James Hoban was an Irish Catholic raised on an estate belonging to the Earl of Desart in Callan, County Kilkenny. He worked there as a wheelwright and carpenter until his early twenties, when he was given an 'advanced student' place in the Dublin Society's Drawing School on Lower Grafton Street. He studied under Thomas Ivory. He excelled in his studies and received the prestigious Duke of Leinster's medal for drawings of "Brackets, Stairs, and Roofs" from the Dublin Society in 1780. Hoban was an apprentice to Ivory, from 1779 to 1785.
Following the American Revolutionary War, Hoban emigrated to the United States, and established himself as an architect in Philadelphia in 1785.
Hoban died in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1831. He was originally buried at Holmead's Burying Ground, but was disinterred and reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery.