Nowlan, James (1854?–1924), sports official, nationalist, and politician, was born in Kilkenny city; he was probably the James Nowlan baptised 14 July 1854 in St Canice's church, son of Michael Nowlan and Catherine Nowlan (née Tully), of Green's Hill, Kilkenny. A cooper by trade, he was employed in Sullivan's brewery, and resided for many years at Bishop's Hill. First prominent locally as a vigorous exponent of ‘Irish Ireland’ movements, he had a long involvement with the Gaelic League, dating from the organisation's founding in 1893. A supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), he championed working-class interests within the nationalist movement; in the municipal elections of 1899 he was elected alderman for St John's ward on Kilkenny corporation as a labour-nationalist candidate; save for one brief interruption, he held the seat until 1919.
Nowlan was active in the GAA with Kilkenny city's Confederation hurling club, which played a leading role in reviving Gaelic games in the county after two seasons of inactivity in the wake of the Parnell split. He served as Kilkenny representative on the GAA central council (1896–9), and as a GAA vice-president (1899–1901). Surging to the fore of a coterie of militant reformers seeking to revive the association from the stagnation caused by internal mismanagement and the general effects of the Parnell split, like many in the group he belonged to the secret IRB; he served for a time on the IRB supreme council. Instrumental in securing approval by the 1900 GAA annual congress for a major re-organisation of the association into four provincial councils, each to conduct its own football and hurling championships, he was active in launching the Leinster council – the first to be established – and served as the council's first chairman (1900–05). On the death of the incumbent GAA president, Michael Deering (March 1901), Nowlan functioned as interim president. In that capacity he chaired the groundbreaking congress of September 1901 at which, amid a sweep by the militants of the association's top offices, he was elected GAA president, commencing a twenty-year tenure (1901–21), the longest presidency in the association's history.
In concert with the newly elected secretary, Luke O'Toole (qv) of Wicklow, Nowlan implemented reforms both administrative and ideological, effectively establishing the GAA in its modern aspect. Resolving the chaotic finances inherited from the old leadership, introducing a sounder, more business-like conduct of operations, over the next decade the pair oversaw a rapid expansion of membership numbers and a burgeoning of new local clubs in every county. Openly identifying the association with separatist nationalism, the Irish language, and native-manufacture movements, they secured re-introduction and fortification of the GAA ban against participation in foreign games. With his own political sympathies drawing closer to Sinn Féin, Nowlan maintained a careful balance within a central council that included many supporters of the United Irish League, and an association officially neutral among the several strands of nationalist opinion. On formation of the Irish Volunteers (1913), he advised GAA members to join the paramilitary organisation ‘to learn to shoot straight’ (de Burca (1999), 98).
On Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916, Nowlan presided over the GAA annual congress in Dublin city hall. Two days later, following the outbreak of the republican insurrection, he was arrested in Kilkenny; interned for several months at Wakefield prison, England, he was identified for particularly severe treatment (owing perhaps to his IRB involvement), including lengthy solitary confinement. In 1919 he was incarcerated again for five weeks in Cork gaol. In declining health, after retiring from his trade (1919), he moved in 1920 from Kilkenny to the James's St. area of Dublin to be closer to GAA national offices. On ‘Bloody Sunday’ (21 November 1920) Nowlan was among several top GAA officials who, after learning of the early morning assassinations of fourteen British intelligence agents, determined to proceed with the afternoon's scheduled challenge football match between Dublin and Tipperary; when players and spectators were attacked by Black and Tans in reprisal for the morning's events, twelve persons were killed.
Nowlan was a trustee of the Kilkenny board (1907–19), and on his move to Dublin represented the county on the Leinster council (1920–21). Over the last few years of his GAA presidency he faced an incipient rebellion by younger members deploring a dearth of energy and progressive ideas from the association's ageing leadership. Led by Harry Boland (qv), the 1918 congress voted a censure of the central council regarding deputations in 1916, in which Nowlan had been involved, to British government and military authorities seeking exemption from a newly introduced entertainment tax, and relaxation of post-Easter-week transportation restrictions to facilitate rail travel to matches. Clinging to his presidency by a single vote at the 1920 congress – which imposed a three-year maximum presidential term on his successors – on voluntary retirement at the 1921 congress Nowlan was made permanent ex officio member of central council; he served until his death as the council's honorary president.
Widely popular for his genial, unaffected, and straightforward manner, Nowlan was an efficient but unimaginative administrator, unbending in his principled commitments. He was unmarried. He died 30 June 1924 in Jervis St. private hospital, Dublin, and was interred in Glasnevin cemetery. The Kilkenny GAA ground, Nowlan Park, is named in his honour.