Railway engineer, republican nationalist, and founder of the Fenians. James Stephens was born at Blackmill Street, Kilkenny, the son of John Stephens, an auctioneer’s clerk. His was educated at St Kieran’s College. The young Stephens trained as an engineer. He worked on the Limerick and north Waterford railway line in 1843. A supporter of Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation, he served as aide-de-camp to William Smith O’Brien in the 1848 rising at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. Wounded in the skirmish, he escaped to Paris and was officially thought to have been killed. He was a ‘participant observer’ in Paris Commune and the end of the Second Republic in France. In Paris, Stephens met the Young Irelanders, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. He was deeply influenced by the French radicals and the underground figures whom he met. He earned his living by teaching English. In 1856 he returned to Ireland disguised as a beggar. His purpose was to establish a new secret revolutionary society that would achieve Irish independence from Britain rule by military force.
A man of tremendous energy, over the next two years he travelled some 3,000 miles around the country, planning a secret physical-force movement that would be more durable than Young Ireland. This period earned him the title An Seabhac Siubhalach (‘The Wandering Hawk’). He earned a living, for a time, teaching French to children of the constitutionalist John Blake Dillon. In 1857 Stephens was contacted by an Emmet Monument Association emissary, Owen Considine (USA) who greatly encouraged him to establish a new revolutionary society. Stephens sent Joseph Denieffe to New York to seek money for the new movement. Just $400 was raised and it was used found the new organisation on St Patrick’s Day 1858. At first it was called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood and became known later as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It was secret and oath-bound. Stephens structured it on military principles. He was ‘head centre’. It made its chief appeal to artisans and shop assistants rather than country people. The strong opposition of the Catholic Church doubtless kept many potential members from joining. The IRB recruited members through Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, John Devoy, William Roantree and Patrick ‘Pagan’ Leary. During this time John O’Mahony founded an American auxiliary known as the ‘American Brotherhood’. The term ‘Fenian’ came to be applied generally to both organisations.
In 1858 Stephens went to America to raise funds for the IRB. When he returned to Ireland in 1859 the authorities knew well who he was and what he was doing, and he was forced to return to America. He seized nominal headship of the sister movement in the USA in early 1859. From 1861 to 1866 Stephens’s influence was at its height. The IRB flourished in Ireland, Britain and the USA. He returned to Ireland in 1861. He established the weekly propagandist newspaper, the Irish People (1863), which carried extensive national and international news. Charles Kickham, Thomas Clarke Luby and John O’Leary later edited this paper. In November 1863 Stephens married Jane Hopper (1843–98), daughter of John and Rossanna Hopper, small-scale merchants and rentiers of Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire).
In 1864 his relations with O’Mahony and the American wing broke down. He made no secret of his low opinion of the American Fenians. The Americans and many Irish members were annoyed by Stephens’s dictatorial attitude. He constantly complained that the Americans were not supplying him with promised arms and money, and he greatly exaggerated the numbers at his own disposal. In 1865 Stephens suspended a planned rising. During the same year the Goverment officials raided IRB headquarters in Dublin, the newspaper office of the Irish People. Most of the leaders were arrested and were convicted of treason and felony and sentenced to penal servitude. Stephens, having avoided immediate arrest, was picked up with Kickham for conspiracy and was imprisoned in Richmond Gaol, Dublin. However, with Devoy’s help, he escaped and fled to Paris and then to New York. The Government suppressed the Irish People.
By 1866 the Fenian movement was seriously divided. Stephens’s attempts to bring the factions together were unsuccessful. By October he had failed either to heal the breach or raise badly needed funds. Stephens promised that 1866 would be a year of decision, a year when, with American help, he would personally lead a rising in Ireland. The Americans now pressed for action but in December he again tried to persuade them to postpone the rising. Stephens was denounced at the Fenian Convention. Colonel Kelly replaced him as ‘Head Centre’. Kelly was sent to Ireland in January 1867 with a group of Irish-Americans to plan the ill-fated rising of 1867.
Stephen’s reputation and influence suffered irreparable damage. The leaders of the rising of March 1867 and of the IRB after 1867 repudiated him. The American Fenians denounced him as a ‘rogue, impostor, and traitor’. Stephens went to France where he worked as a journalist and an English teacher. He spent time in New York from 1871 to 1874 and returned again in 1879 in an attempt to re-establish himself with Irish revolutionaries there. In 1885 he was expelled by the French authorities, who feared possible involvement with the Dynamiters. This was a group within the Fenians, known as the ‘Triangle’, who organised a concerted dynamiting campaign against Britain, 1881–5. He spent the period 1885–7 in Belgium before again returning to Paris. Through the intervention of Charles Stewart-Parnell and a public subscription raised by friends in Ireland, Stephens was permitted to return to Ireland in 1891. He spent the remainder of his life in seclusion in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, avoiding politics. His only brief appearance was at the centenary celebrations of the United Irishmen in 1898, which had been organised by the Supreme Council of the IRB. Stephens died at Blackrock, Co. Dublin, on 29 April 1901.
Biography & Studies. John O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (2 vols, London 1896; repr. intro. by Marcus Bourke, Shannon 1969). Desmond Ryan, The phoenix flame: a study of Fenianism and John Devoy (London 1937). James Maher, Chief of the Comeragh: a John O’ anthology (Mullinahone 1957). Desmond Ryan, The Fenian chief: a biography of James Stephens, with an introductory memoir by Patrick Lynch (Dublin 1967). Maurice Harmon (ed), Fenians and Fenianism: centenary essays (Dublin 1968). T. W. Moody (ed), The Fenian movement (Cork 1968). Leon Ó Broin, Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, 1858–1924 (Dublin 1976). Oliver P. Rafferty, The church, the state and the Fenian threat, 1861–75 (Basingstoke 1999).