James Randall Corrigan was born at Woodend, North Canterbury, New Zealand, on 10 July 1865, the son of Samuel Corrigan, a contractor, and his wife, Susan Sanderson (née Randall). Around 1878 the family moved to Tinwald. James left school aged 10 and was employed mainly in farm work, including a stint on Longbeach station, where he acquired a good knowledge of stock. Later he became a butcher in Tinwald. There, on 12 June 1889, he married Annie Troup, a Scottish governess. They were to have three children.
The newly-weds farmed at Lake Flat, near Lake Ellesmere, but drought, flooding and salinity brought failure, and they moved north to Hawera, Taranaki, in 1893. There James was employed by Arthur Fantham, a livestock auctioneer. Fantham probably helped him to buy the homestead block of The Oaks when the property was subdivided in 1899.
Corrigan learnt stock dealing from his mentor, assisted by an extraordinary ability at mental arithmetic. He benefited from the advent of refrigeration, rising export prices, improved transport links, and the local abundance of partially developed leasehold land. Corrigan made numerous big deals, once shipping 4,000 sheep from Picton to Wanganui, and on another occasion driving 4,000 cattle from Hawera to Hawke's Bay. He also traded almost daily in small parcels of stock. In six months during 1905 he turned over 11,231 cattle for a profit of £552. Discontent with increased commission rates made him a prime mover in the formation of the regional Farmers' Co-operative Organisation Society of New Zealand in 1913.
From around 1900 Corrigan bred and widely exhibited stud Lincoln, English Leicester, Border Leicester and Shropshire sheep. About the same time he began dairy farming, often using leasehold land and sharemilking contracts. He was a director of the innovative Hawera Co-operative Dairy Factory Company from 1906 and then chairman from 1917 to 1934. His dairying interests included the Egmont Box Company, the New Zealand Co-operative Rennet Company, the West Coast Refrigerating Company and the South Taranaki Shipping Company. There were other investments, including the South Taranaki Building Company, which milled local timber and built houses as far away as Auckland. He was a director and chairman of the South Taranaki Winter Show Company, served on the Patea Harbour Board, and helped reassess the West Coast Settlement Reserves lease rentals from 1913.
Corrigan helped found the Egmont Sheep Dog Trial Club in 1901 and the Waimate Plains (later Hawera) Trotting Club in 1905. In 1910 he assisted in establishing the North Island Sheep Dog Trial Association, and later the national body. In 1912 the Corrigans visited Britain, purchasing pedigree Jersey cattle and sheepdogs. In 1918 he was possibly the first to transport a trotter by lorry in New Zealand, enabling it to win at Addington and Hawera in the same Easter weekend and confounding the bookmakers. He bought the Australian horse Man o' War for an unprecedented £1,500 and won the 1920 and 1921 Auckland Trotting Cups with him.
Wartime prices boosted Corrigan's fortunes, but he considered this to be 'blood money' and provided many personal guarantees to soldier settlers. The slump of 1921–22 meant that several of these guarantees were called up and Corrigan honoured them despite other financial losses. He partially recovered by developing his trotting interests under the supervision of his son Alexander, and was New Zealand's leading owner of trotting horses in 1921–22 and 1922–23.
After participating in an abortive attempt to create a compulsory pooling scheme for dairy exports, Corrigan stood successfully for Patea in 1922 as a Liberal and a supporter of producer control of dairy marketing. In Parliament he denounced banks, shipping companies, overseas 'Meat Trusts', and 'manure monopolists' as exploiters of primary producers. He advocated a state bank, greater spending on farm development and backblocks roading, and strong producer boards. The problems of returned soldiers and isolated settlers featured in his speeches, and his accusations of corruption stung ministers, including William Massey, the prime minister. Corrigan, who described himself as 'very much out of place' in Parliament, was unseated in Gordon Coates's Reform landslide of 1925. He was elected to the New Zealand Dairy-produce Control Board in 1926 and served until 1932. He had surprised the existing board's supporters by opposing its price-fixing policy, but his clear victory suggests that he was reflecting local opinion.
In his prime James Corrigan was a solidly built, robust individual renowned for his repartee, forthright debating style and personal generosity. As a rural businessman and farmer he had the skills and drive to take advantage of and help the rapid development of farming in southern Taranaki. He died at Hawera on 19 March 1935, survived by two daughters and a son. His wife, Annie, who had been deeply involved in voluntary nursing and work for the Presbyterian church, died in 1957.