Roche, James (1770–1853), catholic businessman, banker, and literatus of Cork, was born 30 December 1770, probably in Limerick, possibly in Cork, third among four sons of Stephen Roche and his second wife, Sarah, daughter of John O'Bryen (O'Brien) of Moyvanine and Clounties, Co. Limerick; both families came of old catholic aristocracy. By his previous marriage Stephen Roche had a son, George. James's own three brothers were Stephen, Thomas, and William. He was educated in France (1785–7), attending the college of Saintes, near Angoulême, for two years from the age of fifteen, where he acquired virtually perfect French diction. He subsequently joined his half-brother George as a partner in the wine business at Bordeaux (1788–97). Immersing himself in French language and literature, and travelling regularly to Paris, Roche initially supported the revolution of 1789, befriending the ‘moderate’ Girondin faction-leader Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud and the eponymous Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who in 1792 democratised the death penalty in prescribing mechanical beheading for all. When the Girondins were overthrown in 1793, and Vergniaud executed in Robespierre's Jacobin ‘Terror’, Roche was arrested (as a British subject) and his property confiscated. Held for six months in the Luxembourg prison, he was spared from the guillotine by Brune, later a marshal of Napoleon's army.
Roche remained in Bordeaux until 1797, and from then to 1800 divided his time between Dublin and London, returning to Cork to establish a family bank at Camden Place in June 1800 with his brother Stephen. It prospered until about 1814, but declined towards eventual bankruptcy and closure on 25 May 1820 in the monetary crisis of that year, precipitated by a market collapse in grain prices and postwar depression since 1815. Thomas and William Roche had opened another family bank in Limerick in 1801, which survived the crisis that ruined James and Stephen. The sale of James's beloved library to help meet debts was a personal tragedy, which even his creditors mourned. As Stephen apparently joined his father's export business, James slowly recovered his livelihood and literary interests while working out of London until 1829 as a commercial and parliamentary agent for Cork, Youghal, and Limerick. He lived again in Paris during 1829–32, and settled permanently in Cork in 1832. He achieved success once more in Cork, where he became a permanent regional director of the National Bank (est. 1835) and could further indulge his academic and literary interests. He wrote widely in prestigious journals including the Gentleman's Magazine, Dublin Review, Notes and Queries, and Cork Magazine, later reprinting a selection of his work in a limited two-volume edition (1850) entitle Critical and miscellaneous essays, by an octogenarian.
Roche featured prominently in Cork's mercantile circles and adopted several philanthropic and educational causes. He was on the superintending committee of the Cork Charitable Society, a catholic schools’ body of leading local clergy and laity. He became first president of the Cuvierian Society (1835) and was also president of both the Cork Library Society and the Cork School of Design, and vice-president of the Royal Cork Institution. Such bodies were few in members but belonged to the core of middle-class Cork, linking together the catholic and protestant bourgeoisie and influencing municipal decision-making.
As chairman of the Munster provincial college committee, James Roche was acclaimed as the ‘father of Queen's College, Cork’ when that institution was established in 1849. In the charged atmosphere of jubilation among its champions and outrage among those who deplored the college's liberal, non-sectarian (‘godless’) modernism, Roche could reflect on more dangerous scenes in revolutionary France, and on his own physical and financial survival to reach an honoured position in Cork society. He was described by local priest and writer Francis Sylvester Mahony (qv) (‘Father Prout’) as ‘the Roscoe of Cork’, an allusion to the notable historian William Roscoe (1753–1831). However, a posthumous note of dissent was sounded in 1860 by the historian of the United Irishmen, Richard R. Madden (qv), who criticised Roche's admiration for the father of John Fitzgibbbon (qv), earl of Clare. Fitzgibbon's father and Roche's grandfather had been friends during the penal era. Roche died 1 April 1853, aged 82, at his home in Woburn Place, Cork, survived by his wife and family.
James Roche married (date unknown) Anne, daughter of John Moylan (a near relative of Bishop Francis Moylan (qv) of Cork); they had two daughters. Stephen Roche married her sister Maria. James's papers are deposited in the Cork Archives Institute, and an oil portrait hangs above the stone staircase in the north wing of UCC.