Shaw, James Johnston (1845–1910), economist, barrister, and judge, was born 4 January 1845 at Kirkcubbin, Co. Down, second son of John Maxwell Shaw (d. 1852), merchant and farmer, and Anne Shaw (née Johnston). His father died when he was only seven, leaving his mother to raise a family of seven young children. Educated at the local national school, he was also tutored privately by the Rev. James Rowan, presbyterian minister of Kirkcubbin. One of his childhood friends and fellow-pupils was Elizabeth Welsh (qv), later mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. In 1858 he entered Belfast Academy, and in 1861 QCB, coming first in the entrance scholarship exam in classics. A brilliant student, he won prizes in Greek and Latin and later studied literature, philosophy, and political economy. A prominent member of the Literary and Scientific Society, he graduated with first-class honours (October 1865), completing an MA in 1866. Intending to enter the presbyterian ministry, he went to Edinburgh University to study theology in 1866, and in 1869 was licenced to preach by the presbytery at Ards.
Throughout his life he continued to give occasional sermons but his professional career took a new direction in June 1869 when he was elected professor of metaphysics and ethics at Magee College, Derry (1869–78), aged only 24. Indeed when he was summoned to take his place on the platform with the general assembly of the college, the doorkeeper initially refused to let him pass, not believing that such a young man could be the newly elected professor. His classes at Magee were very small, however, some only having three students, and he became increasingly frustrated. Deciding to pursue a legal career, he enrolled as a student at Lincoln's Inns in November 1873, and in April 1877 moved to Dublin. Elected to the Whately chair of political economy at TCD (1877–82), he was called to the bar in 1878, resigning his chair at Magee. Alongside his lecturing career at TCD, he worked hard in his legal career, and soon established a thriving practice. He also worked as an examiner in English on the board of intermediate education and was awarded an honorary LLD by QUI in 1882.
In 1886 he was appointed to the senate of the RUI, and later served as a commissioner of the national education board (1891–1909). Appointed to a committee to discuss the inclusion of Christian Brothers schools in the national education system in 1892, he opposed the move on the grounds that it was an attack on the non-sectarian ethos of the system. He served as a commissioner of national education until 1909, rarely missing a board meeting, and concerned himself with all aspects of the board's work, from the appointment of school inspectors to the selection of textbooks. Appointed QC in 1889, he took up appointment as a county court judge in Kerry in December 1891 and gave evidence to the land commission in 1894. Elected president of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland in 1891, he read a paper on municipal trading as his opening address. He maintained close links with QCB, supporting the campaign of the Better Equipment Fund (est. 1901), to which he made large donations. In 1902 he became a trustee of the NLI.
During the course of his career he published several articles, mostly in the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland Journal. These included ‘The nationalisation of the land’ (1884), ‘Municipal trading’ (1902), and ‘Fiscal policy: some lessons from the Blue Book’ (1904). In 1873 he translated the ‘Enchiridion’ in an edition of the works of St Augustine, edited by the Rev. Marcus Dods. Also in 1873, he published Phenomenalism in morals, a response to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.
In October 1905, during an RUI graduation ceremony, the organ loft was invaded by students, preventing the playing of God Save the King. Shaw did not feel that the members of the senate dealt with the incident firmly enough, and resigned from the board in December 1905. In January 1908 he was appointed chairman of the commission established to investigate the theft of the ‘Irish crown jewels’. During the course of the investigation he strictly adhered to the commission's terms of reference, refusing to allow it to take on the status of a criminal investigation. While he doubted some of the evidence given by Sir Arthur Vicars (qv), the Ulster King of Arms, it was also obvious from his line of questioning that he was not satisfied that Francis Shackleton (qv), the Dublin Herald, had given full details of his own financial situation. He supported the Irish universities bill of 1908 and was named a commissioner of the Belfast university commission in the eventual legislation. Drafting the statutes of the new QUB, he also served as a pro-chancellor of the university. He resigned his judicial position in Kerry in 1909, taking up an appointment as recorder of Belfast in December.
He married (August 1870) Mary Elizabeth, daughter of William Maxwell of Ballyherley, Portaferry, Co. Down; they had two sons and one daughter. Their daughter, Margaret, later married Robert H. Woods, president of the RCSI (1910–11). Mary Elizabeth Shaw suffered from frequent periods of ill health and died in January 1908, just as James J. Shaw was serving as chairman of the commission investigating the theft of the Irish crown jewels. Demonstrating his characteristic professionalism, he continued to serve in the post. He never really recovered from her loss, however, and this contributed to a gradual decline in his own health. In early 1910 he became ill with influenza and his health slowly declined. He died in Dublin on 27 April 1910 and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. His daughter, Margaret G. Woods, edited a collection of his papers, published as Occasional papers by James Johnston Shaw, KC (1910). There is a portrait of him by Sydney Rowley and also a memorial plaque in QUB. The university later founded the Shaw Prize in Economics.