Gildea, Sir James (1838–1920), philanthropist, was born 23 June 1838 in Kilmane, Hollymount, Co. Mayo, third son of the Rev. George Robert Gildea (1803–87), provost of Tuam, and Esther Gildea (née Greene) of Greenmount, Co. Wexford. The Gildeas had settled in Mayo in the early eighteenth century and provided several high sheriffs of the county. James was educated at St Columba's College, Dublin, and entered Pembroke College, Cambridge (25 June 1855) but did not graduate. As a young man he joined the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a long-standing charity which was the force behind the St John Ambulance Association. During the Franco–German war (1870–71) he served with an ambulance company. Eight years later he raised £12,000 for the relief of the widows and orphans of those killed in the Zulu war (1879). The following year he raised a similar sum in connection with the Afghan war. His most sustained philanthropic enterprises were the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association (SSFA), which he founded in February 1885, and the St John Ambulance Association, which he vigorously promoted. The SSFA benefited from royal patronage: in January 1901 it had raised £750,000 for widows and orphans of the Boer war; following an appeal from Alexandra, princess of Wales, it raised a further £750,000 that year. As queen from 1901, Alexandra gave her name to the royal home for officers' widows and daughters that Gildea established at Queen Alexandra's Court, Wimbledon (1904), and on her suggestion the SSFA became the SSAFA in 1919, after adding airmen's families to its beneficiaries. Gildea was knighted (KCVO) in 1902. At the SSAFA's seventieth anniversary (1955) it had 1,500 branches worldwide.
Gildea's other pet project was memorials. Always an eager letter-writer to The Times, he was particularly assiduous in petitioning for memorials to Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and the soldier victims of the Boer war. Among his publications, which included The order of St John of Jerusalem in England, The St John Ambulance Association, and The Gildeas of Port Royal and Clooncormack, was a book on memorials erected in the UK and the dominions to British officers in the Boer war. Both his brothers were in the army, and he was himself an officer, though he saw no active service after 1871. From 1890 to 1898 he was colonel of the 6th Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and in 1909 he was honorary colonel of the 4th Bn of the regiment. A firm imperialist, he felt strongly enough about the union to sign an appeal against the ‘coercion’ of Ulster, which pledged him to ‘support any action that may be effective against the home rule bill’ (Times, 5 Mar. 1914) but he was not politically vocal and made no effort to play a stronger role on the issue. He died at home in 11 Hogarth Road, London, on 6 November 1920.
He married (24 August 1864) Rachel Caroline (d. 4 June 1888), daughter of Arthur Kett Barclay of Bury Hill, Dorking, Surrey. He was survived by a son and two daughters; two other sons died in infancy.