James Stephens (1825-1901)

Works


Life
b. Kilkenny; ed. St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny; trained as engineer; worked on Limerick and North Waterford Railway; participated in Young Ireland rising of 1848 as aide-de-camp to William Smith O’Brien; wounded and reported killed at Ballingarry; escaped wounded to Paris; ‘participant observer’ in Paris Commune and end of Second Republic in France; lodged at the boardinghouse styled by Balzac ‘la maison Vauquer’; met John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny; taught English; influenced by French anarchism; remained when O’Mahony went to America, 1853; returned to Ireland disguised as beggar with Luby, 1856; taught French to children of John Blake Dillon; on foot (An ‘Seabhac Siubhalach; the Wandering Hawk’, or ‘Mr. Shook’), 1856-57;
 
received instructions from Emmet Monument Assoc. in America to organise for a revolution in Ireland; sent Joseph Denieffe with a reply outlining his requirements, and received assurances through Denieffe on his return along with the sum of £80 to fund the organisation; fnd. the Irish Republican Brotherhood on St. Patrick’s Day [17 March] 1858, holding the first inaugural meeting in the premises of Peter Langan, a lathe-maker and timber merchant at 16 Lombard Street, with Kickham, Thomas Clarke Luby, Peter Langan, Denieffe and Garrett O’Shaughnessy; organised the society on anarchist ‘cell’ principles, himself acted as ‘head centre’; recruited wider membership through Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, John Devoy, William Roantree, and Patrick “Pagan” O’Leary; travelled to America and France, 1859-60;
 
delivered candle-lit oration at grave of Terence Bellew McManus, 1861; fnd. The Irish People, staffed by Luby, O’Donovan Rossa, John O’Leary, and Charles Kickham, 1863; Stephens contrib. his article “Felon-setting” to the 3rd and last edition; the paper raided and leaders arrested, 15 Sept. 1865; eluded the police until Nov. 1865, living as Mr. Herbert, a keen hortoculturalist, at Fairfield House, Sandymount; arrested there with Kickham and Edward Duffy on the night of 11 Nov. 1865; repudiated British law at his arraignment (‘Now I deliberately and conscientiously repudiate British law in Ireland: I defy and despise any punishment it can inflict on me. I have spoken’); his escape from Richmond Prison organised by John Devoy within a fortnight, using funds supplied by Ellen O’Leary through the mortgage of her property and abetted by Irish warders Byrne and John J. Breslin (a medical orderly), 24 Nov., being due for trial on 27 Nov. 1865;
 
visited in Ireland by Thomas J. Kelly, who is sceptical of his claim to have recruited 85,000 mbrs.; accompanied Kelly to New York, 1866; postponed rising, Dec. 1865; denounced as ‘rogue, imposter and traitor’ by American Fenians and deposed as Head Centre, being succeeded by Kelly; disastrous rising of 1867 proceeds in Ireland under Kelly’s command without him; retired to Paris; received subscriptions; expelled by French authorities; moved to Switzerland; permitted to return to Ireland through intervention of Charles Stewart Parnell, 1885; lived in seclusion on Booterstown Ave., Blackrock; briefly appeared at 1798 centenary; d. 2 April, 1901. DIB DIH FDA OCIL

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Works
James Stephens, The Birth of the Fenian Movement: American Diary, Brooklyn 1859 (UCD Press 2009), 160pp.

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Criticism
Biographies
  • Desmond Ryan, The Fenian Chief (1967);
  • Marta Ramón, A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement (UCD Press 2007), 336pp., ill. [8pp. pls.]
Fenianism (Select Reading)
  • William D’Arcy, The Fenian Movement in the United States (1947);
  • Joseph Denieffe, A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (1906);
  • John Devoy, Recollections of an Old Rebel (1929);
  • John Rutherford, The Secret History of the Fenian Conspiracy (1877);
  • Léon Ó Bróin, Revolutionary Underground (1976);
  • Desmond Ryan, The Phoenix Flame (1937);
  • Maurice Harmon, ed., Fenians and Fenianism (Cork: Mercier 1968);
  • R. Vincent Comerford, The Fenians in Context (Wolfhound 1985);
  • T. W. Moody, ed., The Fenian Movement (Cork 1988);
  • Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood - From the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2005);
  • James McConnel & Fearghal McGarry, eds., The Black Hand of Republicanism: Fenianism in Modern Ireland (Dublin: IAP 2009);
  • Padraig Ó Concubhair, “The Fenians were Dreadful Men”: the 1867 Rising (Cork: Mercier Press 2011).
 

See also short account of Stephens’s escape from Richmond Gaol in M. J. MacManus, Adventures of an Irish Bookman, ed. Francis MacManus (Dublin: Talbot Press 1952), pp.24-28; Malcolm Brown, ‘Mr. Shook’, in The Politics of Irish Literature from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats (London: George Allen 1972) [Chap. 10], pp.151-63, and John O’Donovan, ‘The Irish Judiciary in the 18th- and 19th-Centuries’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 4 (Winter 1971), pp.17-22, pp.17-18 [extract];

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See also Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame: A Story of the Irihs in the Old World and the New (Chatto & Windus 1998) - as per index: joins W. S. O’Brien in 1848 rising; at Ballingarry; wounded; meets Mitchel in USA; condemns O’Brien’s political aloofness; MacManus’s funeral; Us support for; James Kenealy meets; walking reconnaissance in Ireland; marriage; military preparations and training; in USA; Meehan’s loss of legal documents; instructs Kenealy; rescued from Richmond Prison; Fenians in the British Army; escapes in France; denounces Fenian raid on Canada; Mitchel’s resignation from Fenians; in Paris; Sexton requests amnesty for.

 

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Commentary
Isaac Butt wrote in ‘Land Tenure in Ireland: Plea for the Celtic Race’ (Dec. 1866), ‘The name of James Stephens is now familiar in every district of the great continent of North America - in every hamlet in the United Kingdom. It is known in every country in Europe. A few years ago he was an obscure individual - without wealth, or station, or distinction. If he is now formidable - surely he is so, even to British power - it is to be traced to nothing but this, that alone, unaided, without friends, or influence, or money, he dared to rely on the disaffection of Irishmen, wherever they were to be found, and with dauntless energy and an unwearying perseverance, set himself to appeal to it. If that disaffection had not existed in a character and with a fanaticism of which we can only form a faint idea from indications such as this, he would have only been beating the air.’ (The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, gen. ed. Seamus Deane, 1991, Vol. 2 p.226). The passage continues with an estimate of the current strength of the ‘conspiracy’, which Butt puts at 5,000-10,000 men. (Ibid., p.227.)

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George Sigerson, Modern Ireland (1868), ‘The Vitality of Fenianism’ [Chap.], writes: ‘Mahoney … having been compromised in the abortive movement of 1848, he fled to Paris, where he lived for some time with a younger and suppler refugee, James Stephens, while translating a novel of Dickens for the feuilleton of the Le Moniteur, got acquainted with some unquiet spirits of the Continental revolutionary societies. O’Mahoney and he became enrolled members, and studiously made themselves acquainted with the best methods of secret organisation for ulterior purposes. When their plans were mature they consulted some French officers, veteran Irish rebels of 1798, and some American officers, who had been leading ‘Young Ireland’. The scheme did not win encouragement. The American fund was not given, and the two refugees had to depend upon themselves. Stephens went to Ireland, forming first the Phoenix Society, which exploded, whilst from its ashes emerged the greater IRB, which signifies the Irish Republican Brotherhood. O’Mahoney proceeded to the United States to organise the transatlantic Irish nation …’] (The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 1991, Vol. 2, p.243).

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Frank Harris gave an account of schoolboy reactions to Stephens: ‘I was thunderstruck and this amazement has always illuminated for me the abyss of Protestant bigotry, but I wouldn’t break with Howard, who was two years older than I and who taught me many things. One day I remember he showed me posted on the court house a notice offering £5,000 reward to anyone who would tell the where-abouts of James Stephens, the Fenian head-centre. “he’s travelling all over Ireland”, Howard whispered. “Everyone knows him”, adding with gusto, “but no one would give the head-centre a way to the dirty English.” I remember thrilling to the mystery and chivalry of the story. From that moment, head-centre was a sacred symbol to me as Howard.”’ (Life and Loves; 1964 Edn., p.18.)

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Thomas F. Mahoney, in his review of Desmond Ryan, The Fenian Chief (1967) remarks that ‘A century after the zenith of the Fenian movement he principally launched, James Stephens is a relatively obscure figure.’ (p.140 in Mahoney, untitled review, Éire-Ireland, 4, 2, Summer 1969, pp.140-42.)

John O’Donovan, ‘The Irish Judiciary in the 18th- and 19th-Centuries’, in Éire-Ireland, 6, 4 (Winter 1971), pp.17-22; notes that James Stephens having evaded capture by police in 1848, went to Paris and went later to the U.S. as a professional agitator. (p.17) Notes that Robert Emmet was tracked and arrested by a fellow Dubliner who was an enthusiast for the Gaelic language and whose collection of Irish antiquities now rests in the National Museum. (p.18) Notes that Emmet’s barrister betrayed Emmet’s defence to the government prosecutor, as he had secrets of the United Irishmen.

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Rolf & Magda Loeber, A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2006): ‘In Ireland, the development of the national tale with its emphasis on injustices inflicted upon the Catholic population, the adoption of the idea of Catholic Emancipation by Daniel O’Connell, and his translation of this idea into a mass movement, all somewhat fit [the] semination model [associated with Miroslav Hroch as applied to the Irish context by Joep Leerssen]. However, in the thicket of conflict, Irish revolutionaries had different ideas about the relationship between literature and social and political change. Some of them believed that that the real battle for nationhood was to be fought not on the cultural front, but was to be waged with land reform and Home Rule as the key pawns. For instance, James Stephens stated that a free Ireland would not be achieved by “amiable and enlightened young men … pushing about in drawing room society … creating an Irish national literature, schools of Irish art, and things of the sort”. He likened these idealists in 1863 to “dilettante patriots, perhaps the greatest fools of all ”. (Quoted in D. G. Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, London 1982, p.177.) Michael Davitt’s Land League movement which operated from 1879 onward, also had little room for the literary ideals articulated by Thomas Davis in the 1840s and, instead, advanced the idea that control of land was essential for the Irish nation.’ (Also cites Seamus Deane, Short History of Irish Literature, London: Hutchinson 1986, p.76.)

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References
Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2, selects ‘A Letter of Much Import, Written by James Stephens, in the Year 1861’, being Chap. XXII of Rossa’s Recollections 1838-1898 (1898); in the letter Stephen’s excoriates the theory of ‘a crisis’ summed up in the phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, which he calls ‘a bane - a scourge - a disease - a devil’s scourge … blind, base, and deplorable motto … May it be accursed, it, its aiders and abettors. Owing to it the work that should never have stood still, has been taken up in feverish fits and starts, and always out of time, to fall into collapse when the ‘opportunity predestined to escape them’; the signature is ‘J. Kelly’ [263-61]; REFS & REMS, 207 [John Mitchel quarrelled with]; 209 [Mitchel and Lalor under leadership of Stephens organise to break connection with England by force, ed. S. Deane], 211 [Stephens, much criticised for deferral of revolution, at least recognised the scale of organisation necessary if farce-rebellions … were to be avoided, Deane]; 226n [biog. note to Isaac Butt, as supra]; 227n [Stephens’s escape from Richmond prison organised by Devoy]; 243 [George Sigerson, as supra]; 250n [refers use of ‘England’s difficulty … &c.’, in Kickham’s Knockagow to Stephen’s comment on same phrase, p.263 infra]; 252 [note to John O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism, establishing links between 1848 and the IRB movement]; 256 [O’Leary, Recollections, chap.VII, ‘… If Fenianism had been then, things might have been far different now; but the idea still lay more or less dormant in the brain of James Stephens, to wake up to activity, however, very soon after’]; 263 [‘Letter of Much Import …’, as supra]; 266 [John Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel, on ‘Burial of Terence Bellew McManus, ‘Stephens and Denieffe were the only Fenian leaders then in Dublin … But some new men like the Sullivans of the Nation though it was their prerogative to take charge of all nationalist demonstrations, so when a committee was formed, there was a contest for control of it’], 268-74 [his escape from Richmond Prison in 1865]; 269-75 [Devoy, Recollections, Chap. XIII, on ‘The Rescue of Stephens’, ‘Stephens’ defiant speech when arraigned before the magistrate to be committed for trial led the public to believe that he had strong resources at his back. A week later most people felt that on the day of his arraignment he knew all about the arrangements for the rescue from prison, which afterwards took place on Nov. 24 1865, and that this knowledge justified his attitude of defiance … Stephens at that time knew nothing of the possibility of escape …’; a fully circumstantial account follows]; 300 [The Constitution of the IRB copied by Hobson, includes Art. 3 in which the organisation commits itself to awaiting the ‘decision of the Irish Nation as expressed by a majority of the Irish people as to the fit hour of inaugurating a war and England and shall, pending such an emergency, lend its support to every movement calculated to advance the cause of Irish independence, consistently with the preservation of its own integrity’]; 680 [Seumus Shields, in The Shadow of a Gunman, Act. 1: ‘… an’ when the Church refused to have anything to do with James Stephens, I tarred a prayer for the repose of his soul on the steps of the Pro-Cathedral’.]

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Roy Foster, Modern Ireland (London: Penguin 1988); civil engineer; joined Young Ireland, aide-de-camp to Smith O’Brien, 1848; fled to Paris; toured Ireland, 1856-57; convinced of feasibility of revolution; founded IRB, 1858; visited US to promote funds; blamed O’Mahoney for delay of revolution, 1861; On the Future of Ireland (1862); fnd. the Irish People, 1863; revisited US, 1864; stimulated funds by promising rising in 1865; fixed on anniversary of Emmet’s execution, 20 Sept.; offices of Irish People raided, 15 Sept. 1865; escape to Paris; rapturous greeting in NY on announcing plan to promote another rising; denounced for taking no action, 1867; returned to Paris; retired to Ireland, 1885, living at Blackrock in comfortable obscurity till death.

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Encyclopaedia Britannica (1949 Edn.), under ‘Fenians’, notes that the Fenian Brotherhood was est. by John O’Mahony,c.1858; oath allegiance to Irish republic ‘now virtually established’, swearing to take up arms and yield implicit obedience to leadership to officers; modelled on that of French Jacobins at the Revolution; ramifications in Canada, Australia, S. America, esp. US, and Irish population centres in Great Britain; not much hold on tenant-farmers or agricultural labourers in Ireland, and condemned by Catholic clergy; convention held by O’Mahony, Chicago, Nov. 1862; Stephens fnd. Irish People in Dublin, 1863; Government well served as usual by informers; Irish People suppressed, Sept. 1865; prominent Fenians sentenced; Stephens, through connivance of a prison warder, escaped to France; Habeas Corpus Act suspended; considerable numbers arrested; Canada Raid under John O’Neill, 800 men crossing Niagara river; captured Fort Erie; large number of deserters; routed at Ridgeway by Canadian volunteers; surrendered to US Michigan, 3 June; second raid, 1870; betrayed by Henri Le Caron, ‘Inspector General of the Irish Republican Army’; unsuccessful insurrection in south and west Ireland, and Lancashire, 1867; Thomas J. Kelly and Capt. Deasy, prisoners, liberated by Fenians after trial in Manchester; death of police Sergeant Brett; Condon, Allen, Larkin, Maguire, and O’Brien arrested; Condon reprieved as American; Maguire pardoned, the others hanged; ‘Manchester Martyrs; Clerkenwell explosion in order to liberate Richard Burke, kills 12 and maims 120; Michael Barrett apprehended and executed; Michael Davitt sentence to 15 years for part in Fenian Conspiracy; movement becomes practically obsolete, though Irish Republican Brotherhood and other organisations in Ireland and abroad carried on the same tradition.

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COPAC lists Trials of the Fenian prisoners at Toronto who were captured at Fort Erie, C.W., in June, 1866, reported by George R. Gregg & E. P. Roden [CIHM/ICMH Microfiche series, 23495] ([Toronto] 1867), 3 microfiches [being the trials of Robert Blosse Lynch, John M’Mahon and David F. Lumsden are reported in full, the others briefly.]

ODNB: [Old] Dictionary of National Biography contains no entry for Stephens.

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Notes
Cabman’s shelter: There is an incidental reference to Stephens’s in the “Eumeus” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses where Bloom and Stephen encounter the putative man ‘got away James Stephens’.

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