The late Phil Lynott declared that being a black Irish bastard was a kind of holy Trinity of defects that impeded his career in the UK. One might have thought that being a poor Protestant orphan in Catholic Ireland might have had the same effect on the writer James Stephens (Dublin, 1882—Eversleigh, England, 1950). Luckily, this turned out not to be the case.
Stephens’ literary career was already well launched when, in May 1913, on the advice of his friend, Thomas Bodkin, he travelled to Paris to broaden his intellectual horizon. He initially stayed for a short time at 3, rue de Campagne-Premiere (14th arrondissement), in the tiny studio rented by his friend, the British sculptor Theodore Spicer-Simson, before buying a first-floor flat at no. 11 in the same street. Stephens’ apartment in rue Campagne-Première--a street that was a hot bed of artistic activity close to Montparnasse--was just a few doors down from where Countess Markievicz had lived a decade before when she was studying art in Paris. Stephens was to keep this apartment, in a very modest building, right up until his death in 1950, staying in it on his frequent visits to the French capital. During the Occupation, Stephen's apartment was requestioned by the Germans (who scrupulously paid rent each month) and then after the Liberation in August 1944 it was taken over the French army to house one of its officers.
On May 21, 1913, Stephens wrote to Thomas Bodkin to tell him he had found a place, “a very pretty four-roomed place on the first floor, infested now by Russians who swear they are doing their best to get out and have bound themselves before God and the concierge to quit on Monday morning. In the same letter, Stephens gave his initial verdict on Paris:
“The beauty of this city grows more on me mixed with a certain gentle melancholy for Dublin. You know Dublin really has points, certain pleasant incompetencies. The first shattering blow my preconceptions received was that of the polite French people. They are a mighty careful business-like, adequate people and they do not waste any more time in being polite than we do. Anyhow, there is no more public politeness than there is in Dublin......The girls in Dublin are much prettier than those [in Paris] and very often they are better dressed. The only thing that makes these French women and men really noteworthy is their attitude of independence and self-respect. I wonder is it sexual freedom which has made the women so self-possessed.”
But within a couple of months of moving to Paris, the city’s appeal had begun to fade for Stephens. In a letter dated 19 July, 1913 he wrote that he was “tired of Paris”. Partially with his tongue in his cheek, he also wrote in the same letter that he was:
“…having an interesting miscellaneous sort of a time here. There are an extraordinary number of opportunities of smoking, drinking and getting syphilis and yet no one seems to smoke toomuch or drink too much or contract more syphilis than he can carry...There’s something wrong with the French people. They are fat and smug and they’ve too many women about them. I wouldn’t swap one street of Dublin for all Paris, and the barbarians don’t know how to talk anything but French.”
Just before the First World War, Stephens and his wife, Cynthia, came to know the divorced Maud Gonne and her family in Paris, including Sean McBride, who was nine at the time. In a 1973 RTÉ radio documentary, MacBride remembered that Stephens was a frequent visitor at the Gonne-McBride household. “He took me out occasionally for long walks and ice cream,” said McBride. “I was a fanatical stamp collector and often went on stamp buying expeditions. Stephens brought me along the quays to buy stamps, and he occasionally brought me into a frightfully expensive second-hand stamp shop, where he gave me free run to buy what I wanted in stamps.”
In October 1913, after some months at home, Stephens was back in Paris, taking a room in rue Boissonade (14th arrondissement), just around the corner from his flat in rue Campagne Première, which was undergoing renovation. Also living in rue Boissonade, and possibly in the same building, was Stephens’ good friend, the Irish journalist Stephen MacKenna (who in turn had been a friend of John Millington Synge). Grace Henry, husband of Paul, had lived in rue Boissonade in 1900. Stephens also came to know Yeats in Paris who, he wrote in a July 1914 letter, “more than improves on acquaintance”.
At the end of July 1914, the imminent outbreak of World War One convinced Stephens to evacuate Paris, although he was back in the city in late October of that year. However, the atmosphere was decidedly less joyous than it had been a year before. ”Lord! Paris is the triste city,” he wrote on November 1, 1914. “The streets that were once murderous in their traffic are now so deserted that children can roll their hoops in the middle of the roads. Women are everywhere and they all wear black draperies and they are all subdued. Sometimes a child laughs in the street and the folk look at it astonished, and one has the feeling that it ought to be reprimanded.” Even the atmosphere at the Closerie des Lilas had changed. It “looks like the room where the Tuam Board of Guardians do be meeting on Wednesdays and Fridays and they talking about the crops,” he wrote on November 11. Worse was to come. In March 1915, he informed a correspondent that “They have shut off the absinthe (my heavy curse on them) and nothing is active but boredom.” Stephens became depressed. By May 1915 he was writing that “I wish I was there (Antrim) or anywhere but in Paris which, having bored my body to death, begins to bore my soul to the devil.” Declaring he could write in Paris no more, Stephens applied for a position of registrar at the National Gallery of Ireland back in Dublin, which he took up on August 1, 1915. However, he returned regularly to his Paris flat for holidays, living frugally. “One can starve very well on French bread,” he wrote.
In Paris in the late 1920s, James Stephens became increasingly friendly with James Joyce, who he had already met in Dublin. Joyce jokingly proposed that Stephens should finish ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ should he himself be unable to do so As part of the notion that they were ‘literary twins’, the idea went round that they shared the same date of birth (although there is much uncertainty about Stephens’ real birth date) and they shared a love for singing Irish folk songs.
Letters of James Stephens (1974)
Ed. Richard J. Finneran
James Stephens–His Work and an Account of his Life (1965)
Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna (1936)
Ed. E. R. Dodds
“James Stephens and Paris: An insight gleaned from letters to Thomas Bodkin”, Brigit Bramsbäck in: Ireland and France–A Bountiful Friendship (1992)
Ed. Barbara Hayley and Patrick Rafroidi
“Dublin for Myself–A Profile of James Stephens”
RTE radio documentary, broadcast in 1970