James McCann was born in county Louth in 1840 and educated by the Christian Brothers at Drogheda. Aged seventeen he joined the Hibernian Bank where he spent ten years. McCann then entered the Dublin Stock Exchange where he was very successful. He acquired Simmonscourt Castle in Donnybrook in 1878.
In the 1890s McCann retired from Dublin and purchased the former Russell estate at Navan which included a great part of Navan. He devoted his energies to a revival of the rural economy. Having acquired lands at Teltown he divided the estate into small holdings and erected a number of model cottages, providing them with a water supply. In 1900 McCann was elected as M.P. for St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. McCann was a supporter of the canals as a means of transporting goods to market and became chairman of the Grand Canal company.
McCann established a bacon factory, sawmill and furniture factory at Navan. James McCann lived at Ardsallagh House. He sought to restore activity on the Boyne Canal and purchased a pleasure steamer to encourage tourism. McCann proposed the extension of the canal to Virginia via the River Blackwater. James McCann launched a newspaper, The Irish Peasant, which ran for six years in Navan. The newspaper espoused self sufficiency similar to that being proposed by Sinn Fein. McCann was a devout Catholic. The editor ran a number of anti-clerical articles and the family closed the newspapers after McCann’s death. James McCann died in 1904 and Arthur McCann inherited. John Spicer, son-in-law of James McCann, took over the Boyne Canal in 1915.
James McCann lived at Ardsallagh House. He divided up his estate into smaller tillage farms. This was a move away from pasture and beef. He established a bacon factory at Navan. He took over the Boyne Canal and attempted to make it pay. He revived the plans to extend the canal to Virginia and Trim. James McCann established a dock yard at Navan to build canal boats. Three canal boats were built at this yard. In 1900 James McCann was elected as Nationalist Party Member of Parliament for Stephens Green division in Dublin.
In 1903 Mr. McCann started a local newspaper for Navan called “The Irish Peasant”. It was started in Navan on January 17th 1903. It took a stand on major national interests. In 1905 the paper became a national weekly. Its price was one penny per copy. It promoted the cause of the tenant farmer. It also promoted secular involvement in education. This upset the clergy and in particular Cardinal Logue. The paper failed because Cardinal Logue threatened to forbid it. The works were later acquired by the Meath Chronicle when it moved to Navan.
James McCann died at Simonscourt Castle, Dublin, on February 16th 1904. A special train was laid on from Navan to Dublin to take seven hundred mourners from Navan to pay their last respects at Glasnevin cemetery.