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James Stephens

James Stephens

The fame of the Irish novelist and poet James Stephens (1882-1950) rests almost entirely upon a single masterpiece, the novel The Crock of Gold. His minor works consist of humorous fiction based on Irish folklore and lyric poems.

James Stephens was born on Feb. 2, 1882 (the same day James Joyce was born), to a poor family living in a slum area of Dublin. He was largely self-educated and was working in a solicitor's office when the poet George Russell (known as AE) discovered him. In physical appearance he resembled a leprechaun, less than 5 feet in height, with a droll face and dark complexion, a prototype of the comic Irishman. Married and with two children, he divided his time between Dublin and Paris until the outbreak of World War II. He made his debut as a successful broadcaster for the BBC in 1928 with a personal reminiscence of John Millington Synge. Although he disassociated himself from Irish neutrality during the 1940s, declaring himself "an Irishman who wished to elect himself an Englishman for the duration," he was honored for his service to the cause of Irish independence and was active in the Sinn Fein movement from its beginnings. Until his death on Dec. 26, 1950, he was assistant curator of the Dublin National Gallery.

Stephens's proficiency in the Gaelic language and his extensive collection of Irish folklore and legends made him a master of the Irish oral tradition. His fables and tales are a blend of philosophy and nonsense, aimed at creating for Ireland "a new mythology to take the place of the threadbare mythology of Greece and Rome." His masterpiece, The Crock of Gold (1912), a modern fable, employs leprechauns and spirits in a half-concealed burlesque of Irish philosophy that derides the imprisonment of the human intellect by doctors, lawyers, priests, professors, and merchants; at the same time, it presents a humorous commentary on the Irish battle of the sexes. This work won the Polignac Prize for fiction in 1912. The Charwoman's Daughter (1912) enjoyed great success in America under the title Mary, Mary.

Stephens's graphic eyewitness account of the events of Easter Week, The Insurrection in Dublin (1916), was reprinted in 1965. His third novel, Deirdre (1923), won the Tailteann Gold Medal for fiction in 1923. Thirteen volumes of lyric poems have established his reputation as a poet; among the best of these are his first, Insurrections (1909), Songs from the Clay (1915), Strict Joy (1931), and his last, Kings and the Moon (1938). Etched in Moonlight (1928), a collection of short stories, exhibits the same genius for language and love of Irish lore as was found in his popular collection Irish Fairy Tales (1920). Stephens's linguistic wizardry and lyric gifts led James Joyce to remark that if he died before completing Finnegans Wake, James Stephens was the only man who could finish it.

Further Reading

There is no definitive biography of Stephens. The most valuable studies of his works (including much helpful information on his life) are Birgit Bramsbäck, James Stephens: A Literary and Bibliographical Study (1959), and Hilary Pyle, James Stephens: His Work and an Account of His Life (1965). The critical and biographical commentaries in Lloyd Frankenberg's edition of Stephens's unpublished writings, James, Seumas and Jacques (1964), and Frankenberg's A James Stephens Reader (1962) also provide much useful information.

Additional Sources

Bramsbeack, Birgit, James Stephens: a literary and bibliographical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Finneran, Richard J., The olympian & the leprechaun: W. B. Yeats and James Stephens, Dublin: Dolmen Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: distributed by Humanities Press, 1978. □

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Stephens, James

Stephens, James (1825–1901). Fenian. Stephens, a protestant railway engineer from Kilkenny, was one of the few who joined Smith O'Brien in the abortive 1848 rising. He escaped to France and returned to Ireland in 1856. He found little nationalist enthusiasm but resolved to organize an Irish republican cause. Such a movement should have a dictator, ‘perfectly unshackled’ in charge, and Stephens volunteered for the role. In 1858 he founded what later became the Irish Republican Brotherhood, drawing on his experience with revolutionary groups in France. An excellent organizer, he was said to be ‘vain, despotic and overbearing beyond any man I ever saw’. On a fund-raising trip to America 1858–9 he joined in founding the Fenian Brotherhood and in 1863 launched the Irish People, a weekly newspaper. But while the Fenians were still drilling, the government struck and raided the Irish People offices. Stephens was later arrested but escaped and fled to America. The American Fenians then organized an abortive attack upon Canada, a rather devious way of liberating Ireland. When Stephens urged a further postponement of any Irish rising, he lost all credibility, and his successors in the leadership initiated the rising of 1867. Stephens was allowed to return to Ireland in 1885.

J. A. Cannon

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"Stephens, James." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Stephens, James

James Stephens, 1882–1950, Irish poet and fiction writer, b. Dublin. One of the leading figures of the Irish literary renaissance, Stephens is best known for his fanciful and highly colored prose writings—The Crock of Gold (1912), The Demi-Gods (1914), Irish Fairy Tales (1920), Deirdre (1923), and In the Land of Youth (1924). In these works and others he made vivacious use of Irish legend and folklore. His first volume of poetry, Insurrections, appeared in 1909. Later volumes include Songs from the Clay (1915) and Kings and the Moon (1938). Possessed of a superb speaking voice, he gave many recitations of his poetry and, in later years, lectured on the radio.

See A James Stephens Reader (ed. by L. Frankenberg, 1962).

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"Stephens, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Stephens, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stephens-james