James Stephens The Kilkenny man who founded the Fenians

James Stephens in middle age


Part 2

Continuing the story of James Stephens…the American Fenians became disenchanted with him. It was another of those splits that have bedeviled Irish republicanism through the ages.

Oblivious of the fact that it was dissension and infighting within the Fenian movement in the U.S. that had delayed arms shipments for the proposed rebellion, a Fenian Convention in New York denounced Stephens for what it claimed was a betrayal of the cause…a ludicrous and totally unjustified accusation.

Crushed by this development, and rendered cynical by what he perceived as a disastrous course being pursued by the American Fenians, the Kilkenny man returned to Paris where he found part-time work as a journalist and teacher.

An American Civil War veteran, Thomas Kelly, stole the limelight from Stephens. Based in England, Kelly tried to stage an uprising in March 1867. He counted on the support of Irish emigrants to ensure success, despite the failure of an attempt to capture weapons in a raid on Chester Castle.

On September 11th, Kelly and another Fenian were arrested in Manchester. The following week, a rescue squad snatched them en route to jail after the court proceedings. In the process, they shot and killed a policeman. Three Fenians were convicted of his murder.

The Manchester Martyrs, as they came to be known, defiantly shouted: “God Save Ireland” before they were taken to the gallows and their words were immortalized in a ballad that is still sung in pubs across Ireland, Britain, the U.S.A., and Australia.

A depiction of the attempted Fenian invasion of Canada

In November 1867, a bomb planted by Fenians outside Clerkenwell prison in London as part of a jail break attempt accidentally killed civilians, sparking a wave of anti-Irish feeling. The British Prime Minister, Gladstone, said he felt the tragedy underlined the need for urgent action on the “Vexed Irish Question”.

Meanwhile, the American Fenians had mounted a series of daring but pointless attacks on British controlled Canada. O’Mahony launched the Fenian “invasion” of Canadian territory in 1867 at Campobello Island off the coast of Maine. It succeeded only in removing a Union Jack from a Canadian customs house.

And the US army arrested all those who took part when they crossed the border back into America. Another attack, directed by a Fenian splinter group, met with greater success but was ultimately doomed to failure. The invaders routed a force of Canadian militia at the battle of Ridgeway, but the attack ran out of steam when the U.S. prevented reinforcements from joining the offensive.

The movement founded by the freedom-loving and idealistic Kilkenny man fell apart, but it had prepared the way for the next uprising which occurred 50 years later in Easter Week 1916.

John O’Mahony, his organization in shreds, died a pauper in New York. James Stephens was expelled from France in 1886 for allegedly plotting a revolution in that country, a charge never substantiated.

He moved to Switzerland. The disillusioned Republican returned to Ireland for the last time after friends raised money to facilitate his resettlement in his native land. He took up residence at Blackrock, Dublin, where he kept a low profile until his death on April 29th, 1901.

James Stephens is remembered as pivotal figure in the age-old quest to win freedom for Ireland. In Kilkenny, the army barracks and a famed hurling and camogie club are named in his honour.


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