McGrath, Joseph (‘Joe’) (1888–1966), politician, businessman, and racehorse owner, was born 21 August 1888 in Dublin, fifth among six children (three sons and three daughters) of George McGrath, stonemason, and Mary McGrath (née Dempsey). Educated at CBS James's St., Dublin, he became an accountant with Craig Gardner, where his brother George (qv) was employed. He later became manager of the insurance section of the ITGWU. A member of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, he was involved in fighting in Marrowbone Lane during the Easter rising, after which he was imprisoned in England. After his release he acted briefly as secretary of the Irish National Aid Association. In the 1918 general election he was elected Sinn Féin MP for Dublin City St James's division, and later served as a TD for Dublin North-West (1921–3) and Mayo North (1923–4). During the war of independence he was imprisoned on three occasions (May 1918–March 1919; February–June 1920; December 1920–July 1921), the last period cutting short his appointment in November 1920 as substitute minister for labour. In August 1921 he acted as a courier bringing letters from Éamon de Valera (qv) to David Lloyd George in talks that preceded negotiations on the Anglo–Irish treaty, which he supported, somewhat reluctantly, believing that it would lead to greater freedom and that it would provide an opportunity to implement the democratic programme of Dáil Éireann.
Appointed minister for labour in the dáil cabinet, he was concurrently minister for labour (January–December 1922) and minister for industry and commerce (August–December 1922) in the provisional government. His appointment as minister for labour was a compromise: the initial plan had been to give the post to a Labour party nominee, but no Labour deputy would accept it. During the civil war he was seconded to the army as director of intelligence, in which capacity ‘he presided over some of the more grisly aspects of the treatyites' counter-insurgency policy’ (Regan, 93); the Criminal Investigation Department, which was under his control, was suspected of involvement in the death of Noel Lemass (qv). In 1927 he won a libel action against A. & C. Black Ltd, publishers of The real Ireland by Cyril Bretherton (qv), which claimed that he was responsible for Lemass's death and had covered up a number of other murders. He also took a hard line against union officials during a post office strike in September 1922, although he had initially opposed government policy on the earlier postal strike in March 1922, when he threatened to resign over the plan to use British strike-breakers. In December 1922, along with Kevin O'Higgins (qv), he was a reluctant supporter of the government's decision to execute IRA prisoners Liam Mellows (qv), Dick Barrett (qv), Rory O'Connor (qv), and Joe McKelvey (qv).
In November 1923 he was a member of a committee appointed to oversee demobilisation of the national army. A founder member of Cumann na nGaedheal, he was re-appointed as minister for industry and commerce in 1923, but resigned 7 March 1924 in sympathy with the old IRA members who had initiated the army mutiny. McGrath had been the IRAO's strongest supporter within the government and during the crisis the army authorities tried to search his house in the belief that the leaders of the mutiny, Liam Tobin (qv) and Charles Dalton (qv), were there. On 23 March, along with eight other TDs, he resigned from Cumann na nGaedheal, forming the ‘national group’, which resigned en bloc from Dáil Éireann in October following the failure of negotiations between McGrath and W. T. Cosgrave (qv) to reach a settlement with the army mutineers. Unemployed and in financial difficulty, on 30 September 1925 he was appointed labour adviser to Siemens-Schuckert at the Shannon hydro-electric scheme, a project he had introduced in the dáil as minister for industry and commerce, and was successful in breaking a strike there by the employment of non-union national army ex-servicemen.
Through his interest in horse-racing he became acquainted with the bookmaker Richard Duggan (qv), and when Duggan established Hospitals Trust Ltd in 1930 to run the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake, he enlisted McGrath as a director, along with Capt. Spencer Freeman (qv). The wealth acquired by McGrath through his association with the sweep was controversial; as a promoter of the sweep, his salary was once reported to be £100,000. There were allegations that the promoters made more money than the hospitals from the sweep. Because of the charitable nature of the sweep and the number of prominent people associated with it, there was no investigation of its activities. The sweep was an influential player in Irish broadcasting through its nightly sponsored programme on Radio Éireann, which ran for thirty years from 1930 and whose main purpose was to promote the sale of sweepstake tickets in Britain. In 1957 McGrath supported Charles Michelson's application for a commercial television broadcasting license. Duggan, Freeman, and McGrath used their profits from the sweepstake to invest in other Irish businesses. In 1932 they purchased the Irish Glass Bottle Company, and through IGB purchased Waterford Glass in 1950, which they transformed into a world-famous brand during the 1950s and 1960s. Along with his friend and former revolutionary colleague, Dr Patrick McCartan (qv), McGrath invested in Donegal carpets.
McGrath began to build his horse-breeding business in the 1930s, when he bought Richard Duggan's mare Smokeless, which became the foundation for his horse-breeding operation at the Brownstown Stud in the Curragh, purchased in 1941. The most famous horse raised at Brownstown was Nasrullah, bought for 19,000 guineas (£19,950) from the Aga Khan in 1941 and sold for over £132,000 to an American syndicate in 1950; till his death in 1959 Nasrullah sired the winners of 291 races in Ireland and Britain. During the 1940s McGrath also became one of the country's most successful owners; in 1942 his horse Windsor Slipper became the second horse to win the Irish triple crown (2,000 Guineas, Derby, and St Leger). On many occasions from 1940 till his death he was the leading Irish owner, and many of his winners were trained by his son Seamus (d. 2005), who operated from McGrath's Glencairn stud in Dublin, formerly owned by Richard ‘Boss’ Croker (qv). One of his greatest successes came in 1951 when Arctic Prince won the Epsom derby.
McGrath was also one of the most influential figures in the administration of Irish horse-racing. In 1945 he was instrumental in convincing the government to set up the Racing Board, on which he served as a member till his death, to help develop breeding and racing in Ireland. He was also a director of Proudstown Park (Navan) racecourse; president of the Bloodstock Breeders' Association of Ireland (1953); chairman of the Racing Board (1956–62); and a steward of the Turf Club (1958–60). During the second world war he was involved in making suitable arrangements for the necessary curtailment of horse-racing, and in 1960 he was one of the stewards who imposed an eighteen months suspension on trainer Vincent O'Brien for allegedly doping a horse. In 1962 his decision to provide £30,000 sponsorship from the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake for the Irish Derby transformed Irish flat racing, making the Irish Sweeps Derby the richest race in Europe at the time.
Physically large and imposing, and of strong religious beliefs, he had few interests outside racing and did not socialise or entertain very much. He was, however, a member of a poker school which included Seán Lemass (qv), to whom he was reconciled in the 1930s. His son Paddy described him as ‘a direct man who believed in direct methods’ (Kenny, 79). He married (27 February 1918), in Dolphin's Barn church, Aileen, daughter of Jim Downes, printer in Guinness's, and his wife Jane Mayne, midwife; they had three sons and three daughters. They lived in Dublin at Seafort Lodge, Blackrock, and from 1933 at Cabinteely House, which he bought for £15,000. In 1940 the Cabinteely estate was extended to 222 acres with the purchase of Brennanstown estate for £3,350. In 1952 ownership of Cabinteely was transferred to the McGrath Trust Company. In April 1961 he was conferred with a papal honour, the Knight Grand Cross of St Sylvester, for his work with the sweepstakes and contributions to charitable and parish-related causes. On 25 March 1966 he suffered a heart attack at the sweepstake offices in Ballsbridge and died early the following morning; later that day the Aintree Grand National was won by Anglo, a horse sired by the McGrath-bred Greek Star. After his death his business interests were assumed by his son Patrick (qv). There are a number of portraits of Joe McGrath: an oil sketch by Freith in Cabinteely House; a portrait formerly in the Department of Labour, Mespil Rd, is now held by the OPW; portraits by Leo Whelan (qv) and Fr Tom Grogan and a bronze bust are held in various family collections. His private papers, which were held in the Hospitals Trust building in Ballsbridge, were destroyed when the building was flooded after the River Dodder overflowed its banks in August 1986.