James Stephens The Kilkenny man who founded the Fenians

James Stephens



One of those wounded in the infamous Ballingarry skirmish was a young Kilkenny man, James Stephens.

Born and educated in the Marble City, Stephens was a railways civil engineer when he joined the ill-fated Young Ireland movement. After the abortive uprising, he fled to France with another activist, John O’Mahony, after cleverly faking his own death and even arranging a funeral to give himself a public send-off.

While in France, he met a number of prominent Irish exiles and formulated a plan to kick-start a new revolutionary group. He travelled to America to assess the mood among Irish exiles and emigrants there. Upon his return to Ireland in 1856 he made more contacts and explored further the possibility of a new push for Irish independence.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1858, he and Charles Luby; a man he’d met in Paris, founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). In America, it was better known from the outset as the Fenian movement. The name derives from the Fianna of Irish mythology. John O’ Mahony headed the Fenians in America.

The IRB was organized nationwide in Ireland along military lines. A ‘Centre’ or colonel was picked as leader and he then chose nine subordinate captains. Each captain chose nine sergeants, and each sergeant nine men.

Stephens became its first leader. The movement attracted considerable support in the beginning but was roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, which advised the faithful to shun its secret oaths of loyalty and advocacy of physical force.

Stephens went on fund-raising trips to America for the IRB where he also forged important links with Irish American sympathizers. But in 1859 after returning from one such mission in the U.S., he discovered the police knew of his activities and were about to arrest him.

He quickly crossed the Atlantic again, making his way to New York. Upon his secret return to Ireland the following year, he drafted a blueprint for Irish Independence entitled The Future of Ireland.

In 1863 he launched a newspaper called The Irish People to foment another rebellion. Two years later, the long arm of the law caught up with him. He was arrested, charged with conspiracy and lodged in Richmond Jail, Dublin. Also captured was the legendary Fenian novelist, Charles Kickham of Mullinahone. The Irish People newspaper was suppressed.

But Stephens escaped after just a fortnight behind bars and again travelled to France and from there returned to America. He failed to receive a hero’s welcome in New York this time. A chasm had opened between his practical approach to running the organization and the firebrand politics of men safely ensconced 3000 miles away from the scene of any future conflict in Ireland.

The American Fenians were furious with him for not having called an Irish uprising the previous year. As with so many revolutionary movements, splits and disagreements proved as lethal as the machinations of the enemy…

To be continued…

James Stephens barracks is named in honour of the great Kilkenny man
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