James Stephens (Fenian Patriot)


​James Stephens – Fenian Patriot


James Stephens, after whom our club is named, was born in 1824 in Kilkenny and was a founder member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).


The following is an extract from the excellent club history written by Tommy Lanigan and published in 2012.

'From the Arch to the Pump – James Stephens GAA Cub 1887 – 2012'

James Stephens was born in Kilkenny in 1824 in a house beside the canal near Fennessy's Mill. The family soon moved to a comfortably large house in Blackmill Street. He was one of six children born to John Stephens and Anne Casey of John St. His father was an auctioneer's clerk.

Stephens was educated in St Kieran's College as a day boy for some time and later became apprenticed as an engineer with the Southern and Western Railway. Despite the famine horrors of Ireland in the 1840s it was an exciting profession for a middle class student, as the great ages of railway and industry were booming. He was the second of six generations of railway engineers that continues to this day.

It was also a decade of huge political ferment in Europe. In his (unreliable) memoirs, Stephens describes his launch into revolutionary activity followed a public meeting at the Tholsel (Town Hall) on 25th Jul 1848. He left Kilkenny a few days later and was embroiled in the encounter between the Young Irelanders and the police at Widow McCormack's in Ballingarry.

He managed to escape, eventually making his way to Paris. His friends in Kilkenny published an obituary on 19th August 1848 to cover his tracks. He remained in Paris for over 8 years, eking out a living teaching English.

By the time he returned to Ireland in 1856 his only remaining relations were members of the Casey family. He travelled to America, lived there for over a year and returned filed with plans and promises for revolution.

He then embarked on a 3000 mile journey on foot around Ireland planning a secret society, a physical force movement based among the workers and landless classes. On St. Patrick's day 1858 he launched the secret, oath bound, Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) with much assistance from American exiles. It consisted of skilled workers, farmer's sons, labourers, shop assistants and general workers. Unlike previous revolutionary groups in Ireland, there were no gentlefolk, upper classes or members of the intelligensia invited to participate. The movement was organised around 'cells' or 'circles', small groups of nine conspirators. As the organisation grew it was easy for the authorities to infiltrate it.  

Stephens had found his forte. He was an ideal conspirator, secretive and obsessive. In 1863 he founded The Irish People newspaper to give a voice to the new movement with John Haltigan as works foreman. Later editors included Charles Kickham, Thomas Clarke Luby and John O'Leary (famed in Yeat's poem 'September 1913').

But Stephens found it difficult to maintain friends. In 1864 he split with the American branch, though they were funding him, and caused increasing frustration among the Irish followers by refusing to develop a timeline for revolutionary action. In 1865 The Irish People was suppressed, Stephens arrested and jailed. He escaped from Richmond Jail, Dublin, with the help of Kilkenny man John Breslin and eventually reached New York. For a while he became the most wanted man in the Empire. He was deposed as Fenian leader by the Americans who called him 'a rogue, imposter and traitor' – all quite unjust accusations.

Stephens returned to Paris where he lived in very poor circumstances. He returned to Ireland in 1891, thanks to the intervention of Charles Stewart Parnell. He lived out his years in Blackrock, Dublin, where he depended on a small fund that had been raised for him and the generosity of his in-laws, the Hopper family, Monkstown.

James Stephens died on 29th April 1901 and is buried in Glasnevin cemetary. St Patrick's Brass band attended the huge funeral. On his tomb is inscribed

'a day, an hour of virtuous liberty, is worth a century in bondage'

His lifelong political opponent AM Sullivan described Stephens as a born conspirator   … who must be marked as one the ablest and most dangerous revolutionaries of our times. Fellow Fenian , John Devoy, claimed 'I never met a man who believed so thoroughly in himself and who confidently took it for granted that other shared that belief'. Land League founder Michael Davitt described Stephens as 'a fine presence, handsome bearing and the air of supreme command which sat naturally upon a man of unbridled arrogance and autocratic disposition'. These assessments, mixing praise and damning criticism seem accurate and consistent. Despite his faults he was a true patriot who devoted his life to achieving a free Ireland.

The only other club to adopt his name was Ballina Stephenites, founded in 1886 and who, coincidentally, captured the All Ireland club football title on 17th March 2005. (James Stephens had won the All Ireland Hurling title earlier on that same day). ​

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