MacMahon, James (1865–1954), civil servant and under-secretary for Ireland, was born 20 April 1865 in Belfast, one of the seven sons of James MacMahon and his wife (she subsequently kept a hotel in Armagh, which was raided by British forces in 1920). Educated at Armagh CBS, St Patrick's College, Armagh, and Blackrock College, Dublin, he entered the civil service aged seventeen and won promotion every year. His extensive work for catholic charities gave him a wide range of ecclesiastical and other contacts; he was personally acquainted with Éamon de Valera (qv) through the Blackrock College old boys’ society and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. He had many friends from both the nationalist and the unionist community, and can be seen both as exemplifying the loyal catholic meritocrat belatedly produced from the late 1870s by the Intermediate Education Act and the opening up of civil service positions to competitive examination, and as an archetypal ‘catholic Whig’ – a pale green nationalist seeking advancement by administration rather than agitation and relying heavily on a catholic hierarchy pursuing influence within the civil service apparatus. He was regarded as ‘the friend of every Catholic ecclesiastic in Ireland’ (quoted Murphy, 132), and he used such contacts as Cardinal Michael Logue (qv), who regularly stayed with him on visits to Dublin, to give his masters insights into Irish problems. For example, shortly before the Easter rising he used his St Vincent de Paul connections to give Sir Matthew Nathan (qv) a tour of the Dublin slums. Many catholic and nationalist commentators who believed the civil service to be honeycombed by protestant and/or unionist patronage networks saw MacMahon's advancement as a symptom of change. In 1913 he was appointed assistant secretary to the Post Office in Ireland, and within three years he became secretary. The weekly Leader of D. P. Moran (qv), which regularly attacked the Post Office for alleged masonic jobbery, for reluctance to accept parcels addressed in Irish, and for importing Englishmen such as MacMahon's predecessor Arthur Hamilton Norway to fill senior positions, welcomed his appointment.
In 1918 MacMahon became under-secretary, having turned down the assistant under-secretaryship some months before (‘Now once more are the posts controlled / By the square and compass order’, commented the Leader), and over a four-year period he served three chief secretaries. As a catholic with nationalist tendencies, he was under suspicion by many within Dublin Castle, and after the displacement of Edward Shortt (qv) as chief secretary at the beginning of 1919 he was marginalised by the hard-line advisers around the lord lieutenant, John French (qv), first earl of Ypres, who excluded him from the circulation of official documents on the grounds of alleged leaks. In October 1918 French, probably echoing his private secretary Edward Saunderson (1869–1929), described MacMahon as ‘simply the mouthpiece for the most rabid of Irish priests’ (O'Halpin, 176–7) and gave most of the advisory tasks which should naturally have fallen to him to his deputy, Under-Secretary (Sir) John Taylor (1859–1945). MacMahon's response was passive; while some of his subordinates, such as his secretary Joseph Brennan (qv), sought work elsewhere, MacMahon clung on in the hope of better times. These arrived from April 1920 with the displacement of the incompetent Taylor clique by an influx of Whitehall civil servants under Sir John Anderson (qv), who became joint under-secretary and took over many of MacMahon's nominal functions. MacMahon's principal task became the cultivation of moderate (particularly clerical) opinion in the hope of preparing the ground for a peace settlement.
MacMahon disagreed with the Government of Ireland Bill; from early 1919 (if not earlier) he had favoured county option under a dominion home rule system with fiscal autonomy, as advocated by Stephen Gwynn (qv) and – without partition – by Horace Plunkett (qv), which he believed would satisfy both communities if the government formally adopted it. He opposed the escalating repression (from the second half of 1920) which the Lloyd George government and, to a much lesser extent, some of the Anderson group of administrators saw as necessary to assert the authority of the law and force Sinn Féin to the table. In October 1920 he was the only senior official (with the exception of James Campbell) to advocate a reprieve for Kevin Barry (qv), and he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Barry family to appeal directly to the king for clemency. For much of the later part of 1920 MacMahon was absent on sick leave, and he made sporadic efforts to obtain a less stressful official post; however, his contacts with Sinn Féin leaders (including Michael Collins (qv), who is alleged to have countermanded an attempt by some IRA members to kill MacMahon) were important for the activities of Andy Cope (qv) in bringing about a truce in 1921. MacMahon's close friend and administrative ally W. E. Wylie (qv) told him: ‘If there is any credit due to anyone for setting up the Free State, it is due to you and you alone’. In 1922, before his retirement, he oversaw the withdrawal of British administration from the Free State and was praised by both sides for its success; when Dublin Castle was formally handed over to Michael Collins it was MacMahon who introduced the departmental heads to their new ministers.
MacMahon's interest in railways led him to the directorship of the old Dublin and South Eastern section of the Fishguard & Rosslare Company. In 1925 he joined the board of the Great Southern Railway Company and remained there until 1945. He was also chairman of the Dublin United Transport Company, vice-chairman of the Grand Canal Company, chairman of the Dublin Gas Company, and vice-chairman of the Insurance Corporation of Ireland. He remained an active member of the Catholic Truth Society and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, was greatly involved in church affairs, and was always on hand to advise on financial matters. He attended the shows at the RDS regularly for over seventy years and was elected vice-president and president of the society in 1947. A courteous and gracious man, he was liked by all; Mark Sturgis (qv), who was not uncritical, described him as ‘the best fellow in the world’ (Hopkinson, 45). MacMahon was a member of Portmarnock Golf Club, becoming its captain in 1918, and also a member of the Stephen's Green Club, the Royal Irish Automobile Club, and the Royal Irish Yacht Club. He married May, daughter of the Very Rev. John Rochford, of Co. Dublin. They had one son (who became a Jesuit) and two daughters and lived at St John's, Islandbridge, Dublin. MacMahon died in a Dublin nursing home on 1 May 1954.