James Stephens was born in Blackmill Street in Kilkenny City in 1824. He was a civil engineer by profession. He was only 24 when the failure of William Smith O’Brien’s attempted insurrection in 1848 cut short his professional career.
He went on the run and escaped to France, where he remained for about nine years. In 1857 he returned to Ireland at a time when the Republican movement was at a low ebb and, by his optimism and energy, he held the membership together and injected new life and progressiveness to their endeavours.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1858 he founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood and soon merged it into the small revolutionary groups which were still in existence. He wrote the oath which was to be taken by all who joined it. He insisted on having all authority vested in himself. This was the chief strength of the organisation in its early years, but it proved to be its undoing when the real crisis came.
Most young men who met Stephens during his recruiting thought he was phenomenally able, and he cultivated that belief by telling them stories about his accomplishments, e.g. as a great fiddler a very accurate rifle shot. His air of supreme confidence always impressed the men and they would go away satisfied.
His stated belief that the organisation in America was strong, and that all the necessary arms would arrive from there, served to discourage the purchase of rifles in Britain, where there were few restrictions on their sale.
In 1863 James Stephens married Jane Hopper, with whose family he was living in Dublin. When the planned insurrection was postponed in 1866 it was on Stephens order. He and a colleague, Colonel Kelly, left for new York by a circuitous route via Scotland, England and France.
James Devoy, in his recollections, states that the trip to America was a complete failure and that nothing resulted from it in spite of much posturing and speechifying by Stephens. Many heated meetings were held in late 1866 and eventually James Stephens was deposed as leader amd Col. Kelly was elected in his place.
Stephens later sailed to France where he lived for many years until he was expelled at the request of the British. After another short and unsuccessful spell in New York he returned to Europe and lived in Switzerland for some time until the British Government permitted him to return to Ireland. He wrote articles for the Freeman’s Journal on his recollections and died in Blackrock on April 9th, 1901.
James Stephens held the title of Chief Organiser of the Republic of Ireland (C.O.R.I.). Devoy’s assessment of him was
as a successful organiser, Stephens holds a prominent place among those who in numerous generations endeavoured to direct Ireland’s efforts towards the achievement of national independence…..the extent to which he propagated the principles of Fenianism made an indelible impress on the national consciousness of Ireland.
The last honour paid to Stephens was to place his remains side by side with some of his notable Fenian comrades of the 1867 period in the Patriots’ Plot in Glasnevin.