Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Stephens, James (1825-1901)

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STEPHENS, JAMES (1825–1901), organiser of the Fenian conspiracy, the son of an auctioneer's clerk, was born in the city of Kilkenny either in 1824 (Pall Mall Mag. xxiv. 331) or, more probably, in 1825. Displaying as a boy considerable talent for mathematics, he received a fairly good education with a view to becoming a civil engineer, and at the age of twenty he obtained an appointment on the Limerick and Waterford railway, then in course of construction. He was a protestant, and like many of his class and creed he fell under the influence of the Young Ireland propaganda, but unlike the majority his interests were rather of an active than of a literary sort, and he took a chief part in organising the military clubs which were intended to secure the success of the revolutionary movement. He joined William Smith O'Brien [q. v.] shortly before the Killenaule affair, and acted as a sort of aide-de-camp to him both before and during the affray at Ballingarry on 29 July 1848. He was slightly wounded on that occasion, but by shamming death he managed to elude detection and effect his escape. While wandering about the country from one hiding-place to another he fell in with Michael Doheny of the 'Felon's Track,' and with him planned a daring scheme for kidnapping the prime minister, Lord John Russell, who was at the time visiting Ireland. The plot miscarried, and after several hairbreadth escapes Stephens managed on 24 Sept. to slip out of the country in disguise and eventually to reach Paris.

Here he seems for some years to have earned a scanty livelihood by giving lessons in English; but he was a born plotter, and the atmosphere of conspiracy hung at the time thickly over Europe (cf. O'Leaby, Fenians and Fenianism, i. 70, note). A scheme of a plot for effecting the freedom of Ireland was broached to him by John O'Mahony [q. v.], and while O'Mahony and Doheny proceeded to America to see what could be done in that quarter, Stephens, accompanied by Thomas Clarke Luby [q. v. Suppl. II], made a tour of inspection through Ireland. After travelling up and down the country for nearly a year and mixing with all classes and conditions of the population, Stephens was convinced of the feasibility of a fresh movement in the form of a secret conspiracy, with himself as its chief organiser.

Thus the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as it was afterwards called, came into being. The society was based on military principles, the unit being the 'circle' or regiment. For the purposes of organisation the country was divided into provinces, and to each province (Dublin being reserved by Stephens for himself as a separate province) was assigned an organiser whose business it was, wherever he thought fit, to select some individual as a 'centre' or colonel, who in his turn was to choose nine captains, each captain nine sergeants, and each sergeant nine men to form the rank and file of the 'circle.' In this way a 'circle' would consist of 820 men. The scheme appealed to the military instincts of the Irish, and before long Leinster and Munster and even parts of Ulster were dotted with 'circles.' The main drawback was the lack of funds to provide arms. To remedy this defect Stephens visited America towards the close of 1858. During the five months he spent there his enthusiasm and ability as an organiser gave life to the Fenian Brotherhood, which was simultaneously planned on the same lines and with the same aims as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, established there by O'Mahony, and when he returned to Europe in March 1859 he was richer by some 100l. His success stimulated the movement in Ireland, and in 1861, by way of demonstrating the strength of his organisation, he exerted himself, after some hesitation, to give as imposing a character as possible to the public funeral in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, of Terence Bellew MacManus [q. v.], a rather insignificant member of the Young Ireland party. After that event there was no question as to the strength of Fenianism in Ireland. But neither the arms nor the opportunity of using them seemed to be forthcoming, and as time went on Fenian opinion in both Ireland and America grew restive. Stephens encouraged the belief that O'Mahony was to blame for the inaction. The result was that under the impression that O'Mahony was acting as a drag on the movement a party of action sprang into existence in America which in the end wrecked the conspiracy.

Meanwhile Stephens had been employing his leisure time in drawing up a scheme for the future government of Ireland in the event of the success of the conspiracy, which he published as a pamphlet entitled ’On the Future of Ireland, and on its Capacity to exist as an Independent State. By a Silent Politician' (Dubhn, 1862). If his plan had been realised, it would have conferred almost unlimited power on him as the probable president of the proposed republic (cf. Rutherford, Secret Hist. of the Fenian Conspiracy, i. 288-95). In the autumn of 1863 Stephens founded a newspaper for the propagation of his ideas. Under the editorship of Luby, Elickham, and O'Leary the 'Irish People' proved a great success both financially and as an organ of the party. In America, on the other hand, the agitation, owing to the quarrel between O'Mahony and the party of action, was stagnating, and in March 1864 Stephens recrossed the Atlantic. Though his intervention was at first resented by O'Mahony he was on the whole well received, and during his five months' visit he did much to restore order and to extend the organisation. He announced that in the case of England being drawn into war, as seemed probable at the time, over the Schleswig-Holstein business, he would at once raise Ireland, and that war or no war a rising should take place in 1865 or the association be dissolved. His pronouncement stimulated the flow of subscriptions.

On returning to Ireland in August, Stephens found things there in a very forward state. But England did not go to war, and when the summer of 1865 arrived the situation was unchanged except for the fact that the clamour for an immediate rising or dissolution, fed by American intrigues, had grown practically irresistible. Unable to go back on his promise, Stephens finally fixed as the day for the rising the anniversary of Robert Emmet's execution, 20 Sept. But before that day arrived government had obtained information of what was intended, and on 15 Sept. the offices of the 'Irish People' were raided and the principal conspirators arrested. Stephens represented that the loss of some papers by an American envoy put the police on the track. On the other hand Rutherford hints that Stephens hunself, seeing the game was up, betrayed the plot. The fact seems to be that while there was no direct treachery there was a good deal of culpable negligence. Stephens was not arrested at the time, a point which is considered to weigh heavily against him, but neither were Kickham, Brophy and others, and there is no reason to doubt that, had he liked, Stephens could easily have slipped out of the country. He remained at his post, hoping against hope that the expected money to purchase arms would arrive from America in time. The money miscarried, and on 11 Nov. Stephens, under the name of Herbert, was arrested at Fairfield House, Sandymount, and confined in Richmond prison. He had boasted that his organisation was so perfect that no gaol in Ireland was strong enough to hold him. His confidence proved well founded. With the connivance of his warder and the assistance of his friends outside he managed to escape on 24 Nov. A large reward was offered for his capture, but Stephens seemed to lead a charmed life. No assistance arrived from America, and he easily escaped to Paris on 11 March 1866. Some weeks later he sailed for New York. His efforts to close up the Fenian ranks there proved fruitless. As a last desperate throw he announced amid applause, at a monster meeting on 28 Oct., his intention of immediately returning to Ireland and unfurling the flag of rebellion. But when in the succeeding weeks Stephens showed no sign of action he was denounced as a traitor on 20 Dec. at a meeting at which he was present. Next day he was formally deposed as 'a rogue, an impostor, and a traitor.' After lingering for some time in New York in constant fear of his life, Stephens made his way back to Paris, where he eked out a scanty livelihood by journalism and by giving lessons in English. In 1885 he was wrongly suspected of being concerned in the American dynamite plots and his expulsion from France was demanded, but the mistake being admitted he was allowed to return to Ireland, where his friends organised a national subscription on his behalf. He was thereby enabled to live in comparative comfort at Blackrock, where he died on 29 April 1901.

Stephens was the creator of an organisation which, if it failed in its immediate object, exercised an enormous influence not only on Irish opinion the wide world over but on the relations between England and Ireland for many years. Believing that it was only by open force — by meeting England on the field of battle — that the freedom of Ireland could be won, he had no sympathy with the methods of the dynamite conspirators, and even less with the parliamentary methods of Butt and Parnell. He was a difficult man to deal with — vain, arrogant, and not scrupulously truthful. On the accessible evidence he may be pronounced not guilty of treachery to his fellow-conspirators. At any rate the charge is not proven.

Stephens is described as a broad-shouldered, stoutly built man of medium height, with small, furtive-looking eyes. A photographic likeness of him forms the frontispiece to vol. ii. of O'Leary's 'Fenians and Fenianism,' and there is another by Lafayette, Ltd., in the article in the 'Pall Mall Magazine.' Stephens married the sister of his friend George Hopper, whose father was a small tradesman in Dublin.

[O'Leary's Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism; James Stephens, by one who knew him, in Pall Mall Mag. xxiv. 331–7; Rutherford's Secret Hist, of the Fenian Conspiracy; Doheny's Felon's Track; Pigott's Personal Recollections of an Irish Journalist; Le Caron's Twenty-five Years of Secret Service; Eye- Witness's Arrest and Escape of James Stephens; J. Stephens, Chief Organiser of the Irish Republic, N.Y., 1866; and authorities mentioned in the text. An examination of Stephens's unpublished papers, lately in the possession of a personal friend of Michael Davitt (cf. Davitt's Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, ch. vii.), is needed to reveal the full truth.]

R. D.