McCarthy, James Joseph (1817–82), architect and nationalist, was born 6 January 1817 in Dublin, son of Charles McCarthy, possibly of Co. Kerry, whose family circumstances, like much of James's early life, remain obscure. The McCarthys appear to have been poor, having an address at Purdon St., Dublin, in 1831, the year James entered O'Connell's CBS, North Richmond St., as one of its first pupils. In 1834–7 he attended the figure and ornament schools, and later the architectural school, of the RDS. In 1837 he won a premium for his drawings. In the same year he had his work exhibited at the RHA, prompting him to make frequent submissions of artwork. McCarthy may have been apprenticed to William Farrell, architect of the ‘spiky’ neo-Gothic St Patrick's church, Monaghan, and other mainly Church of Ireland buildings. Although his earliest attributable commission was St Columb's catholic church in Derry (1838–41), McCarthy's name disappears in Ireland until 1846. His biographer Jeanne Sheehy suggests he may have spent the interim in England, possibly working with Charles Hansom. His devotion to the Early English and Decorated Gothic styles of A. W. N. Pugin (qv), leading exponent of neo-Gothic, might have originated there. He adopted Pugin's rigid ‘ecclesiological’ opinion that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Gothic was the only ‘true’ form of Christian architecture, a view he found was generally shared by his many Irish clients.
McCarthy had returned to Dublin by 1846 and eventually became known as the ‘Irish Pugin’ through his association with the master and a friendship that existed at least towards the end of Pugin's life in 1852. Although he was chosen to build a church in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, in 1846, famine postponed commencement until 1852, and McCarthy's first actual commission of 1846 was the neo-Gothic St Kevin's church at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, in the catholic archdiocese of Dublin. He described it famously as the first uncompromisingly ‘true’ church of ‘the old type’ in the archdiocese (Sheehy). Gothic revivalism was nothing new but ‘J. J.’ McCarthy proclaimed the stylistic gospel and was a highly skilled self-publicist. His client base at all levels of the catholic church grew rapidly throughout Ireland from c.1850 as the great famine abated and an ecclesiastical building boom took off. McCarthy's Kilskyre parish church in Co. Meath, started in 1847, and his All Hallows Missionary College in Drumcondra, Dublin, started in 1848, were models of his style and launched a career of virtually unbroken productivity until his death, established throughout on the same principles of Christian architectural correctness. He wrote on the principles of ecclesiastical architecture in Duffy's Irish Catholic Magazine alongside distinguished religious and literary contributors such as Charles William Russell (qv) (later president of Maynooth College) and James Clarence Mangan (qv).
McCarthy's nationalism, with links to the Young Ireland movement whose newspaper The Nation he read, was more catholic, cultural, and internationalist than political. Nevertheless, Young Ireland's advocacy of physical force and McCarthy's closeness to one of its leaders, Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), contrasted with catholic church support for a non-militant, O'Connellite form of religious identity. As such, McCarthy risked rejection and loss of clientele for his association with Duffy (including a role in arranging the farewell dinner on the eve of his exile in 1855). Warned by a ‘courtly ecclesiastic’ (Sheehy) about the risk of upsetting the hierarchy, in particular the formidable Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv), McCarthy was confident enough in his relationships with the church to dismiss such a warning without suffering consequences.
Since 1849 McCarthy had a network of supporters and potential clients in the Irish Ecclesiological Society, of which he was a founder member. It was established to promote the study of catholic antiquities, thus ensuring scholarly integrity in church design and, without doubt, public awareness of his own scholarly integrity. The society's principal publication was McCarthy's Suggestions on the arrangements and characteristics of parish churches (1851). For a man of such modest background and so little advantage in early life, his material success may be measured in the prolific and distinctive body of work that emanated daily from his practice, the academic posts he held, and the professional bodies to which he belonged. So many distinctive Gothic buildings, of every scale, from chapel to cathedral and a small body of secular architecture, were designed by McCarthy in the 1850s–1880s that it is necessary to list but a representative sample: he completed Armagh cathedral in the 1850s, following the death of Thomas Duff in 1848; built St Saviour's church, Dominick St., Dublin (1852–61); was assigned in 1853 to complete Pugin's Killarney cathedral; began his unusually Romanesque church of St Michael in Lixnaw, Co. Kerry, in 1861; commenced Monaghan cathedral in 1861, Thurles cathedral in 1865, and St Patrick's College chapel at Maynooth in 1875. Certain works remained unfinished in his lifetime, notably Monaghan cathedral, completed (1881–3) by William Hague (qv).
McCarthy's academic positions and professional memberships were impressive; he was professor of ecclesiastical architecture at All Hallows, Drumcondra, professor of architecture at the Catholic University of Ireland, and professor of architecture at the RHA (of which he became an associate member in 1851). He was FRIAI from 1853 (and a council member 1863–6), MRIA from 1853, MRSAI from 1865, and FRIBA from 1870.
An unfortunate exchange of press correspondence passed between himself and the philanthropist Benjamin Lee Guinness (qv) in 1863 regarding the latter's proposed restoration of St Patrick's cathedral when he decided to dispense with architects and employ builders. McCarthy's vigorous condemnation of the scheme drew negative attention to his own architecture, as a difference of opinion became a public slanging match which benefited neither party.
McCarthy's wife, Agnes (1819–85; maiden name and date of marriage unknown), had borne him a son, Charles (b. 1858), and three daughters, Emily (Charles's twin), Frances, and Agnes. Charles was the future Dublin city architect (1893–1920). The family lived at successive addresses in Rathmines, Dublin, Joseph McCarthy's last being Charleston House, Leinster Road, where he died 6 February 1882 after a protracted illness and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.