James Stephens

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 O’Mahony, John O’Leary, 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 column wrote:
“Poor James Stephens who followed Smith O’Brien 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 lady’s maid. That was the first of many tricks that the young Kilkenny Rebel would play on the British government in Ireland.

John O’Mahony 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 O’Brien at Ballingarry were a motley throng. They had courage and resolution in plenty but many were half-famished and half-naked. O’Brien 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 O’Brien was the young James Stephens, McManus and O’Donoghue, Maher, Dillon and Doheny had taken different paths to raise the flag of insurrection in other areas.

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 in safety.

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 O’Brien 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 O’Brien 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 insurgent’s ammunition was all but exhausted and they replied to the hail of bullets with stones.

McManus consulted with O’Brien 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 day’s 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 O’Brien, Meagher, McManus and O’Donoghue for Van Demonsland. James Stephens had escaped to France, disguised as a lady’s 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 cause.

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 O’Leary and Charles J Kickham. The policies, which the newspaper kept before the public were:
Thart constitutional agitation for the redness of Ireland’s 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 o’clock 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 O’Leary, Thomas Clarke Luby and Jeremiah O’Donovan (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 O’Leary. O’Donovan (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 O’Leary 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 Kelly’s 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 O’Brien (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