Stephens, James (1880?–1950), writer, was probably the child of that name born at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, on 9 February 1880, second son of Francis Stephens, a vanman, and his wife Charlotte (née Collins). Stephens himself, however, claimed to have been born on 2 February 1882; it is sometimes suggested that he invented this to make his birthday coincide with that of James Joyce (qv), but in fact he gave the later date as his birthday more than a decade before he befriended Joyce. There has also been speculation that the name Stephens was assumed to conceal an extra-marital birth. Francis Stephens died in 1882 and in 1886 James was committed to the Meath Protestant Industrial School for Boys for begging in the streets. After leaving the Meath school in 1896 he held a number of short-term, ill-paid jobs as a clerk and typist, moving between lodgings. Little is known of this period of his life, except that in 1901 the short, muscular Stephens was in the team of the Dawson Street gymnastic club when it won the Irish Shield championship. He appears to have spent a period tramping in the countryside, and he told stories of taking bread from a dog, pursuing ducks in St Stephen's Green in hope of catching one to eat, contemplating suicide, and being assisted by a kindly applewoman (or prostitute – his accounts differed). It is certain that his experiences of Dublin poverty and the regimented routine of his work as a clerk informed his later stories of Dublin tenement life.
In 1905 Stephens began to contribute stories to the journal United Irishman (later Sinn Féin) edited by Arthur Griffith (qv), at first anonymously and generally without payment. Despite Griffith's later reputation as a philistine, Stephens always respected the Sinn Féin founder's determined, self-sacrificing idealism, and wrote a generous tribute, Arthur Griffith: journalist and statesman, on his death in 1922. Stephens became a regular contributor to the journal from 1907; a series of humorous monologues on life and current events by ‘The Old Philosopher', which first appeared in Sinn Féin, can be seen as preliminary sketches for The crock of gold (1912). Although the Philosopher is an affectionate parody of George Russell (qv) (‘AE’), whose discovery of Stephens in 1907 gave him access to Dublin literary circles, he also owes something to Griffith's habit of writing sardonic fables on current events (in one of Griffith's tales, for example, the Irish Parliamentary Party is represented by a cod). Griffith and Russell intensified Stephens's existing rejection of his evangelical protestant upbringing and his exploration of the Irish Ireland milieu and alternative spiritualities (notably theosophy). His early work – his first book of poems, Insurrections, appeared in 1909 – is heavily influenced by the theosophical interpretation of life as formed by the struggle and reconciliation of opposites and by the Blakean exaltation of energy and freedom over law and moralism. Much of his work in this period is marked by shockingly whimsical representations of the Christian God, devil, and angels as impotent, vengeful, or impulsive; these owe much to Blake and something to Stephens's admiration for the vertiginous dream cosmogonies of Lord Dunsany (qv).
In 1907 Stephens began a relationship with his landlady, Millicent Kavanagh (née Gardiner), whose husband had decamped leaving her destitute and pregnant. They brought up her daughter Iris (b. 1907) and had one son, James Naoise (b. 1909); they married on 14 May 1919 after the death of Harry Kavanagh. In 1909–11 Stephens acted in several plays staged by the Theatre of Ireland (founded by Edward Martyn (qv) as a rival to the Abbey Theatre), which staged his short comedy ‘The marriage of Julia Elizabeth’ in 1911. In the same year he co-founded the Irish Review (1911–14), whose staff included Thomas MacDonagh (qv), Joseph Plunkett (qv), and Padraic Colum (qv); it serialised his first novel, The charwoman's daughter, whose fable-like format and optimistic celebration of self-invention coexist with a dissection of Dublin poverty, snobbery, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation.
In 1912 he produced The charwoman's daughter in book form, another collection of poems (The hill of vision), and his best-known novel, The crock of gold, whose humour and later stereotyping as a children's novel often lead readers to overlook its theosophist and Blakean elements and its incorporation of AE's quasi-apocalyptic dream of the return of the Celtic gods to sweep away philistine materialism. After the success of The crock of gold Stephens moved to Paris with his family; there he wrote another fable, The demi-gods (1914). He continued to contribute to Dublin journals, including the feminist Irish Citizen (several of his poems have feminist themes) and the Larkinite Irish Worker, where in 1913 he created a stir with an article denouncing the catholic clergy for indifference to the plight of the poor and for prevaricating during the 1913 lock-out.
In 1915 Stephens returned to Dublin because of the first world war and financial difficulties. His poetry collections of this year, Songs from the clay and The adventures of Seumas Beg, though they contain many poems whose simplicity makes them favourites with compilers of anthologies for children, have been criticised as representing an artistic regression under the influence of the sentimental and archaic pastoral style of the Georgian poets. At this time he conceived the unfulfilled ambition of writing an Irish ‘human comedy’ à la Balzac, which was to have been a series of novels describing Irish life in all its aspects from the mid 1890s to the outbreak of the war.
Stephens succeeded in obtaining an appointment as registrar of the NGI despite the opposition of J. P. Mahaffy (qv), who thought another candidate better qualified and resigned from the gallery board in protest. Stephens was confirmed in this appointment in 1918 and retained it until 1925. From the vantage point of the gallery premises in Merrion Square, Stephens observed the fighting around St Stephen's Green in Easter week 1916; his instant book on the rising, The insurrection in Dublin (1916), is regarded as the most vivid account by a contemporary observer of the changing moods and scenes of Dublin during the rising, while his poetry collection Green branches, published later that year, contains elegies for the rebels. Stephens supported Russell's attempts to reach a national settlement by influencing British public opinion, while excoriating John Redmond (qv) for misrepresenting Irish opinion.
The appearance in 1918 of Reincarnations, a collection of poems translated from the Irish, marked a new period of productivity for Stephens based on Gaelic sources; his versions of poems by Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (qv) and Daibhi Ó Bruadair (qv) won particular praise. Later in that year ‘Hunger’ appeared, a searing short story describing the descent of a Dublin slum family, precipitated by ill health and the outbreak of war, from precarious survival into outright starvation. In 1920 Stephens published Irish fairy tales, which, despite its deceptively cosy title, is an adaptation of literary tales from the four heroic cycles of ancient Irish literature. Stephens planned a five-volume retelling of the story of Tain, interpreted through psychological realism; of this he completed only two parts: Deirdre (1923; Tailteann medal for fiction, 1924), in which Conchobar MacNessa (Conchobar (qv)) embodies the vengeful rationalism, patriarchal authoritarianism, and sexual aggression that were the objects of Stephens's special detestation; and In the land of youth (1924), in which a night of storytelling in Maeve's court at Cruachan introduces the origin story of the two bulls which give rise to the Tain conflict. Stephens also acted as Irish correspondent for the famous American literary journal The Dial.
In 1924 Stephens submitted his resignation to the National Gallery and in 1925 he moved to the Kingsbury suburb of London, and from then on rarely visited Ireland. This move reflected his disillusionment with the political and literary scene in post-civil war Ireland. His formal literary production dropped off markedly; he published a Collected poems in 1926 but thereafter produced only one book of short stories, Etched in moonlight (1928), and some small poetry collections (the last being Kings and the moon (1938)). This has been attributed both to his embracing quietistic Buddhism and to his uprooting from the Dublin literary milieu.
Stephens's principal energies now went into lecture tours and poetry recitals (especially in America) and radio broadcasts for the BBC, beginning in 1928 and becoming regular from 1937; his attitude to his radio scripts was casual, but many were collected by Lloyd Frankenberg in James, Seumas and Jacques: unpublished writings of James Stephens (1964). He moved in British literary circles, notably those around Lady Ottoline Morrell. He retained close contact with his old friend and fellow exile Stephen MacKenna (qv), and in the late 1920s struck up a friendship with James Joyce (qv), who in 1927 and 1929 left instructions that if he died before finishing Finnegans wake Stephens was to complete it. In some quarters Stephens came to be regarded as a professional Irishman (a view encouraged by his accent, whimsical manner, and the resemblance of his small body and large head to the popular image of a leprechaun).
Stephens's financial situation was always precarious, despite the assistance of literary patrons (notably John Quinn (qv), the Irish-American Cornelius O'Sullivan, and the American publisher W. T. H. Howe); in 1942 he was awarded a civil-list pension. His last years were saddened by the death of his son (who suffered from emotional disturbances) after being struck by a train in 1937. In 1940 in a letter to The Times he declared himself an Englishman in protest at Irish neutrality in the second world war – a matter on which his feelings may have been heightened by his long and close friendship with the Jewish critic S. S. Koteliansky; however, he visited Dublin in 1947 to receive a Litt.D. from TCD. He died 26 December 1950 at his home, 28 Queens Walk, Kingsbury; he was buried at the old graveyard in Kingsbury.
Stephens illustrates the alignment between avant-garde and separatist politics in pre-independence Ireland and the disintegration of this alliance in the new state. Though often regarded simply as a children's writer, criticism from the 1960s has drawn attention to his deeper spiritual and social concerns; but it remains the case that after the early flowering of his work there is a sense of underdeveloped potential about his later career.