Portrait, James Butler Brenan, 'James Roche'

25 Jan 2021

Oil painting: 'James Roche', portrait, 1851, c.243 × c.152 cm.

Ref: UCCHS.1948.004 © University College Cork.

Artist: James Butler Brenan RHA (1825-1889), Irish. Brenan was the son of the Cork landscape painter, John Brenan (1796 Tipperary-1865 Cork) (Strickland). He spent his life in Cork, where his work was almost entirely of portraits of local people. He exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, in 1843 and almost every year from then until 1886. He was elected an Associate (ARHA) at the adjourned meeting of the RHA on 1 August 1861 (Dublin Daily Express, 3 August 1861), and a Member (RHA) in April 1871 (Saunder's News-Letter, 20 April 1871). He died unmarried, aged 65, at his residence, 5 College View Terrace, Western Road, Cork, on 22 April 1889 (Cork Constitution, 23 April 1889 and death certificate). Probate of James’ estate was granted to his brother John Joseph Brenan on 5 June 1889 (Calendar of Wills and Administrations 1858-1922, National Archives of Ireland). John Joseph Brenan was also a painter; he had trained in London and painted backgrounds for his brother James; he died on 2 December 1914. (See Strickland for a list of portraits; as yet there is no catalogue raisonné of Brenan's works.)

Provenance: Donated by the Cork Commercial Buildings Company: "Three oil paintings including one of James Roche." (UCC Report of the President for the Sessions 1945-46, 1946-47, 1947-48, p.9 "Gifts"). The Cork Commercial Buildings Company, located on the South Mall in present-day premises of the Imperial Hotel, was wound up in 1948. Strickland names three other paintings by Brenan as being in the Cork Commercial Buildings: portraits of [Francis Bernard] Beamish MP, [probably Sir James] Cotter and [probably Thomas Somerville] Reeves. Roche's portrait was first hung in the circular room of the Athenaeum (later known as the Cork Opera House), Emmet Place, Cork (Cork Constitution, 29 January 1856), before it was transferred to the reading room of the Cork Commercial Buildings Company, South Mall, Cork, at an unknown date.


James Roche (1770-1853) was born in Limerick on 30 December 1770, third son of Stephen Roche, and Sarah O’Bryen (his second wife), of Granagh Castle, Co. Kilkenny. He was one of seven brothers and sisters; his father had five children from his first marriage and one by his third wife. James’ mother Sarah was daughter and co-heir of John O’Bryen of Moyvanine. On his father’s side he was descended from the Viscounts Fermoy and on his mother’s from the O’Bryens of Arra, Co. Limerick. A lineal ancestor was Maurice Roche, Mayor of Cork, in 1571. James’s youngest brother was William Roche, MP for Limerick, who was the first Catholic member of parliament for that city.

James was educated in France from the age of 15 with the idea of training to be an avocat (at the French bar). He was two years at the College of Saintes. Then he returned home but went again to France where he remained seven years. At Bordeaux he was a partner with his brother George in the wine trade there. James Roche apparently witnessed the meeting of the States General at Versailles on 5 May 1789 (an obituary in the Southern Reporter waxes lyrical about what James Roche saw in Paris at that time) and this is recorded in his memoirs. However, Roche was imprisoned and the family property at Bordeaux was confiscated. He was left out of prison and remained three more years in France with a view to regaining some property. He left France in 1797 and went to London and Dublin, between which he moved for three years. In 1800 with his eldest brother Stephen, James established a bank in Cork city named 'Stephen and James Roche' (see O’Kelly, The old private banks of Munster).  After the Battle of Waterloo and the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, economic depression came to Cork and in 1820 the brothers became bankrupt. James sold his great library (hence the books in the portrait) in order to pay his debts. Then he left for London where he lived for seven years, becoming a commercial and parliamentary agent for Cork, Youghal and Limerick; he also may have earned an income as a writer: "by his literary acquirements began to realise an income of respectable amount" (Southern Reporter). He was certainly a frequent contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Dublin Magazine and other periodicals. James was on the point of being offered the post of private secretary to Lord Dudley, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but this did not materialize owing to James’ very small handwriting (as can be seen in archival material) which did not go well with Lord Dudley’s severe short-sightedness. In 1829 he retired from business and went again to Paris where he lived until his return to Cork in 1832. At this point he became director of the local branch of the National Bank of Ireland, which had been founded in about 1830. He became also Justice of the Peace for Cork city after the Municipal Reform Act until his death.

He was chairman of the Bench of Magistrates, President of the Cork Library Society, President of the Cork School of Design, Vice-President of the Royal Cork Institution, first President of the Cork Cuvierian Society, Governor of the Eglinton Lunatic Asylum, Chairman of the Munster Provincial College Committee and a member of very many other groups in the city. Towards the end of his life he published privately two volumes of his memoirs, Critical and miscellaneous essays by an octogenarian, printed in Cork by G. Nash in 1850 and 1851. The Boole Library holds a copy presented by the author to William Henry Coppinger. In 1852 a group of admirers raised a subscription and at the Cork Library presented to him a full-length portrait by artist James Butler Brenan and a piece of silver inscribed as follows:

"Jacobo Roche armigero, civi egregio; magistratui probo; singularis plane eruditionis viro; in omnium fere gentium monumentis historicis, necnon in illustrium hominum rebus gestis publicis ac privatis accuratissime versato; cujus ingenium acre et perspicax, mirum immodum cunctis disciplinis liberalibus excultum ornatumque, civium sibi observantium et admirationem jamdudum conciliavit; universis ordinibus, seposito omni partium studio, ob eximias animi dotes, caro; at ob integerrimos mores longe cariori: hoc munusculum, praetor alia pignora antea data, meritis heu quam impar! Dom. ded. Cives Corcagienses, A.D. 1852." [from Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1853), 662].

(Translation: James Roche, Esquire, an excellent citizen; an upright magistrate; a man of extraordinary learning; being most accurately versed in the historical records of nearly all nations, as well as in the affairs of illustrious men, both public and private; whose wit was sharp and perceptive, cultivated and adorned to a wonderful extent by all the liberal disciplines, he won, over a long period, the admiration and respect of his [fellow] citizens; dear to all ranks, setting aside all partisanship of the parties, because of the exceptional gifts of his mind; but far dearer on account of the integrity of his morals: the treasurer had previously given other pledges, this little gift, alas, how unequal to his merits! Given by the Citizens of Cork, A.D. 1852)

James Roche married Anne Moylan, daughter of John Moylan (a close relative of Bishop Francis Moylan). His brother Stephen Roche also married into the Moylan family. James and Anne had two daughters, Marianne (who married Thomas Gallwey) and Sarah Anne (married Edward John Collins).

He died on April 1 1853 at his daughter Marianne’s home at Woburn Place on Glanmire Road, Cork. Obituaries were printed in several newspapers (see Sources below). As a mark of respect on the day of his funeral, the public scientific and literary institutions of the city closed. He was buried in the family vault at St Finbarr's cemetery, Glasheen Road, Cork.

His first library was sold after the bankruptcy of 1820 to pay his creditors. Two collections of his historical research papers are now at the British Library Add MS 19868 and 20715; two of his letters are in BL Add MS 45918 (ff. 239, 241 James Roche, of Cork: Letters to J.G. Nichols: 1840).

Connection with Queen’s College Cork

Following the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education (Ireland), 1835-38 (the Wyse Committee), Thomas Wyse MP, the secretary of this committee, and William Smith O’Brien MP organised popular agitation for a Munster college. Roche was chairman of the Munster Provincial College Committee (1838-1841), which lobbied for the provision of third-level education in the province in an institution that would have no religious tests. Prof. John A. Murphy has described the vicissitudes of the committee, which ultimately led to the introduction of the Colleges Bill by Sir Robert Peel in 1844 not owing so much to pressure but for reasons of state. However, the committee had generated public debate around the matter and had shown that there was a demand for a local college from laymen, if not religious, or as Prof. Murphy remarked, 'localism was stronger than sectarianism'. As to the location of the new college, Wyse, a Catholic MP for Waterford city, and Smith O’Brien, a Protestant MP for Limerick county, had their own preferences. Wyse wanted Cork and Smith O’Brien went for Limerick. Two opposing groups formed but Cork won out. Besides having a larger population and a thriving port, Cork already had significant institutions of learning including particularly the Royal Cork Institution. James Roche was one of its leading lights and of other city bodies including the Cork Library Society and the Cuvierian Society. He was present at the opening of Queen's College, Cork, on 7 November 1849. He is considered the 'Father of Queen's College, Cork'.



See articles in local newspapers of 1852 relating the subscription for a portrait of James Roche.

Obituaries: James Roche in Southern Reporter, 2 April 1853 [copied by the Limerick and Clare Examiner, 6 April 1853]; Saunders’ News Letter, 4 April 1853 [from Cork Examiner], Illustrated London News, 7 May 1853 and 'Obituary: James Roche', Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1853), 658-662

J. C. 'James Roche, the Roscoe of CorkJournal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society 19:98 (1913), pp78-84 [an abridged version of the GM obituary but with some valuable additional information]

Denis Gwynn, 'James Roche, "father" of QCC', Cork University Record, no 13 (Summer 1948)

Denis Gwynn, 'Then and Now' [relating to James Roche], Cork Examiner, 6 October 1953, 4

Patrick Long, 'Roche, James', Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009) 

John A. Murphy, 'The campaign for a college' in Chapter One: The beginnings, in his book The College: a history of Queen’s/University College Cork (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 3-9

Pádraig Ó Maidín, 'Today April 25. Paintings of Cork Harbour 1836', Cork Examiner, 25 April 1973, 5

Walter G. Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, volume 1 (Dublin: Maunsel and Co., 1913), 79-80; see also entry for John Brenan, 80-81


© University College Cork 2020

Heritage Services

Buildings & Estates, College Road,