A provisional dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian movement

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, General, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

A provisional dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian movement
Marta Ramón
(University College Dublin Press, €18.95)
ISBN 9781904558651

James Stephens was not an original thinker like Karl Marx, Giuseppe Mazzini or Michael Bakunin: in fact, as Marta Ramón makes clear in her fine new biography, he could barely write a coherent sentence about politics. Nor was he a great warrior or symbol of struggle like Giuseppe Garibaldi or Auguste Blanqui: his one experience of battle was the near-farcical siege of Widow McCormack’s house in 1848. Even in Irish terms, he was no Wolfe Tone, O’Connell or Parnell: he would never be on a last-name-only basis with posterity.
Nevertheless, Stephens deserves a place in the European revolutionary and Irish patriotic pantheons. He, more than anyone, created the Irish Republican Brotherhood, one of the key institutions of nationalism and by far the longest-lived revolutionary secret society of its era. And he did have that quality that marks out the great natural leader, an ability to fascinate and bind people to him. Ramón supplies much testimony to this effect—even from his enemies—but the best depiction of Stephens’s power may be in Seán Ó Faoláin’s terrific first novel, A nest of simple folk. In it, he describes Stephens ‘vibrating from throat to toes with hate and triumph and pride’ as he speaks to an awed audience in the back room of a pub, thereby making an instant, thunderstruck, convert of the book’s main character, Leo Foxe-Donnel. In such places and circumstances Stephens was a master.
A provisional dictator is largely a study of this period of mastery, from Stephens’s sudden emergence onto the political scene in Kilkenny in 1848, through his rise to underground power with the IRB to his overthrow at the end of 1866. He was apparently born in 1825, but almost nothing is known of his early life—although Ramón has discovered a baptismal record that strongly suggests that he was born out of wedlock and raised by non-birth parents, a source of shame, concealment and perhaps a compulsion to prove his worth.
Already a radical in the Irish Confederation in 1848, Stephens took part in the Young Ireland rising and then fled to Paris, where his revolutionary inclinations were confirmed at the font of European republicanism. The story that he and co-conspirator John O’Mahony joined a secret society and fought Louis-Napoleon’s coup may be doubted, however.  Stephens claimed to have modelled himself after Mazzini and to have studied Italian secret societies, but there is little evidence of that either, apart from superficial commonalities. Certainly Mazzini thought little of Irish nationalism, and many future Fenians actually joined a papal brigade to defend Rome against Italian republicans.
Stephens’s first period of penurious exile came to an end in 1856, when he returned to Ireland to carry out his famous ‘3,000-mile walk’. He would later claim that he was driven by revolutionary intentions, but his surviving journal, and other evidence, suggests that he was planning to write what he hoped would be a popular book, concerned as much with landscape as anything else. In fact, Stephens was an ardent gardener and, later in his career, would be accused of spending far too much time and money on his flowers and carrots.
To arrive at this state of monied leisure, he first had to gain the backing of Irish-Americans, groups of whom had coincidentally been planning a filibustering expedition to raise another rebellion (the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny seemed to offer useful distractions to Perfidious Albion). Stephens, now working as a French tutor in Dublin, agreed to organise the Irish side of things if he was given enough cash and the title of ‘provisional dictator’. And thus, on St Patrick’s Day 1858, the IRB was born (although to begin with it was just ‘the organisation’). His partner across the water was John O’Mahony, his old comrade from 1848 and the years in Paris, and the book’s other main character.
All in all, Ramón considers the movement in Ireland to have been a great success, much to Stephens’s credit. Recruits were plentiful, established figures like A. M. Sullivan of the Nation were outmanoeuvred, and a ‘republican mindset’ was inculcated, in part through the pages of the Irish People. Right from the very start, however, the dominant themes of the transatlantic story were money—or the lack thereof—and misunderstandings. Stephens never got nearly the amount of money he asked for, the Americans became consumed by their own interests and squabbles, and ultimate authority was always being disputed. He squandered possibly his best opportunity to launch his rising in late 1865, and balked again a year later, whereupon he was deposed. The rebellion of March 1867 went ahead without him (although he may have tried to take part), and he never regained his leadership. The rest of his life, spent mostly in exile in Paris—although he did finally retire to Dublin and died there in 1901—is dealt with fairly summarily in a final chapter.
Stephens’s life story has been told before, and well, by Desmond Ryan in The Fenian chief (his last book, published posthumously in 1967), but the scholarly study of Victorian Ireland and Fenianism has advanced far since then, most notably with the landmark publication of R. V. Comerford’s The Fenians in context (1984). In fact, while Ramón inevitably echoes Ryan’s account in some places and corrects it in others, A provisional dictator is to some extent structured as a running dialogue with Comerford. Mind you, there is nothing here of the friction generated by some earlier exchanges over Fenianism. She registers her disagreements gently and makes her case without any ideological fuss.
Broadly speaking, where Comerford sees Fenianism in this period as a product of would-be leaders jockeying for power and an emerging class of young men in search of a social role amidst new-found prosperity, Ramón sees a democratic movement awakening a nation from its post-Famine traumatic shock. And where Comerford and others take a jaundiced view of Stephens’s decisions and aspirations, Ramón prefers to give him the benefit of the doubt. So his insistence on being made dictator has usually been taken as an example of habitual arrogance, but it also made practical sense as it ensured unity of command and clear direction. Similarly, when Stephens escaped prison without taking anyone else, Ramón points to the risks involved in trying for a bigger breakout. And it is certainly easy enough to defend his reluctance to act in 1865 and 1866 on the sensible grounds that there was no real hope of military success.
Ramón suggests the 1848 experience as a key to Stephens’s thinking, and I think this argument could have been pushed even farther. A secret society was needed to avoid the Irish Confederation’s lack of preparation and telegraphing of its intentions, and Irish-American aid would be crucial to evening the military odds. Strong leadership would provide a corrective to William Smith O’Brien’s confused reticence, and prevent any part of the organisation from going off half-cocked. Above all, perhaps, Stephens wanted to avoid another humiliating failure: hence his unwillingness to act if conditions were uncertain. Ironic, then, that it ultimately contributed to exactly that outcome.
These explanations are generally convincing, at least with regard to Stephens’s own reasoning. The book does not read like a one-sided defence brief, though. It is balanced and thoughtful throughout, with evidence weighed judiciously and verdicts delivered carefully. Moreover, it is a masterpiece of clarity, particularly where the tangled web of American relationships is concerned. The author has scoured the archives and memoirs, and made good use of the fast-growing body of theses on Fenianism, but the details and analysis have been moulded into a seamless whole, often with real elegance. There are many nicely turned sentences and well-executed set pieces, and the story is kept moving forward at a good pace. Anyone with an interest in Irish history would enjoy reading it, and students in school or university will likely treasure it. UCD Press must also be congratulated for giving it the handsome treatment it deserves, from cover to paper and typeface.
James Stephens does emerge from this account as deserving of our interest and empathy. He acted fairly honourably throughout and lacked the callousness or will to self-destruction of many later republicans (or, arguably, of successful revolutionaries anywhere). His lengthy disappearances and the whole gardening thing suggest an eccentricity of Parnellesque proportions, and there is also something slightly tragic in the difference between his Irish nickname—Seabhach Siulach, the Wandering Hawk—and its Anglicised version, ‘Mr Shooks’: it reflects the vast distance between his soaring fantasies of self-actualisation and national salvation, and the prosaic reality of his subsequent reputation. Does he really deserve to be ‘almost universally disliked’? It is to Marta Ramón’s credit that one finishes her book thinking that this is a life worthy of further (including fictional) exploration.
Peter Hart holds the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
James Stephens was not an original thinker like Karl Marx, Giuseppe Mazzini or Michael Bakunin: in fact, as Marta Ramón makes clear in her fine new biography, he could barely write a coherent sentence about politics. Nor was he a great warrior or symbol of struggle like Giuseppe Garibaldi or Auguste Blanqui: his one experience of battle was the near-farcical siege of Widow McCormack’s house in 1848. Even in Irish terms, he was no Wolfe Tone, O’Connell or Parnell: he would never be on a last-name-only basis with posterity.
Nevertheless, Stephens deserves a place in the European revolutionary and Irish patriotic pantheons. He, more than anyone, created the Irish Republican Brotherhood, one of the key institutions of nationalism and by far the longest-lived revolutionary secret society of its era. And he did have that quality that marks out the great natural leader, an ability to fascinate and bind people to him. Ramón supplies much testimony to this effect—even from his enemies—but the best depiction of Stephens’s power may be in Seán Ó Faoláin’s terrific first novel, A nest of simple folk. In it, he describes Stephens ‘vibrating from throat to toes with hate and triumph and pride’ as he speaks to an awed audience in the back room of a pub, thereby making an instant, thunderstruck, convert of the book’s main character, Leo Foxe-Donnel. In such places and circumstances Stephens was a master.
A provisional dictator is largely a study of this period of mastery, from Stephens’s sudden emergence onto the political scene in Kilkenny in 1848, through his rise to underground power with the IRB to his overthrow at the end of 1866. He was apparently born in 1825, but almost nothing is known of his early life—although Ramón has discovered a baptismal record that strongly suggests that he was born out of wedlock and raised by non-birth parents, a source of shame, concealment and perhaps a compulsion to prove his worth.
Already a radical in the Irish Confederation in 1848, Stephens took part in the Young Ireland rising and then fled to Paris, where his revolutionary inclinations were confirmed at the font of European republicanism. The story that he and co-conspirator John O’Mahony joined a secret society and fought Louis-Napoleon’s coup may be doubted, however.  Stephens claimed to have modelled himself after Mazzini and to have studied Italian secret societies, but there is little evidence of that either, apart from superficial commonalities. Certainly Mazzini thought little of Irish nationalism, and many future Fenians actually joined a papal brigade to defend Rome against Italian republicans.
Stephens’s first period of penurious exile came to an end in 1856, when he returned to Ireland to carry out his famous ‘3,000-mile walk’. He would later claim that he was driven by revolutionary intentions, but his surviving journal, and other evidence, suggests that he was planning to write what he hoped would be a popular book, concerned as much with landscape as anything else. In fact, Stephens was an ardent gardener and, later in his career, would be accused of spending far too much time and money on his flowers and carrots.
To arrive at this state of monied leisure, he first had to gain the backing of Irish-Americans, groups of whom had coincidentally been planning a filibustering expedition to raise another rebellion (the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny seemed to offer useful distractions to Perfidious Albion). Stephens, now working as a French tutor in Dublin, agreed to organise the Irish side of things if he was given enough cash and the title of ‘provisional dictator’. And thus, on St Patrick’s Day 1858, the IRB was born (although to begin with it was just ‘the organisation’). His partner across the water was John O’Mahony, his old comrade from 1848 and the years in Paris, and the book’s other main character.
All in all, Ramón considers the movement in Ireland to have been a great success, much to Stephens’s credit. Recruits were plentiful, established figures like A. M. Sullivan of the Nation were outmanoeuvred, and a ‘republican mindset’ was inculcated, in part through the pages of the Irish People. Right from the very start, however, the dominant themes of the transatlantic story were money—or the lack thereof—and misunderstandings. Stephens never got nearly the amount of money he asked for, the Americans became consumed by their own interests and squabbles, and ultimate authority was always being disputed. He squandered possibly his best opportunity to launch his rising in late 1865, and balked again a year later, whereupon he was deposed. The rebellion of March 1867 went ahead without him (although he may have tried to take part), and he never regained his leadership. The rest of his life, spent mostly in exile in Paris—although he did finally retire to Dublin and died there in 1901—is dealt with fairly summarily in a final chapter.
Stephens’s life story has been told before, and well, by Desmond Ryan in The Fenian chief (his last book, published posthumously in 1967), but the scholarly study of Victorian Ireland and Fenianism has advanced far since then, most notably with the landmark publication of R. V. Comerford’s The Fenians in context (1984). In fact, while Ramón inevitably echoes Ryan’s account in some places and corrects it in others, A provisional dictator is to some extent structured as a running dialogue with Comerford. Mind you, there is nothing here of the friction generated by some earlier exchanges over Fenianism. She registers her disagreements gently and makes her case without any ideological fuss.
Broadly speaking, where Comerford sees Fenianism in this period as a product of would-be leaders jockeying for power and an emerging class of young men in search of a social role amidst new-found prosperity, Ramón sees a democratic movement awakening a nation from its post-Famine traumatic shock. And where Comerford and others take a jaundiced view of Stephens’s decisions and aspirations, Ramón prefers to give him the benefit of the doubt. So his insistence on being made dictator has usually been taken as an example of habitual arrogance, but it also made practical sense as it ensured unity of command and clear direction. Similarly, when Stephens escaped prison without taking anyone else, Ramón points to the risks involved in trying for a bigger breakout. And it is certainly easy enough to defend his reluctance to act in 1865 and 1866 on the sensible grounds that there was no real hope of military success.
Ramón suggests the 1848 experience as a key to Stephens’s thinking, and I think this argument could have been pushed even farther. A secret society was needed to avoid the Irish Confederation’s lack of preparation and telegraphing of its intentions, and Irish-American aid would be crucial to evening the military odds. Strong leadership would provide a corrective to William Smith O’Brien’s confused reticence, and prevent any part of the organisation from going off half-cocked. Above all, perhaps, Stephens wanted to avoid another humiliating failure: hence his unwillingness to act if conditions were uncertain. Ironic, then, that it ultimately contributed to exactly that outcome.
These explanations are generally convincing, at least with regard to Stephens’s own reasoning. The book does not read like a one-sided defence brief, though. It is balanced and thoughtful throughout, with evidence weighed judiciously and verdicts delivered carefully. Moreover, it is a masterpiece of clarity, particularly where the tangled web of American relationships is concerned. The author has scoured the archives and memoirs, and made good use of the fast-growing body of theses on Fenianism, but the details and analysis have been moulded into a seamless whole, often with real elegance. There are many nicely turned sentences and well-executed set pieces, and the story is kept moving forward at a good pace. Anyone with an interest in Irish history would enjoy reading it, and students in school or university will likely treasure it. UCD Press must also be congratulated for giving it the handsome treatment it deserves, from cover to paper and typeface.
James Stephens does emerge from this account as deserving of our interest and empathy. He acted fairly honourably throughout and lacked the callousness or will to self-destruction of many later republicans (or, arguably, of successful revolutionaries anywhere). His lengthy disappearances and the whole gardening thing suggest an eccentricity of Parnellesque proportions, and there is also something slightly tragic in the difference between his Irish nickname—Seabhach Siulach, the Wandering Hawk—and its Anglicised version, ‘Mr Shooks’: it reflects the vast distance between his soaring fantasies of self-actualisation and national salvation, and the prosaic reality of his subsequent reputation. Does he really deserve to be ‘almost universally disliked’? It is to Marta Ramón’s credit that one finishes her book thinking that this is a life worthy of further (including fictional) exploration.
Peter Hart holds the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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