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: John Butler Brenan RHA (1825-1889), Irish

Provenance: Donated by the Cork Commercial Buildings Company: "Three oil paintings including one of James Roche." - from 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 Imperial Hotel premises, was wound up in 1948. Strickland (1913) 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, 29/1/1856, p.2), before it was transferred to the reading room of the Cork Commercial Buildings Company, South Mall, Cork, at an unknown date.

Artist: James Butler Brenan RHA (1825-1889) was the son of the Cork landscape painter, John Brenan (1796 Tipperary-1865 Cork). He passed his life in Cork, where he practised his art, his work consisting almost entirely of portraits of local personages, good likenesses often vigorously and skilfully painted. He began exhibiting in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1843, and until 1886 there were few years in which he did not contribute. He was elected an Associate (ARHA) on 18 July, 1861, and a Member (RHA) on 4 April, 1871. He died unmarried, aged 65, at his residence, 5 College View Terrace, Western Road, Cork, on 22 April, 1889. Probate of James’ estate was granted to his brother John on 5 June, 1889. His brother John Joseph Brenan, trained in London, and painted backgrounds for his brother James and died on 2 December, 1914. 


James Roche (1770-1853) was born in Limerick on December 30 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 left for 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 this portrait and the other larger one) 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) and 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. Here he took up as director of the local branch of the National Bank of Ireland 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. His full-length portrait was commissioned by a group of subscribers and painted by Corkonian James Butler Brenan. 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].

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 to 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 including Southern Reporter, 2/4/1853 [copied by the Limerick and Clare Examiner, 6/4/1853]; Saunders’ News Letter, 4/4/1853 [from Cork Examiner], Illustrated London News, 7/5/1853 and Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1853, pp658-662. 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, while 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), the secretary of this committee Thomas Wyse MP, 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 describes 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 John A. remarks, "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 and the Cuvierian Society. He was present at the opening of Queen's College, Cork, on November 7th, 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.

'Obituary: James Roche', Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1853, pp658-662

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)

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.


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