The Kilkenny rebel and Fenian leader
The title Fenian was taken from an old Irish legend about
an invincible army called the Fianna that constantly defended
the beautiful, evergreen isle of Eireann, against foreign
invaders. The development of the Fenian movement with its
obvious influence for self determination, grew rapidly amongst
the men and women of Ireland. It became a stepping stone
in the lead up to the 1916 rising.
The Fenian leaders were: James Stephens, John OMahony,
John OLeary, Thomas Clarke Luby, Michael Doheny and
Charles J. Kickham. And just as Wolfe Tone had sought to
gain the complete separation of Ireland from England, by
force arms, so too did James Stephens.
The Fenian movement has undoubtedly been acknowledged by
most historians as the criterion that later brought together
men like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly,Thomas J. Clarke,
Joseph Mary Plunkett, Eamon Ceant and Thomas MacDonagh,
who were great leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The Bold Fenian Men
Some died by the glenside, some died with the stranger
And wise men have told us , their cause was a failure,
But they loved old Ireland and never feared danger.
Glory O Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.
On August 19, 1848 the Kilkenny Moderator in its obituary
Poor James Stephens who followed Smith OBrien
to the field, has died of a wound which he received at Ballingarry
whilst acting as aide-de-camp to the insurgent leader. Mr
Stephens was a very amiable, apart from politics, a most
inoffensive young man, possessed of a great deal of talent,
and we believe he was a most excellent son and brother.
His untimely and melancholy fate will be much regretted
by a numerous circle of friends.
James Stephens father was a clerk in a well-known and much
respected Kilkenny establishment, of auctioneers and booksellers.
He gave his family a decent living and a good education
and enrolled his son James in a Catholic seminary for the
purpose of making him a priest. But James thought he could
best serve God, by fighting for his country.
As the Stephens family went into mourning for their beloved
son, so too the people of Kilkenny City and county went
into mourning for their Rebel hero. A great multitude followed
his confin through the streets of Kilkenny amid scenes of
anger, sadness and great lamentation.
On that same day James Stephens boarded a ship destined
for France, disguised as a ladys maid. That was the
first of many tricks that the young Kilkenny Rebel would
play on the British government in Ireland.
John OMahony escaped to France with James Stephens
and they both joined the Paris Republican body. The influence
of that body would later be seen in the Fenian
movement which they founded in America namely the Fenian
Brotherhood. They adopted their own flag, which was orange
with a green stripe, with thirty-two stars resenting the
thirty-two counties of the Irish Republic, but all that
was years after the attempted rising at Ballingarry.
The three hundred men who gathered around Smith OBrien
at Ballingarry were a motley throng. They had courage and
resolution in plenty but many were half-famished and half-naked.
OBrien looked on them with an uneasy mind. Less than
20 of them had arms and about 40 had pikes and pitchforks.
The remainder gathered sticks and stones to fight against
a well-armed and well trained constabulary.
With Smith OBrien was the young James Stephens, McManus
and ODonoghue, Maher, Dillon and Doheny had taken
different paths to raise the flag of insurrection in other
Sub-inspector Trant marched out from Callan at the head
of forty-six fully armed and well-trained policemen, going
in the direction of Ballingarry. He thought he would capture
the leaders of the rising and win for himself a deathless
fame. When they reached Farrenrory, about two miles from
Ballingarry, they found the road barricaded. Someone behind
the barricade fired a shot before the order was given and
Trant and his men took to their heels across the fields,
towards a slate house on the brow of a hill. The rebels
gave chase but the police force reached the two-storey dwelling
The Widow McCormick and her six children were in the house
when the police broke-in. The insurgents quickly surrounded
the house and it looked like all occupants of the slate
house were doomed. The widow called out to Smith OBrien
to spare the lives of her children and with great courage
he walked up to the house and told the police to lay down
their arms and to march in single file out to the house.
Just then some stupid and irresponsible rake pelted a stone
through one of the windows and the police began to firing
in all directions. Smith OBrien was forced to return
to his comrades on the double. The firing went on for about
two hours without pause. The police fired some 220 rounds,
killing two men and wounding many others. James Stephens
was shot in the thigh and was forced to retire to a ditch,
bleeding profusely. The insurgents ammunition was
all but exhausted and they replied to the hail of bullets
McManus consulted with OBrien and Stephens and then
took six colliers with him into a field close by. They returned
with a cartload of hay and pushed it right up to the house.
Placing it against the kitchen door, he fired into the hay
several times but it failed to catch fire. The previous
days rain had robbed them of certain victory.
Soon after that, the parish priest of Ballingarry, Rev Fitzgerald
and his curate Fr Maher went amongst the rebels and begged
them to stop fighting and go home to their wives and families.
When a large force of the constabulary was sighted marching
from Cashel the rebels scattered and fled to the hills.
Nine months later, on July 29, 1849 the Brig Swift
sailed from Kingstown with Smith OBrien, Meagher,
McManus and ODonoghue for Van Demonsland. James Stephens
had escaped to France, disguised as a ladys maid.
The outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861 was
a most fortunate piece of good luck for the emigrant Irish
who were connected with movement for independence at home.
The Irish of the Northern States poured in their thousands
into the Federal ranks, forming themselves into regiments
that were at the same time Fenian circles.
Here they would gain first hand experience of the art of
war and would use it against the British government in Ireland,
just as soon as the war in their adopted country was brought
to a proper conclusion. On top of all this, there was a
strong possibility that Britain herself might be involved
in a war with the Federal Government because of her line
of action in favour of the Southern States. So, the Irish
in America had great reason to rejoice. The following lines
which appeared in an Irish-American newspaper about that
time sums up the mood of its writers and readers:
Never a dime for blatherskite
But every dollar for dynamite
(Blatherskite, was empty useless talk)
In November 1863, the Fenian Brotherhood published the Irish
People newspaper, in Dublin. It had a dual purpose: it was
an organ for propaganda and a collector of revenue for the
The Kilkenny rebel, James Stephens was the author and editor-in-chief
of that publication. He picked the best brains with the
bravest hearts to promote the doctrine of the society: Thomas
Clarke Luby, John OLeary and Charles J Kickham. The
policies, which the newspaper kept before the public were:
Thart constitutional agitation for the redness of Irelands
grievances was worse than useless.
That every man taking part in such agitation was either
a fool or a knave.
That in political affairs, clergymen should be held of no
more account than laymen.
And that the only hope for Irish freedom lay in an armed
uprising of the people.
The Irish People and its authors enjoyed almost two years
without any interference from any source. Then suddenly
on September 15, 1865 at 9 oclock in the evening a
large force of police burst into the publishing house and
seized all books, papers, letters, manuscripts and all kinds
of type. The lot was bagged and carted to Dublin Castle.
While this confiscation was in progress, several other police
bodies were swooping on all parts of the city to arrest
the Fenian Leaders.
Amongst those who were taken into custody on that bleak
September day were: John OLeary, Thomas Clarke Luby
and Jeremiah ODonovan (Rossa), but before long came
the arrests of Charles J. Kickham, Edward Duffy and Hugh
Brophy and later still their leader, James Stephens, was
surrounded and taken from Fairfield House, near Dublin.
Thomas Clarke Luby was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude,
as was John OLeary. ODonovan (Rossa) was sentenced
to be held in penal servitude for his natural life, and
James Stephens, who because of his leadership should have
been first into the dock to to answer charges of treason
and felony, was conspicuous by his absence.
Two days earlier the elusive Kilkenny rebel had effected
his escape from Richmond Prison, to the unspeakable horror
and humiliation of the British government and the unfettered
delight of the Irish Nation.
James Stephens, the Fenian Leader was born in Kilkenny City
in the year 1825 and died in Dublin in 1901.
A plaque on a house at Blackmill Street, commemorates the
actual birthplace of the Fenian Leader. This house is now
the home of John Bolger and his wife Elaine and family.
John was a hard working Councillor and an arden member of
Kilkenny corporation and also a teacher at Kilkenny College.
James Stephens was the man who planned the 1867 Rising.
As bad luck would have it, many of his best assistants had
been arrested and imprisoned before the final plans had
been worked out. Because of this, Kickham, Luby and OLeary
were prevented from taking part, and there were informers
who were always willing to betray their country for financial
gain. Dublin Castle spies knew the movements of all the
leaders. They were all set to arrest Stephens but once again
he fooled them but was forced to leave the country.
A rising was attempted in Tallaght with Colonel Kelly in
command. Only a handful of Kellys men had guns. Most
of them had pikes and some arrived to fight with their bare
hands. Fighting did occur in Cork. Limerick, Tipperary and
Clare but was easily putdown due to lack of guns and ammunition.
The Rising was a failure from a military point of view,
but was not a complete failure. The Fenians remained a powerful
force in Irish nationalism for many more years. When Allen,
Larkin and OBrien (the Manchester Martyrs) were executed
on November 23, 1867, the Fenian movement spread to every
town and county in Ireland.
Thanks to Sean Kenny and the Kilkenny People