James Stephens, Irish republican, dies in Blackrock, County Dublin, on March 29, 1901. He is a founding member of an originally unnamed revolutionary organisation in Dublin. This organisation, founded on March 17, 1858, is later to become known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
References to Stephens’s early life, according to one of his biographers, Desmond Ryan, are obscure and limited to Stephens’s own vague autobiographical recollections. He is born at Lilac Cottage, Blackmill Street, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny, on January 26, 1825 and spends his childhood there. No birth records have ever been located, but a baptismal record from St. Mary’s Parish is dated July 29, 1825. There is reason to believe that he is born out of wedlock in late July 1825. However, according to Stephens, his exact date of birth is January 26. He is educated at St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, for at least one quarter in 1838. He is later apprenticed to a civil engineer, and from 1844 onwards works for the Waterford–Limerick Railway Company.
When the Young Irelanders split from Daniel O’Connell‘s Repeal Association and found the Irish Confederation in January 1847, Stephens becomes involved in the activities of the Kilkenny Confederate clubs. After the government suspends habeas corpus and issues warrants of arrest against the Confederate leaders, William Smith O’Brien appears in Kilkenny on July 23, 1848, seeking support for a popular insurrection, and two days later Stephens joins him. For four days he follows O’Brien’s wanderings and takes part in all his encounters with government forces, including the affray at the home of Widow McCormack on July 29 when O’Brien’s followers besiege a party of policemen in a house near Ballingarry, County Tipperary. They are finally dispersed by gunfire and the arrival of reinforcements, thus ending O’Brien’s revolutionary efforts. Stephens reportedly receives two bullet wounds, but manages to hide and evade arrest.
Three days later, Stephens proceeds to Ballyneale, near Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, in search of John O’Mahony. He accompanies O’Mahony to meet Michael Doheny, and for six weeks Stephens and Doheny avoid arrest by roaming around the south of Ireland, an adventure that Doheny records in The Felon’s Track (1849). On September 12, Stephens is smuggled out of Ireland by the family of the Skibbereen attorney McCarthy Downing, and four days later manages to reach Paris. O’Mahony and Doheny join him shortly afterwards, although Doheny soon emigrates to the United States.
From their exile Stephens and O’Mahony watch the failure of the ’49 conspiracy of James Fintan Lalor and Philip Gray, and witness the barricades against Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851. Stephens later claims to have joined the French republican insurgents, but according to O’Mahony this is merely a frustrated intention. Equally without foundation is the rumour that Stephens and O’Mahony at this time join a republican secret society as a training ground for their future Irish enterprise.
Stephens remains in Paris from 1848 to 1855, supporting himself by teaching English. He attends Sorbonne University and has plans to obtain a professorship that never materialises. Towards the close of his exile, he is employed by the Le Moniteur Universel, for which he allegedly translates Charles Dickens‘s Martin Chuzzlewit. Late in 1855 he returns to Ireland and undertakes a series of tours throughout the island. He later magnifies the venture as “the 3,000 miles’ walk” and reformulates it as an attempt to measure the country’s nationalist temperature. However, his primary intention at the time is to collect information for a book he is planning to write. The following autumn he returns to Dublin, becomes tutor of French to the children of several well-to-do families including that of the Young Irelander John Blake Dillon, and joins the nationalist circle of Thomas Clarke Luby, Philip Gray, and other veterans of the ’49 conspiracy.
When Gray dies in January 1857, Stephens asks O’Mahony, then living in New York, to collect funds for a funeral monument. This evidence of nationalist activity, coupled with the prospect of “England’s difficulty” awakened by the recent Crimean War and the insurrection in India, give life to O’Mahony’s and Doheny’s Emmet Monument Association (EMA). That autumn the EMA sends an envoy to Ireland with a proposal for Stephens to prepare the country for the arrival of a military expedition. Stephens offers to organise 10,000 men in three months, provided he is given at least £80 a month and absolute authority over the enterprise. On March 17, 1858, Saint Patrick’s Day, he receives the first installment and his appointment as “chief executive” of the Irish movement. The same day he and his associates take an oath to make Ireland “an independent democratic republic.” The nameless secret society thereby inaugurated eventually becomes known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It is organised in cells, each led by a “centre” with Stephens being known as the “head centre.”
The EMA’s failure to send a second installment prompts Stephens to travel to New York in October 1858. While in America he attempts, and fails, to engage the support of the Young Irelanders John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher, but succeeds in establishing a solid partnership with Irish nationalists based in New York. Late in 1858 the surviving members of the EMA reorganise themselves into a modified replica of the IRB, and under John O’Mahony’s inspiration adopt the name of the Fenian Brotherhood (FB). Eventually the label “Fenian” comes to be applied to the members of both organisations. As part of the new arrangements, Stephens obtains a new appointment as head of the movement “at home and abroad.”
Despite Stephens’s success, his labours in America and the secrecy of his own activities in Ireland are almost spoiled in December by the arrest of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and other members of the Phoenix National and Literary Society of Skibbereen, which had been incorporated into the IRB the previous May. On his return from America in March 1859 Stephens takes refuge in Paris and delegates management of the organisation to Luby. He only returns to Dublin in April 1861 when O’Mahony, then on a tour of inspection, suggests establishing an executive council to share Stephens’s power. Stephens succeeds in frustrating this plan, but from the time of O’Mahony’s visit the tension between the two leaders never subsides.
In the autumn of 1861 Stephens takes lodgings on Charlemont Street at the house of John and Rossanna Hopper, owners of a small tailoring establishment, and soon falls in love with their daughter Jane, almost twenty years his junior. The two are married on January 24, 1864, at the church of SS Michael and John, Exchange Street. The marriage produces no children.
The first success for Stephens’s IRB comes on November 10, 1861, when the IRB-dominated National Brotherhood of Saint Patrick stages the funeral for the Young Irelander Terence MacManus after an intense tug-of-war with both the Catholic church and constitutional nationalism. Stephens plays a central role in promoting IRB control of the funeral arrangements and although the event lacks the mythical nationalist significance claimed by Fenian apologists, it serves to boost Fenian self-assertion and hasten the divorce between middle-class nationalist elites and a new militant republican working class which has different interests at stake in an independent Ireland.
Despite the McManus funeral success, the IRB continues to endure financial difficulties throughout 1862. In 1863, Stephens resolves to address these difficulties and consolidate the movement’s position by founding a newspaper. The Irish People is first issued on November 28, 1863. He contributes leading articles to its first three numbers, but finally abandons his literary efforts in favour of Luby, John O’Leary, and Charles J. Kickham, thereafter the paper’s leading writers and guiding spirits.
In the meantime, the relationship between Stephens and O’Mahony continues to deteriorate. In November 1863 O’Mahony has turned the tables and persuaded the FB to acknowledge Stephens merely as “its representative in Europe.” In March 1864 Stephens again travels to the United States in order to stimulate the flow of funds towards the IRB and regain some hold on the FB. As part of his new policies he makes the sensational announcement that 1865, at latest, is to be the movement’s “year of action.” After the end of the American Civil War in April 1865, Fenian activity increases spectacularly, and demobilised soldiers travel to Ireland. However, on September 15, 1865, the government takes action, suppresses The Irish People, and arrests most of Stephens’s closest collaborators, including Luby, O’Leary and O’Donovan Rossa. Stephens himself is arrested on November 11 but, in a daring operation that proves a propaganda coup for the Fenians, is rescued from Richmond Bridewell penitentiary thirteen days later and eventually makes his way to America via Britain and France. By the time he arrives in the United States, the FB has split into two “wings,” the partisans of John O’Mahony and those of William R. Roberts, the president of the Fenian “senate,” who advocate shifting military efforts towards invading Canada. The split ends Stephens’s already slender chances of launching a successful rising before the end of December, and he calls a postponement.
On February 17, 1866, the government suspends habeas corpus in Ireland and arrests multiply. Stephens braves the members’ impatience, calls a new postponement, and in May travels to New York in order to try and solve the American crisis in the IRB’s favour. He accepts O’Mahony’s resignation, takes control of his wing, and starts an intensive campaign of propaganda and fund-raising. Again, he proclaims 1866 as the “year of action,” but by December the movement is weaker than ever, and he tries to call a new postponement. This time his lieutenants, led by Col. Thomas J. Kelly, lose patience, depose him from leadership and prepare to launch the insurrection themselves. The result is the ill-fated Fenian Rising of March 5-6, 1867.
After his deposition, Stephens spends most of his remaining years in France, in dire financial distress, but still hoping against hope to regain his position at the head of the movement. However, the IRB is now under the control of the anti-Stephens supreme council, and the FB is quickly losing its influence to the newly emerged Clan na Gael. His reputation, always tainted by his controversial personality and autocratic management, had been ruined forever by the 1866 events and his repeated failure to order the rising. With the exception of a small core of diehard partisans, the majority of his former associates and followers have grown resentful of his leadership and are vehemently opposed to his return.
Apart from occasional English tutoring and a ruinous venture as a wine merchant that takes him to the United States from 1871 to 1874, Stephens’s post-Fenian years are mainly spent in poverty while awaiting the next opportunity to resume leadership of the IRB. In 1880, after a last unsuccessful trip to the United States and a crushing defeat by John Devoy and Clan na Gael, he gives up hope, returns to Paris, and settles down to earn a living as an occasional newspaper contributor. In 1885 he is expelled from France under the unfounded suspicion of involvement in dynamiting activities with his cousins Joseph and Patrick Casey and the journalist Eugene Davis. He then takes up residence in Brussels but is able to return to Paris two years later. Finally, through Charles Stewart Parnell‘s intervention in 1891, he is allowed to return to Ireland. He moves into a cottage in Sutton, near Howth, and settles into retirement. After his wife’s death in 1895 he moves to the house of his in-laws in Blackrock, County Dublin, where he dies on March 29, 1901. Two days later he is given a solemn nationalist funeral and is interred in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Stephens’s controversial historical reputation never accords him a comfortable place in the post-independence nationalist pantheon. His egotism and defects as a leader overshadow the credit he is given as a founder and organiser. Yet his notorious personality is arguably the key to his success and ultimate historical significance. His obsessive self-confidence and single-mindedness turn the EMA’s half-matured proposal into a solid partnership that inaugurates an enduring pattern of American involvement in Irish nationalism. At the same time, by impressing the IRB with his own assertiveness he enables it to break the tacit monopoly of the middle classes on Irish political life. By the time of his downfall, Irish republicanism has acquired a definite shape and a marginal but stable position in the Irish political scene.
Stephens’s name has been incorporated into Kilkenny local heritage in institutions as diverse as a swimming pool, a military barracks, and a hurling team. In 1967 a plaque is unveiled at the site of his childhood home on Blackmill Street. The main collections of his documents are the James Stephens papers, MSS 10491–2, in the National Library of Ireland, and the Michael Davitt papers addenda, MS 9659d, in Trinity College Dublin.
(From: “Stephens, James” by Marta Ramón, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, last revised March 2021)