Stephens, James (1825–1901), nationalist and co-founder of the Fenian movement, was, according to local tradition and baptismal records, born in July 1825 in Kilkenny city, the adopted son of John Stephens, auctioneer's clerk, and his wife Anne (née Casey). He was one of six children (four boys and two girls), but by 1856 James was the only member of the family still living. Educated at St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, for at least one quarter in 1838, he was later apprenticed to a civil engineer, and from 1844 onwards worked for the Waterford–Limerick Railway Co.
Rebellion and exile
When the Young Irelanders split from Daniel O'Connell's (qv) Repeal Association and founded the Irish Confederation in January 1847, Stephens became involved in the activities of the Kilkenny Confederate clubs. After the government suspended habeas corpus and issued warrants of arrest against the Confederate leaders, William Smith O'Brien (qv) appeared in Kilkenny on 23 July 1848 seeking support for a popular insurrection, and two days later Stephens joined him. For four days he followed O'Brien's wanderings and took part in all his encounters with government forces, including the affray at the home of Widow McCormack on 29 July when O'Brien's followers besieged a party of policemen in a house near Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. They were finally dispersed by gunfire and the arrival of reinforcements, thus ending O'Brien's revolutionary efforts. Stephens reportedly received two bullet wounds, but managed to hide and evade arrest.
Three days later Stephens proceeded to Ballyneale, near Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, in search of John O'Mahony (qv). He accompanied O'Mahony to meet Michael Doheny (qv), and for six weeks Stephens and Doheny avoided arrest by roaming around the south of Ireland, an adventure that Doheny recorded in The felon's track (1849). On 12 September Stephens was smuggled out of Ireland by the family of the Skibbereen attorney McCarthy Downing (qv), and four days later managed to reach Paris. O'Mahony and Doheny joined him shortly afterwards, although Doheny soon emigrated to the US.
From their exile Stephens and O'Mahony watched the failure of the ’49 conspiracy of James Fintan Lalor (qv) and Philip Gray (qv), and witnessed the barricades against Louis Napoleon's coup d'état in 1851. Stephens later claimed to have joined the French republican insurgents, but according to O'Mahony this was merely a frustrated intention. Equally without foundation is the rumour that Stephens and O'Mahony at this time joined a republican secret society as a training ground for their future Irish enterprise.
Stephens remained in Paris (1848–55), supporting himself by teaching English; he attended the Sorbonne, and had plans to obtain a professorship that never materialised. Towards the close of his exile he was employed by the Moniteur Universel, for which he allegedly translated Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit. Late in 1855 he returned to Ireland and undertook a series of tours throughout the island. He later magnified the venture as ‘the 3,000 miles’ walk’ and reformulated it as an attempt to measure the country's nationalist temperature. However, his primary intention at the time was to collect information for a book he was planning to write. The following autumn he returned to Dublin, became tutor of French to the children of several well-to-do families including that of the Young Irelander J. B. Dillon (qv), and joined the nationalist circle of Thomas Clarke Luby (qv), Philip Gray, and other veterans of the ’49 conspiracy.
IRB founder and leader
When Gray died in January 1857, Stephens asked 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, gave life to O'Mahony's and Doheny's Emmet Monument Association (EMA). That autumn the EMA sent an envoy to Ireland with a proposal for Stephens to prepare the country for the arrival of a military expedition. Stephens offered to organise 10,000 men in three months, provided he was given at least £80 a month and absolute authority over the enterprise. On 17 March 1858 (St Patrick's day) Stephens received the first instalment and his appointment as ‘chief executive’ of the Irish movement. The same day Stephens and his associates took an oath to make Ireland ‘an independent democratic republic’. The nameless secret society thereby inaugurated eventually became known as the Irish Republican (or Revolutionary) Brotherhood; it was organised in cells, each led by a ‘centre’ – Stephens was known as the ‘head centre’.
The EMA's failure to send a second instalment prompted Stephens to travel to New York in October 1858. While in America he attempted, and failed, to engage the support of the Young Irelanders John Mitchel (qv) and Thomas Francis Meagher (qv), but succeeded in establishing a solid partnership with Irish nationalists based in New York. Late in 1858 the surviving members of the EMA reorganised themselves into a modified replica of the IRB, and under John O'Mahony's inspiration adopted the name of the Fenian Brotherhood (FB). Eventually the label ‘Fenian’ came to be applied to the members of both organisations. As part of the new arrangements Stephens obtained 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 were almost spoiled in December by the arrest of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) and other members of the Phoenix Society of Skibbereen, which had been incorporated into the IRB the previous May. On his return from America in March 1859 Stephens took refuge in Paris and delegated management of the organisation to Luby. He only returned to Dublin in April 1861 when O'Mahony, then on a tour of inspection, suggested establishing an executive council to share Stephens's power. Stephens succeeded in frustrating this plan, but from the time of O'Mahony's visit the tension between the two leaders never subsided.
In the autumn of 1861 Stephens took lodgings on Charlemont St. at the house of John and Rossanna Hopper, owners of a small tailoring establishment, and soon fell in love with their daughter Jane, almost twenty years his junior. James Stephens and Jane Hopper were married on 24 January 1864 at the church of SS Michael and John, Exchange St; they had no children.
The first success for Stephens's IRB came on 10 November 1861, when the IRB-dominated National Brotherhood of Saint Patrick staged the funeral for the Young Irelander T. B. McManus (qv) after an intense tug-of-war with both the catholic church and constitutional nationalism. Stephens played a central role in promoting IRB control of the funeral arrangements and although the event lacked the mythical nationalist significance claimed by Fenian apologists, it served to boost Fenian self-assertion and hasten the divorce between middle-class nationalist elites and a new militant republican working class which had different interests at stake in an independent Ireland.
Despite the McManus funeral success, the IRB continued to endure financial difficulties throughout 1862. In 1863 Stephens resolved to address these difficulties and consolidate the movement's position by founding a newspaper. The Irish People was first issued on 28 November 1863. Stephens contributed leading articles to its first three numbers, but finally abandoned his literary efforts in favour of Luby, John O'Leary (qv), and Charles J. Kickham (qv), thereafter the paper's leading writers and guiding spirits.
In the meantime the relationship between Stephens and O'Mahony continued to deteriorate. In November 1863 O'Mahony had turned the tables and persuaded the FB to acknowledge Stephens merely as ‘its representative in Europe’. In March 1864 Stephens again travelled to the USA 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 made the sensational announcement that 1865, at latest, was to be the movement's ‘year of action’. After the end of the American civil war (April 1865) Fenian activity increased spectacularly, and demobilised soldiers travelled to Ireland. However, on 15 September 1865 the government took action, suppressed the Irish People, and arrested most of Stephens's closest collaborators, including Luby, O'Leary and O'Donovan Rossa. Stephens himself was arrested on 11 November but, in a daring operation that proved a propaganda coup for the Fenians, was rescued from Richmond Prison thirteen days later and eventually made his way to America via Britain and France. By the time he arrived in the USA the FB had split into two ‘wings’, the partisans of John O'Mahony and those of William R. Roberts (qv), the president of the Fenian ‘senate’, who advocated shifting military efforts towards invading Canada. The split ended Stephens's already slender chances of launching a successful rising before the end of December, and he called a postponement.
On 17 February 1866 the government suspended habeas corpus in Ireland, and arrests multiplied. Stephens braved the members’ impatience, called a new postponement, and in May travelled to New York in order to try and solve the American crisis in the IRB's favour. He accepted O'Mahony's resignation, took control of his wing, and started an intensive campaign of propaganda and fund-raising. Again he proclaimed 1866 as the ‘year of action’, but by December the movement was weaker than ever, and Stephens tried to call a new postponement. This time Stephens's lieutenants, led by Col. Thomas J. Kelly (qv), lost patience, deposed him from leadership and prepared to launch the insurrection themselves. The result was the ill-fated Fenian rising of 5–6 March 1867.
After his deposition Stephens spent 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 was now under the control of the anti-Stephens supreme council, and the FB was quickly losing its influence to the newly emerged Clan na Gael. Stephens's 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 had grown resentful of his leadership and were vehemently opposed to his return.
Apart from occasional English tutoring and a ruinous venture as a wine merchant that took him to the USA (1871–4), Stephens's post-Fenian years were mainly spent in poverty while awaiting the next opportunity to resume leadership of the IRB. In 1880, after a last unsuccessful trip to the USA and a crushing defeat by John Devoy (qv) and Clan na Gael, he gave up hope, returned to Paris, and settled down to earn a living as an occasional newspaper contributor. In 1885 he was expelled from France under the unfounded suspicion of involvement in dynamiting activities with his cousins Joseph (qv) and Patrick Casey (qv) and the journalist Eugene Davis (qv). He then took up residence in Brussels, but was able to return to Paris two years later. Finally, through Parnell's intervention in 1891, Stephens was allowed to return to Ireland. He moved into a cottage in Sutton, near Howth, and settled into retirement. After his wife's death in 1895 he moved to the house of his in-laws in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, where he died on 29 March 1901. Two days later he was given a solemn nationalist funeral and interred in Glasnevin cemetery.
Stephens's controversial historical reputation never accorded him a comfortable place in the post-independence nationalist pantheon. His egotism and defects as a leader overshadowed the credit he was given as a founder and organiser. Yet Stephens's notorious personality is arguably the key to his success and ultimate historical significance. Stephens's obsessive self-confidence and single-mindedness turned the EMA's half-matured proposal into a solid partnership that inaugurated an enduring pattern of American involvement in Irish nationalism. At the same time, by impressing the IRB with his own assertiveness he enabled it to break the tacit monopoly of the middle classes on Irish political life. By the time of Stephens's downfall Irish republicanism had acquired a definite shape and a marginal but stable position in the Irish political scene.
James 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 was unveiled at the site of his childhood home on Blackmill St. The main collections of his documents are the James Stephens papers, MSS 10491–2, in the NLI, and the Michael Davitt papers addenda, MS 9659d, in TCD.