“James Stephens, the Gallant Fenian Boy”


James Stephens is born in Marble City, wounded at 16 fighting in Killenaule, wounded at Ballingarry, subject of a mock funeral as he sails, in disguise, to Paris, imprisoned on testimony of "Nagle the informer," escapes and is not caught again, and dies


The Fenians were an organization devoted to freeing Ireland. The organization was founded in 1858 by James Stephens, who in that year began to coordinate with O'Donovan Rossa's Phoenix Society (for whom and for which see "Rossa's Farewell to Erin").

Stephens himself was quite the character: He was involved in the attempted revolution of 1848, which of course was a complete fiasco. He was reported dead at the time, and he did leave the country, finally -- like many other Irishmen -- deciding that he couldn't stay away.

He seems to have been quite moody, and his return home depressed him; there seemed little hope of reviving Irish nationalism. He set out on a walking tour to verify this for himself, and estimated that he walked three thousand miles in 1856 (see Robert Kee, _The Bold Fenian Men_, being volume II of _The Green Flag_, p. 8).

Based on his accounts of the trip, one suspects that the real reason for his change of heart was simply the improved attitude that comes with exercise; he found little encouragement. Despite the seemingly-poor prospects, he still decided to found an independence organization. One of the groups he founded would become the Irish Republican Brotherhood, of which much would be heard in the next half century.

Technically, the term "Fenian" should refer to the American society founded by Stephens. Stephens went to the United States in late 1858 on a fundraising tour, returning in 1859 with very little money -- but having set up an organization led by John O'Mahoney and known as the Fenians (a name given by O'Mahoney, who was more attracted to Gaelic than Stephens). Although it's O'Mahoney's term for O'Mahoney's organization, it came to be used of both the American and Irish societies.

The Fenian Society quickly spread; and by 1865 was getting close to the point of rebellion. Unfortunately, it suffered the usual batch of informers. The British government felt the need to suppress the Irish version in 1865. Their newspaper _The Irish People_ closed down, and many leaders arrested. Stephens managed to remain free for two months, but he too was taken eventually.

What followed was arguably the high point of the Fenian movement: Stephens was rescued from prison. Kee, p. 26, observes that "[s]ometimes it seems that all the bungling during these years was on the Fenian side. But the escape was a masterly achievement."

Indeed, it upset the British, who went after the leaders of the rescue with vigor. Their capture of Captain Thomas Kelly, a leader of the rescuers and later declared shadow head of the Irish Republic, led to the affair of the Manchester Martyrs, for which see "The Smashing of the Van (I)."

Unfortunately, his time in prison had changed Stephens; he no longer had the nerve to take aggressive action. Plus the American version of the movement, which provided much of its money and energy had split into two halves, led by John O'Mahony and Thomas Sweeney. Stephens had closer ties to O'Mahony, but both groups disagreed with him on methods (see Kee, pp. 26-28, and Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_), and both would be involved in madcap invasions of Canada (see "A Fenian Song(I)"). The group had promised to rebel by the end of 1865, but Stephens managed to postpone that. In response, he was forced out of the leadership (Kee, p. 31).

His followers carried on, but that pretty well killed the group as an active set of rebels; their attempt at an Irish rebellion failed in 1867. They spent many more years trying various stunts in America; some were very showy, and others somewhat deadly; none helped the cause of Irish independence.

Kee says of Stephens (pp. 8-9) that "he lacked almost all the qualities of a great revolutionary leader, being jealous and boastful, capable of small-mindedness and untruthful at least to the point of self-deception," but credits him with "an extraordinary capacity for organization and work." (Among his organizational methods was a cell system in which hardly anyone knew anyone else, so that informers couldn't betray much. He also avoided recruiting the upper classes, meaning he had fewer members capable of detailed planning but also fewer capable of being paralyzed by doubts.) It is probably his strength at an organizer that allowed the Fenians to survive a series of failures that would have caused any normal organization to curl up and die of embarrassment at its utter ineptitude. - RBW

Historical references

  • April 2, 1901 - James Stephens (1825-1901) dies in Dublin

Cross references


  1. OLochlainn-More 3, "James Stephens, the Gallant Fenian Boy" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, OLcM003


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1904 (OLochlainn-More)
Found in: Ireland