Stephens’ birth is somewhat shrouded in mystery. He claims to have been born on the same day and same year as James Joyce, February 2, 1882, whereas he is in fact probably the same James Stephens who is on record as being born at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, on February 9 1880, the son of Francis Stephens of 5 Thomas’s Court, Dublin, a vanman and a messenger for a stationer’s office, and his wife, Charlotte Collins. His father dies when he is two years old and, when he was six years old, his mother remarries. He is committed to the Meath Protestant Industrial School for boys in Blackrock for begging on the streets, where he spends much of the rest of his childhood. He attends school with his adoptive brothers Thomas and Richard Collins before graduating as a solicitor‘s clerk. They compete and win several athletic competitions despite James’ tiny 4’10” stature. He is known affectionately as “Tiny Tim.” He is much enthralled by the tales of military valour of his adoptive family and would have become a soldier except for his height.
By the early 1900s Stephens is increasingly inclined to socialism and the Irish language and by 1912 is a dedicated Irish Republican. He is a close friend of the 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, who is then editor of The Irish Review and deputy headmaster in St. Enda’s School, the radical bilingual Montessori school run by Patrick Pearse and later manager of the Irish Theatre. He spends much time with MacDonagh in 1911. His growing nationalism brings a schism with his adoptive family, but probably wins him his job as registrar in the National Gallery of Ireland, where he works between 1915 and 1925, having previously had an ill-paid job with the Mecredy firm of solicitors.
Stephens produces many retellings of Irish myths. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humour and lyricism, with Deirdre and Irish Fairy Tales especially often praised. He also writes several original novels, including The Crock of Gold, Etched in Moonlight and Demi-Gods, based loosely on Irish wonder tales. The Crock of Gold in particular has achieved enduring popularity and has often been reprinted.
Stephens begins his career as a poet under the tutelage of poet and painter Æ (George William Russell). His first book of poems, Insurrections, is published in 1909. His last book, Kings and the Moon (1938), is also a volume of verse. His influential account of the 1916 Easter Rising, Insurrection in Dublin, describes the effect of the deaths by execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh and others as being “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”
Stephens later lives between Paris, London and Dublin. During the 1930s he is a friend of James Joyce, and they wrongly believe that they share a birthday. Joyce, who is concerned about his ability to finish what later becomes Finnegans Wake, proposes that Stephens assist him, with the authorship credited to JJ & S (for “Jameses Joyce & Stephens”, but also a pun on the popular Jameson Irish Whiskey, made by John Jameson & Sons). The plan is never implemented, as Joyce is able to complete the work on his own.
During the last decade of his life Stephens finds a new audience through a series of broadcasts on the BBC.