Roche, James (‘Jem’) (1878–1934), heavyweight boxer and Gaelic footballer, was born 5 September 1878 at Ballinclay, in the catholic parish of Glynn, Co. Wexford, son of John Roche, labourer, and his wife Mary Moran. Educated locally, he left school at a young age to train as a blacksmith. With a robust physique, he had a keen interest in sport, and took up boxing around 1895. He boxed infrequently and without much public acclaim until his contests against Young John L. Sullivan (1905, 1906) and Petty Officer Curran – exciting affairs, which served in part to heighten his profile. In his only bout of 1907 he beat Charlie Wilson of London over eight rounds. This cleared his way to make a rather dubious challenge for the world title, held by Canada's Tommy Burns, who at this time was undergoing a tour of Europe. He accepted Roche's challenge, and the two men met at Dublin's Theatre Royal on St Patrick's day 1908. On Roche's way to Dublin, people lined the roadsides to give encouragement, and he received an enthusiastic reception on arrival in the city. However, his flabby conditioning and lack of serious training prevented swift movement around the ring and made him an easy target for Burns, who knocked him out after eighty-eight seconds of the first round. This set a record that lasted until 1982 for the fastest knockout in heavyweight title history. The contest also set a record for the lowest aggregate height and weight in a world heavyweight title fight, in addition to being the only time to date that Ireland has hosted a world heavyweight championship match.
After this defeat Roche was beaten a few months later by Bill Squires. He continued boxing with mixed results and permitted himself an absence from the ring from 1909 to 1911. In 1914 he announced his retirement from the sport after a twelfth-round stoppage win over his old opponent, Young John L. Sullivan.
Roche was also involved in Gaelic games; as a noted footballer, he was on the Wexford St Patrick's team that won a championship in 1896, and on the Wexford Uniteds team that played Slaney Harriers in the 1905 Leinster senior final. He also acted from 1913 as trainer to the legendary Wexford football team that won four all-Ireland titles in a row from 1915, when they defeated Kerry in the final, until 1918, when they beat Tipperary. This team set a record for being the first to win four football championships in succession.
After his retirement from boxing, Roche for a time owned a public house in Wexford. He later sold this business and became a bookmaker, and a regular figure at racecourses throughout Ireland. He also promoted boxing tournaments in his native county. He died on 28 November 1934 at the county hospital in Wexford, having lived in the town for most of his life, and was buried in Crosstown cemetery, Wexford. A plaque in the Bull Ring, Wexford, commemorates his 1908 fight. His grandson is the playwright Billy Roche.