James Stephens

At midnight on the rainy night of November 24, 1865, there was hardly a soul to be seen on the streets of Dublin.  Policemen on duty took shelter in doorways, blowing on their fingers to warm them in the bitter cold. Not far away and colder than the policemen six men, soaked to the skin, were waiting outside Richmond Prison.  When they spoke, they spoke in whispers and watched the high wall of the prison for a signal.  In a cell within the prison, a man paced back and forth.  He too awaited a signal for he knew, that unless plans miscarried, this was the night he was to be rescued.  His name was James Stephens but he was referred to by many as `The Wandering Hawk’.

Stephens was the Chief of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the Irish counterpart of the fearless American Fenian organization that sought to free Ireland of British domination.  He was a hypnotic leader, the very mention of whose name would bring an instant hush over any Irish gathering, he was also the biggest prize that the British Secret Police in Dublin Castle had captured in many a day.  A few weeks earlier, he had been arrested at Sandymount and conveyed before a magistrate where he sat as cool as if on a park bench.  When one of his letters was introduced in evidence, in which he declared that this would be the year for action against the Crown, Stephens loudly proclaimed, “and so it yet may be!”  His closing statement to the tribunal bespoke his disdain for the court. “I have employed no solicitor (lawyer) in this case”, he stated, “because making a defense of any kind would be recognizing British Law in Ireland…I deliberately and conscientiously repudiate the existence of that law”. He was then taken to Richmond Prison under heavy guard where high walls and iron doors would keep him secure until his sentencing on November 27.

British officials in Dublin Castle slept secure knowing that the Wandering Hawk was safely caged, but they had underestimated Fenian ingenuity and daring.  One of the Prison guards, Dan Byrne, was a sworn member of the Brotherhood and the Superintendant of the Prison Hospital, John Breslin, was a sympathizer.  With these two insiders, the Fenian leaders John Devoy and Colonel Kelly swiftly arranged a rescue.  The night of November 24 came, the warden went on his final round of inspection, the city clock struck one, and Stephens heard a gentle tapping on his cell door as it quietly opened revealing Breslin and Kelly brandishing revolvers. Not more than a nod was exchanged and Stephens followed the two along a corridor, down stone steps, and into the prison yard. A ladder was placed against the wall and the Wandering Hawk was on the loose again.

In the morning, panic swept the official circles of Dublin: cavalry scoured the countryside, squads of police and detectives were everywhere, gunboats put to sea to search fishing vessels, and posters offering a reward of 1,000 Pounds Sterling appeared across the country. While the massive search was on, Stephens lay secure in the home of a woman named Butler right under their noses. Though she was poor, the Chief was perfectly safe even had the reward been ten times as great.

Seven months later, on a sunny afternoon in the month of June, a handsome open carriage drove leisurely through the streets of Dublin carrying a Coachman, four Footmen in the customary uniform of male servants of the day and two well-dressed gentlemen in silk hats reclining at ease on the cushioned seats inside. As the carriage drove by a local police station, a Constable on duty stood to attention and courteously saluted the gentlemen taking the air,  assuming them to be magistrates, at least.  Once out of the city, the driver whipped up the horses and they sped toward Malahyde and the sea.  Some miles from Balbriggen, the carriage halted, one of the passengers got out, bid farewell and walked to a waiting boat.  He was rowed out to a waiting ship, the sails were set and the ship sailed down the channel bound for France.  The Coachman and Footmen returned to the carriage and quietly drove back to Dublin. They were all armed, hand-picked, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and this time the Wandering Hawk had spread his wings in earnest.

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