Stafford, James Joseph snr (1860–1947), merchant and ship owner, was born in Wexford town, eldest son among two sons and four daughters of Patrick Stafford of Wexford, merchant, and Elizabeth Stafford (née Cullenmore) of Yoletown, Co. Wexford. He was educated (1867–78) at the CBS, Wexford. After leaving school he became a clerk in the Wexford dockyards and by 1886 had become manager. In 1889 he began trading as a grocery, grain, and coal merchant from premises at 92 Main St., Wexford, under the name J. J. Stafford. By 1892 he was importing coal and timber and was operating a schooner-class ship, the Mary & Gertrude, between Britain and Ireland. Over the next fifteen years he came to operate ten schooners in transporting coal and timber from Britain to Ireland. The continuous expansion of his fleet also enabled him to expand his business (1912) into both the lucrative Black Sea grain trade and the Baltic timber trade.
During the first world war two of his schooners, the Joseph Fisher and the Nannie Wignall, were sunk by U-boats in the Irish Sea. In 1915 he purchased premises at Trinity St., Wexford, which he then expanded to create the Talbot Hotel. Adjacent to this he built the Talbot garage and became the first Wexford merchant to stock petrol. The aftermath of the war witnessed a rapid expansion in his coal-importing business. He therefore purchased (1919) his first steamship, named the Elsie Annie after his daughter, in order to secure supplies from the Welsh coal fields. In 1926 he purchased another steamship (called the J.V.E. after his sons James, Victor, and Edward) to operate the Black Sea route, and the following year (1927) he abandoned the retail trade to concentrate on his shipping and wholesale business. In 1927 he also purchased a controlling interest in P. Donnelly & Son Ltd, which subsequently became the largest coal-importing business in Ireland.
Three years later (1930) he purchased his third steamship, the Wexfordian, to operate the Baltic route. At this time he had become one of the largest shipowners in Ireland and one of the most successful businessmen in the country. In 1931 he created three separate companies from his various enterprises. With himself as chairman of all three, and his three sons heading one company each, he created J. J. Stafford & Sons Ltd, the Wexford Steamship Co. Ltd, and the Wexford Timber Co. Ltd.
His entrance into the cattle shipping business the same year (1931) saw the beginning of a ‘rate war’ with the much larger British firm Coastal Lines Ltd. The rate for shipping cattle to Britain fell from 30s. a head to 1s. a head. The intervention of the Irish government brought the dispute to an end eighteen months later, when Stafford pulled out of shipping cattle from Dublin and Coastal Lines pulled out of Wexford. In order to expand his livestock carrier business he later (1934) added a fourth steamship, the Menapia, to his fleet. Despite his advanced years he remained involved in the running of the company and realised that steamships were becoming outmoded. He thus became the first owner of a motor vessel in Ireland when he took delivery of the purpose-built Edenvale in 1936.
In addition to his business career he was also involved in local administration and politics. He served as a town councillor (1895–1905), mayor of Wexford (1905–8), and alderman (1909–18). He was also elected to Wexford county council in 1908 and was reelected in 1911. As a shipowner he was elected to the the Wexford harbour commision in 1895 and subsequently served as vice-chairman (1904–7) and chairman (1911–14).
A supporter of Sinn Féin, he proposed Dr James Ryan (qv) as a Sinn Féin candidate for Wexford South at the 1918 election. After the election he became joint treasurer of Wexford county council when it transferred allegiance to the Sinn Féin ‘administration’. In 1923 he was a member of a deputation that attempted to save the lives of three IRA men who were subsequently executed in Wexford jail. Although he stood for election (June 1927) to the dáil as a Cumann na nGaedheal candidate, he failed to win a seat. He died 6 December 1947 at home and is buried in St Ibar's cemetery, Wexford.
He married (23 September 1895) Mary Kate (d. 1936), daughter of James Keating, shopkeeper, of Taghmon, Co. Wexford. They lived at Cromwell's Fort, Wexford Town, Co. Wexford, and had four sons (the eldest dying aged 12) and three daughters.
His second and eldest surviving son, James Joseph Stafford, jnr (1897–1971), company director and founding director of Irish Shipping Ltd, was born 8 October 1897 in Wexford. He was educated at CBS, Wexford, St Peter's College, Wexford, and Castleknock College, Dublin (1912–16). After leaving school he went to work in his father's coal and grain business to learn the trade. Subsequent to the incorporation of the three family companies (1931) he was appointed managing director of J. J. Stafford & Sons and a director of both the Wexford Steamship Co. Ltd (1931–71) and the Wexford Timber Co. Ltd (1931–71). As a director of the Wexford Steamship Co. he helped to complete the replacement of the steamship fleet through the purchase of two more motor ships, the Kerlogue (1938) and the Menapia (1939). The squeezing of Irish supply lines, due to the battle of the Atlantic, meant that both the Edenvale and the Menapia changed routes and operated between Dublin and Lisbon from 1941 to 1944. The Kerlogue remained on the Bristol coal route for most of the war. In October 1940 the Edenvale became the first Wexford ship to be attacked when a German plane fired on her off the coast of Co. Waterford.
As the war intensified and Britain reduced the amount of tonnage available for goods being transported to Ireland, the Irish government decided to found its own shipping company. In March 1941 Stafford was made a founding director of the new company, Irish Shipping Ltd. The three Irish shipping companies – the Wexford Steamship Co., Palgrave & Murphy, and the Limerick Steamship Co. – made up the board of directors and operated the new company's vessels. Having realised that the Irish fleet was old and in need of constant repair, Stafford suggested that Irish shipping branch out into the ship-repairing business. Through the establishment of the offshoot company, Cork Dockyard Ltd, he resuscitated the derelict dry-dock at Rushbrooke near Cobh, Co. Cork. In addition Irish Shipping also entered the marine insurance business in 1944.
From 1941 to 1945 his family firm operated six vessels for Irish Shipping as well as the three belonging to the family. During the war the ships of the Wexford Steamship Co. sailed to Africa, Canada, and Boston out of convoy and entirely unaccompanied. They were attacked on several occasions, mostly by German planes. However, on 23 October 1943 the Kerlogue was badly damaged by a British plane that mistook its colours as those of occupied France. The most notable incident involving a vessel belonging to Stafford was the rescue of nearly 170 German sailors in the Bay of Biscay. On 29 December 1943 the Kerlogue spent ten hours weaving its way through the floating debris of a German destroyer, T26, in the Bay of Biscay in order to collect the survivors. Having refused a request by the senior German officer to land the boat in occupied France, the captain brought the survivors to Cobh on 1 January 1944.
On the death of his father Stafford assumed the position of chairman of all three family companies. In 1950 he founded Fine Wool Fabrics Ltd in Kerlogue, Co. Wexford. The following year he and his wife were granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII in recognition of their work on behalf of catholic missionaries. Having been a director of Irish Shipping Ltd since its foundation, he became its chairman (1954–65) in 1954. During his tenure the company expanded into the operation of bulk carriers and tankers, and chartered its ships to several major countries. A measure of his stature in the shipping world was illustrated when he visited India in 1960 to advise Nehru on the formation of a tanker and merchant fleet. By the time he retired as chairman in 1965 the company had a fleet of twenty-one ships, in addition to a passenger service subsidiary called Irish Continental Line, and operated in countries as far afield as Japan, Australia, and South America. As well as being a director of Cement Ltd since 1953, he became a director of the Munster & Leinster Bank in 1965. On 8 December 1962 Pope John XIII made him a knight of the Most Holy Order of St Gregory the Great. He died 26 January 1971 at home and is buried in St Ibar's cemetery, Wexford.
He married (1940) Colleen Mary (d. 1978), daughter of Richard Roche, merchant, of Wexford. They had four sons and lived at Cromwell's Fort, Wexford town.