Walsh, James Joseph (1880–1948), politician and businessman, was born 20 February 1880 at Rathroon, near Bandon, Co. Cork, one of ten children of James J. Walsh, a medium-sized farmer who fattened cattle for export, and his wife Mary. He was educated at Bandon national school and became a post office sorting clerk and telegraphist by competitive examination at the age of fifteen. He later undertook a three-year civil service tuition course at King's College, London, but was not permitted to take the promotion examination because of a poor disciplinary record. Walsh found his clerical duties boring and devoted his surplus energies to organisational work for the GAA; he organised the post office sports meeting at the Mardyke during the 1902 Cork international exhibition, acting as jockey in a dromedary race. Walsh played a significant role in extending the GAA throughout Co. Cork and in organising a county league; in 1907 he was elected chairman of the Cork county board of the GAA. Walsh was active in the Cork Industrial Development Association, and was known to hold strong separatist sentiments, though as a civil servant he was precluded from political involvement. His family had a tradition of Fenian activity; he later spoke of the GAA as the backbone of the national movement through its quasi-military ethos.
In 1911, following a change in post office regulations, Walsh was elected to Cork corporation as a councillor for the centre ward; he became an alderman in 1918 and remained on the corporation until 1922. Although nominally independent, and generally allied with the All-for-Ireland League of William O'Brien (qv), Walsh was recognised as a Sinn Féiner in all but name. In 1912 he formed a rifle club in Cork city, and when the Irish Volunteers were formed he took a leading role in this allegedly ‘non-political’ movement. He chaired the Volunteers’ first meeting at Cork, and was injured in the riot that broke out when Eoin MacNeill (qv) called for three cheers for Edward Carson (qv). Walsh's activities, which included delivering public speeches about the right of Irishmen to bear arms and the need for complete independence, drew official attention, and on the outbreak of war the post office transferred him from Cork to a position at Bradford, Yorkshire. Shortly after moving there Walsh wrote a public letter to Cork corporation denouncing a proposal to present the lord lieutenant with the freedom of the city. This led to his dismissal from the post office and the issuing of a defence of the realm order forcing him to reside in Co. Down or Dublin city.
Walsh opened a tobacconist's shop in Blessington Street, Dublin, and helped to organise the Hibernian rifles, the armed wing of the separatist Irish-American alliance faction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the larger board of Erin faction was Redmondite). During the Easter rising Walsh, with about thirty Hibernian rifles, served at the GPO under the command of James Connolly (qv). After the defeat of the rising he was tried and sentenced to death but was reprieved; he was imprisoned at Portland and Lewes prisons and was released in August 1917. Shortly thereafter he was rearrested, after declaring in a speech at Ballinagh, Co. Cavan, that ‘the only way to address John Bull is through the barrel of a rifle’. He was tried by court martial and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but released after participating in the hunger strike that led to the death of Thomas Ashe (qv) in 1917.
In the 1918 general election Walsh was elected as one of two Sinn Féin TDs for Cork city. Soon afterwards he was arrested for making a speech at Kilkenny and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but the day after he was sentenced he escaped from Mountjoy prison with twenty other prisoners. In 1920 he was rearrested in Cork and taken to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. After refusing to wear prison clothes he was sent to Shrewsbury prison, where he remained until the truce. In January 1922 Walsh voted for the treaty as ‘the better of two bad alternatives’, believing that national unity could not be maintained and a renewed struggle would merely ‘hand a divided and defeated territory back to the enemy’. He played a leading role in the use of patronage politics to secure support for the treaty. His perceived favouritism towards Corkmen led to jokes that in certain government departments it was less important to know Irish than to know Walsh (pronounced ‘Welsh’), and inspired a famous Dublin Opinion cartoon, ‘The night the treaty was signed’, which showed armies of nightwear-clad Corkmen of all ages and conditions sprinting up the Dublin road in pursuit of government jobs.
As postmaster general in the provisional government of W. T. Cosgrave (qv) Walsh won a bitterly fought dispute with post office employees (from September 1922) by dismissing strikers and replacing them with new recruits; in 1923 his title was changed to ‘minister for posts and telegraphs’. Although Walsh put considerable work into developing and rebuilding the Free State's telephone and telegraph services, the most prominent scheme with which his name was associated was the Tailteann games. This festival, intended to promote tourism, renew connections with the Irish diaspora, and emphasise the state's Celtic heritage, was held in 1924, 1928 (when Walsh acted as director), and 1932, but did not survive the depression of the 1930s; Walsh regretted the refusal by Éamon de Valera (qv) to provide a state subsidy to keep it alive.
Within the Cumann na nGaedheal organisation Walsh advocated the creation of a mass organisation held together by patronage. However, his irascible temperament alienated potential allies and allowed Kevin O'Higgins (qv) to use him against other dissidents such as Joe McGrath (qv). From 1924 Walsh was chairman of the party organising committee, which he used to cultivate grass-roots support within the organisation, in an attempt to strengthen his hand against the party leadership. Walsh claimed that some dissidents regarded him as a potential alternative leader during the boundary commission debacle (which he thought could have been avoided had Kevin O'Higgins given more attention to contingency planning and less to denouncing de Valera); during the mid 1920s he gave serious consideration to trying to take over Cumann na nGaedheal or to forming a breakaway party with the support of protectionist businessmen.
Walsh's post was one of those designated as an ‘extern’ ministry, the holders of which were not bound by full collective cabinet responsibility. This device, originally intended to allow anti-treaty TDs to join a government of national unity, allowed Walsh publicly to advocate protectionist and pro-tillage policies of the type formerly advanced by Arthur Griffith (qv), and to criticise Patrick Hogan (qv), the minister for agriculture, for his refusal to support protective tariffs for the Irish flour-milling industry. By mid 1927 it was clear that Walsh had lost the battle for control of the party; in September 1927 he abruptly declared his refusal to stand at the forthcoming election, complaining that Cumann na nGaedheal could not succeed by pandering to ‘ranchers and importers’. During the 1932 general election Walsh publicly announced his support for Fianna Fáil.
After leaving politics Walsh founded a bus company which operated with great success between the city centre and south Dublin. When private bus services were bought out by the Dublin Tramway Co., Walsh invested his profits in other Irish companies, notably the revived Clondalkin Paper Mills (of which he was chairman, 1936–48). He also had major investments in Solus Teoranta, which dominated light-bulb manufacture in the southern state, and Benbulben Barytes, which carried on mining operations in Sligo. He was also a director of Killeen and Newbrook Paper Mills, Dinan Dowds (timber exporters), the Moore Clothing Co., and Fancy Goods (Manufacturing). In 1937 Walsh was elected president of the Federation of Irish Manufacturers, having previously held the vice-presidency. His businesses benefited greatly from the protectionist measures introduced by Fianna Fáil after 1932; nonetheless, Walsh complained that not enough was done to make capital available to native entrepreneurs, and that ‘alien’ interests were allowed too much scope to penetrate the Irish market.
In 1937 Walsh undertook a three-month tour of South America; on his return he called for the establishment of a minister for foreign trade to seek outlets for Irish exports. On his outward journey he travelled on a German liner and he returned on the Hindenburg, whose subsequent fate he blamed on Roosevelt's enmity to Germany. He entertained a strong admiration for ‘the pride and majesty of the German Reich’, which was essentially a carry-over from pre-first world war separatist Germanophilia; he expressed the regretful opinion that had Redmond not supported the British war effort America would have remained neutral and the first world war would have ended in the downfall of the British empire. His enthusiasm for Hitler's Germany led to his involvement in the early years of the second world war with the secretive People's National Party, which saw itself as the nucleus of a collaborationist government in the event of Nazi occupation; he is alleged to have telephoned the German legation in Dublin advocating air raids on the British airbase on Loch Erne, and to have narrowly escaped detention. His brief memoir, Recollections of a rebel (1944), is coloured by a detectable anti-Semitism and a persistent belief that Japan might still achieve a partial victory against the allies.
In his later years Walsh suffered from deteriorating health, leading to his resignation from the presidency of the Federation of Irish Manufacturers in 1946. He died 3 February 1948 in Dublin. He had married Jenny Turner (whose family owned Turner's Hotel at Turner's Cross, Cork city); the marriage was childless.