Artist Catalog

James Stephens

Born: February 9 1882
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James Stephens

James Stephens (9 February 1880 – 26 December 1950) was an Irish novelist and poet.

James' mother worked in the home of the Collins family of Dublin and was adopted by them. James was committed to the Meath Protestant Industrial School for Boys as a small child and spent his childhood there. He attended school with his adopted brothers Thomas and Richard (Tom and Dick) before graduating as a solicitor's clerk. They competed and won several athletic competitions despite James' tiny stature (he stood 4'10" in his socks). He was known affectionately as 'Tiny Tim'. He was much enthralled by the tales of military valour of his adoptive family and would have become a soldier except for his height.

By the early 1900s James was increasingly inclined to socialism and the Irish language (he spoke and wrote Irish) and by 1912 was a dedicated Irish Republican. He was a close friend of the 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, who was then editor of "The Irish Review" and deputy headmaster in St Enda's, the radical bilingual school run by PH Pearse and would be manager of the Irish Theatre, and spent much time with MacDonagh in 1911. His growing nationalism brought a schism with his adopted family, but probably won him his job as registrar in the National Gallery of Ireland, where he worked between 1915 and 1925, having previously had an ill-paid job with the Mecredy solicitors' firm.

James Stephens produced many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humour and lyricism (Deirdre, and Irish Fairy Tales are often especially praised). He also wrote several original novels (The Crock of Gold, Etched in Moonlight, Demi-Gods) based loosely on Irish fairy tales. The Crock of Gold in particular has achieved enduring popularity and has often been reprinted.

Stephens began his career as a poet under the tutelage of "Æ" (George William Russell). Stephens's first book of poems, Insurrections, was published in 1909. His last book, Kings and the Moon (1938), was also a volume of verse.

Stephens's influential account of the 1916 Easter Rising, Insurrection in Dublin, describes the effect of the deaths by execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh and others as being "like watching blood oozing from under a door". Of MacDonagh he wrote:



No person living is the worse off for having known Thomas MacDonagh, and I, at least, have never heard MacDonagh speak unkindly or even harshly of anything that lived. It has been said of him that his lyrics were epical ; in a measure it is true, and it is true in the same measure that his death was epical. He was the first of the leaders who was tried and shot.



Stephens lived between Paris, London and Dublin. During the 1930s he was a friend of James Joyce, and they mistakenly believed that they shared a birthday. Joyce, who was concerned about his ability to finish what later became Finnegans Wake, proposed that Stephens assist him, with the authorship credited to JJ & S (for "Jameses Joyce & Stephens", but also a pun on the popular Irish whiskey made by John Jameson & Sons). The plan was never implemented, as Joyce was able to complete the work on his own.

During the last decade of his life Stephens found a new audience through a series of broadcasts on the BBC.