Major James H. Dooley was an extraordinary Irish American. Scholar, lawyer, soldier and financier, Dooley was above all a philanthropist whose good works are still aiding the unfortunate 77 years after his death. James was born on January 17, 1841 the son of John and Sarah Dooley and the oldest child to survive childhood. John and Sarah emigrated from Limerick Ireland in 1832 and were actually cousins who met for the first time during the Atlantic crossing. They married in 1836 and moved to Richmond. John Dooley became a successful hatter and furrier and a leader of Richmond’s large Irish community. He was commander of the Montgomery Guard, a volunteer militia company of the Confederate Army that acted as the focus of the Irish social life in the city.
James Dooley entered Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) at the age of 15 and was awarded a number of medals for academic excellence. He received his BA degree just before the Civil War and returned in 1865 for his MA.
When the war broke out, James proudly marched out of Richmond in the green Richmond uniform of the Montgomery Guard, still commanded by his father. He was wounded in the wrist and captured at the Battle of Williamsburg in May 1862. The wound limited the use of his right arm for the rest of his life.
Returned in a prisoner exchange three months later, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Ordnance Department in Richmond where he served for the rest of the war.
Dooley entered the practice of law with a leading Richmond law firm in 1865, but looked upon the legal profession mainly as training for politics and finance.
In 1869, James Dooley married Sallie May, descendent of an old Virginia family that could trace its lineage back to King Edward III of England. Her parents did not attend the ceremony, very likely because they objected to their daughter marrying an Irish Catholic.
While Dooley remained active in the practice of law until 1898, and served six years in the state legislature in the 1870’s, he began to devote most of his time to his growing business interests. By this time, Major Dooley was one of the leading citizens of Richmond. In his book, Major Dooley, Dr. Charles M. Caravati writes of Dooley that “Though now only forty-eight years old, his prestige was such that his advice and participation were sought not only in legal and financial matter but for civic, philanthropic, cultural and charitable endeavors… He was probably endowed with a mind bordering on genius…. His work was planned and methodical. He hated indolence and, like Thomas Jefferson, he determined never to be idle and agreed ‘it is wonderful how much can be done if we are always doing.'”
Major Dooley died in 1922 and Mrs. Dooley shortly after that in 1925. The Dooley’s left large sums of money to the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, the Richmond City Library, the Crippled Children’s Hospital, and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s Villa.