it, as Elizabeth Bowen (qv) noted, as a novel peculiar more to its own time than the 1920s. With a routine established of mornings spent writing and afternoons filled with research or a walk in London's parks, he received an Arts Council grant for £750 in 1970. He lived in a two-room flat at 16 Egerton Gardens in Knightsbridge from 1970, his two passions being cooking and the fine wines from Sotheby's auctions that were stacked high in his apartment. He travelled to India and visited Calcutta, Bombay, and Nepal (January–April 1971), having just completed the first draft of The siege of Krishnapur (1973). Set during the Indian mutiny, the novel records the stresses on Victorian consciousness when confronted by a recalcitrant world beyond the edge of European progress. Winner of the £5,000 1973 Booker prize, he caused controversy at the award ceremony by following John Pilger's lead of the previous year and criticising Booker employees’ conditions on West Indian plantations. He travelled to Singapore in January 1975 to research his next book and travelled by train to Bangkok before flying to Saigon in February that year. The Singapore grip (1978) tells of Singapore's own fall to the Japanese during the second world war and is an attempt to place human action in a context of the economic imperatives of empire.
Selling the rights to the American paperback version of his ‘Empire trilogy’ to Weidenfeld, he bought a farmhouse on the Dunmanus Bay side of the Sheep's Head peninsula, Co. Cork, to which he moved in late March 1979. He lived there happily till he was swept into the sea while fishing on the rocks below his house on 12 August 1979. His body was found on 13 September 1979 and he was buried at St James's Church of Ireland, Durrus. He died unmarried but enjoyed a wide circle of friends that included Derek Mahon and Margaret Drabble. The hill station (1981), an unfinished novel, was published posthumously; his collected papers are held in TCD library.