The Fenian James Stephens (Kilkenny, 1824/25 – Dublin, 1901) had a hard time of it during his various Paris sojourns. Stephens (not to be confused with the Irish writer James Stephens, who also spent time in Paris) knew hunger, poverty and loneliness during his Paris years, and was ultimately banished by the authorities.
Stephens first arrived in Paris as a fugitive from the Young Ireland uprising of 1848, along with John O’Mahony who left Paris in 1852 and went on to establish the Fenian organisation in the U.S. At the start of this, Stephens' first seven-year exil in Paris, he lodged in the Lion d’Or tavern at 168, Faubourg St Denis (10th arrondissement, now demolished)—a poor part of town, in keeping with Stephen’s straitened circumstances. However, Stephens did meet Miles Byrne and various other eminent members of the Irish and Franco-Irish community, including the family of count MacMahon. He became secretary of the Irish Society and by early 1849 was writing on its behalf from 15, rue Vaugirard (6th arrondissement)—now home of the French Senate.
According to his own accounts, he spent these seven years "filled with varied and incessant study" and he became distinguished as a linguist, "being able to read readily in 16 languages". He claimed to have taken part in the swiftly suppressed protests against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état in December 1851. Thereafter, John Devoy tells us that "Stephens was very proud of his participation in the Paris affair, and thought it qualified him to pronounce judgement on military questions. This was unfortunate for Ireland." Otherwise, little is known of his existence until his departure for the U.S. in 1855 apart from the fact that he became teacher of English and, eventually, translator and journalist. He even claimed to have translated Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit into French for the Moniteur newspaper. That seems unlikely, although an article in Romanticisme, an academic journal, tells us that “extracts from Chuzzlewit were serialized in Le Moniteur Universel and were published as a brochure by printers Panckoucke in 1850. This mediocre translation was signed L. Michel, of whom nothing more is known.”
But whatever money Stephens made out of his translation work, it was not enough, and times were tough. “Bohemianism…was becoming exceedingly uncomfortable, and a 10 sou dinner was poor enough sauce with which to garnish 30 or 40 pages of the Scholastics on the Science of the Soul," he wrote. And so he left Paris toward the end of 1855 to undertake his famous ‘3,000 mile walk’ around Ireland. Stephens was back in Paris in the spring of 1859, but returned to Ireland two years later after having built up considerable debts in the French capital. During this second stay in Paris, Stephens established a rather fraught connection with John Mitchel and other Irish political refugees at the ramshackle Pension Bonnery (building no longer exists) on the rue Lacépède (5th arrondissement) as well as with John O'Leary. Stephens escaped from Richmond prison in Dublin in late 1865, and in March 1866 reached Paris for a third stay, this time lasting six weeks, before travelling to New York. But Stephens was back in Paris for a fourth time in February 1867 after losing a power struggle within the American Fenian movement.
According to Marta Ramón, from then until his death in 1901 James Stephens' life "may be summarised as a compound of exil, poverty, occasional teaching, constant sponging thinly disguised as ‘personal loans’, failed commercial enterprises, a few self-delusive attempts to regain his position at the head of the Fenian movement, and a slightly shady career as a newspaper contributor".
A haze of mystery surrounds Stephens' exact movements at this time, although he wrote to a supporter that he had managed to get out of Paris and travelled to the south of France before the Prussian siege, which began in September 1870. He left France to become the New York representative for a Bordeaux wine merchant in 1871 but yet again things didn’t work out on the other side of the Atlantic and he was back, destitute, in Paris, in summer 1874. He was drip-fed money by his father-in-law, John Hopper, and he frequently visited his rebel cousins, the Caseys—Andrew, James, Joseph (who had attempted to escape from Clerkenwell prison in 1867), Patrick and their mother. Although the Casey’s were also in financial difficulty "they kept open house for years for people of our way of thinking," Stephens later wrote. In his letters, he described how, during this time, he was reduced to selling his last few books and how, on at least one occasion, he was turned out of his lodgings for non-payment of rent.
In October 1874, Stephens was living at 50, rue de la Rochefoucauld (9th
In 1882-83, that shady character, Eugene Davis, edited James Stephens’ memoirs—but also managed to implicate him in the so-called ‘Dynamite war’ supposedly being planned by Irish revolutionaries against British interests. A Paris police report from early 1885 says that Davis, Stephens and Patrick and Joseph Casey were "inseparable" and frequently met up in a bar at 14, rue Castiglione (1st arrondissement) from whence they engaged in “interminable switches from one café to another along the rue de Rivoli and the rue Saint Honoré”. Stephens was thus expelled from France along with Davis in 1885, but managed to return to Paris by 1887. In 1888, Eugene Davis found him and his wife in an apartment in the neighbourhood of the Arc de Triomphe “where the war-worn exile leads a life of study and retirement”. In 1891, through the intervention of Charles Stewart Parnell, Stephens eventually made it home to Ireland.
A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement (2007)
The Fenian Chief – A Biography of James Stephens (1967)
"Les premières traductions de Dickens en français"
in Romanticisme, n°106 (1999-4)