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James Goodman was born on the Dingle peninsula in Ventry, County Kerry on 22nd September 1828, the third child in a family of nine children. The indigenous population spoke the Gaelic (Irish) language and James grew up bilingual but having a real affection for both the native language and culture. His father was The Reverend Thomas Chute Goodman, rector of the local Church of Ireland (Protestant) parish. As a young boy he met with a piper called Tom Kennedy who was well known locally and who carried a huge store of melodies in his head. The Goodman household was known locally for hosting musical evenings. James graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1851 and married Charlotte King a year later in 1852. They had three sons together, Francis George (b.1853), Godfrey (b.1854) and James (b.1856).
Following his ordination as a minister in the Church Of Ireland in 1853, he was appointed to the parish of Creagh between the towns of Skibbereen and Baltimore in West Cork. He was subsequently appointed to a parish on the Beara peninsula near Ardgroom and it was here that he learned to play the Irish bagpipes or Uileann (Gaelic for "elbow") pipes. He also began what was to be his greatest achievment, which was collecting Irish traditional melodies and writing them down in notation unheard of before then in what was an oral/aural tradition. Many of the tunes he collected were given to him by Tom Kennedy who travelled to the Beara peninsula to meet Canon Goodman and play the melodies for him. Eventually he collected almost 2,000 melodies in four volumes under the collective title "The Tunes of the Munster Pipers". These volumes are now in the library of Trinity College Dublin.
He was appointed to the parish of Abbeystrewery in Skibbereen in 1866 and contributed personally to the rebuilding costs of the by then dilapidated church there. He was widely admired and respected in the locality and is remembered for playing his pipes seated under a tree outside his rectory or mending his pipes and sharing tunes with visiting pipers. He and his housekeeper Lizzie distributed alms to the local poor every Monday who came to his house for this purpose. They were known locally as "Goodman's pensioners".
In 1879 he was appointed Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin and he combined his clerical duties in Skibbereen with his academic duties spending six months in Dublin and six months in Skibbereen. Amongst his pupils were Douglas Hyde, the founder of the Gaelic League and first president of Ireland and John Millington Synge the noted playwright.
He died on 18th January 1896. The Irish Times noted in his obituary that, "The death of this popular, esteemed and well-known clergyman will be received with feelings of deep and sincere regret far outside the limits of West Cork, where he was so well known and universally respected by all creeds and classes of society."
A statue to commemorate him was erected at the gate to the Abbeystrewery parish church in Skibbereen town.