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18 October 2007 Edition

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Book review

A Provisional Dictator – James Stephens and the Fenian Movement,
By Marta Ramon.
Published by UCD Press. Price €28 paperback.
Reviewed by Mícheál MacDonncha

THE great achievement of James Stephens was the founding and building up of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the United States. He seems to have had an exceptional ability to win men’s trust and inspire them to organise under his leadership. It was what he did, or more to the point what he failed to do, with the organisation that made Stephens such a controversial figure within Fenianism.
Stephens was by no means the first general to fail because he hesitated too often to commit to action and risk the destruction of the forces he had so carefully built up. From 1858, Stephens and his lieutenants recruited many thousands of Irishmen to the IRB and the cause of an Irish Republic. These included thousands of Irishmen in the British Army in Ireland who were ready to play their part in a rising. The IRB oath reflected the bravado of Stephens and his comrades, referring to the Irish Republic as “now virtually established”.
Stephens’s organisational ideal was a watertight structure under his complete personal control. As a survivor of the farcical Young Ireland ‘rising’ of 1848, he was determined that no rising against British rule would be attempted without thorough organisation, strong central leadership and secrecy.
However, early on in the organisation of the IRB, the limitations of a totally conspiratorial approach became clear. Other nationalists - such as AM Sullivan as well as the Roman Catholic bishops such as Cardinal Cullen - attempted to smash Fenianism. It was necessary to combat these forces in a public way, in public manifestations of support. The IRB-organised funeral of Terence Bellew McManus was a high point in this response. To galvanise support, a newspaper was needed and so Stephens established The Irish People.
The author of this biography points out that no compendium of writings from The Irish People has been published. Such a collection would show the republican and democratic ideals of the Fenians. It would show their strong challenge to the anti-republicanism of the Catholic hierarchy. It would also show their instinctive, but undeveloped, social radicalism. The chapter on The Irish People in this biography gives a good overview.
By the time The Irish People was suppressed by the British Government, in 1865, the leadership of Stephens was already under question. Many believed he had delayed too long in ordering a rising. There were divisions within the IRB in Ireland, between Ireland and America and within America. The Dublin IRB masterminded the escape of Stephens from Richmond Prison and this gave a badly needed morale boost. But things went downhill after that, not least for Stephens himself. His leadership was fatally undermined. By the time of the abortive 1867 rising he had already been deposed.
This book gives an excellent overview of Fenianism in Ireland and America. It is timely with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the IRB on St Patrick’s Day, 1858.
This is a comprehensive and very well-written biography. It throws light on the previously shadowy figure of Stephens. He had many faults, including a belief in his own abilities that very often was not matched by performance. However, there seems to be no foundation to the claims of his detractors that he was cowardly or self-seeking. For much of his life he and his wife lived in poverty as a result of his revolutionary activities. He deserves his place as one who advanced the ideal of an Irish republic.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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