Famine remembrance exhibit returning to Dublin in April

The Irish Famine Exhibition is returning to the Stephens Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. It was initially curated in 2017 by historian Gerard McCarthy, a native of West Cork.

McCarthy says the Famine is a neglected subject in Ireland. “There are no dedicated exhibitions on the subject in our National State Funded Museums and there is rarely a mention of it in Ireland’s National Media,” he wrote in an email.

McCarthy hopes that his exhibition will contribute to keeping the story alive in the minds of Irish people and also educate tourists who have little or no knowledge of the subject. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the start of the Famine in 1845.

The exhibition is open from April 6 to September 25. It includes original artifacts from the period, such as the cast-iron pot below used to make soup, “perhaps the ultimate famine memorial,” according to the exhibit.

I’ve contributed two of my previously published Famine-related stories to the blog section of the exhibition website: www.theirishpotatofamine.com. One story, published in the U.S. National Archives’ Prologue magazine, is about famine-era children born at sea on their way to America; the other, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is about period correspondence with a Pennsylvania priest.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum to remain open

A flurry of news coverage this time last year, some that I linked to from this blog, reported the potential 2020 closure of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, Connecticut. A new administration at Quinnipiac University  supposedly was going to withdraw funding for the museum, the labor of love of president emeritus Dr. John Lahey.

There is no information about this posted on the museum website. In a recent call to the museum, I was told there are no plans or deadlines to close the museum, which continues to receive funding from the university. The museum is striving to become more self-sufficient. The 2019 media coverage was “blown out of proportion,” the museum representative said.

The media does hype matters, and gets things flat wrong, but I’m also skeptical of those who want to dismiss or blame press. Keep an eye on this.

The museum, and the related Lender Family Special Collection Room at the Arnold Bernhard Library on the university campus, are both great resources and worth the visit to central Connecticut, about a two-hour drive from Boston or New York City.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University.

Ireland sets national election for Feb. 8

Voters in the Republic of Ireland will go to the polls Feb. 8 to elect a new national government, four years since the last election. The Jan. 14 election announcement arrived days after the restoration of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly. The polling date is a week after the Brexit deadline.

Economic concerns about trade and other elements of the U.K.’s exit from Europe are expected to be a major focus. Housing, health care, and the environment are others. As The Irish Times editorial page reminds: “One other certainty – if past experience is any guide – is that unexpected twists and turns will emerge between now and polling day.”

The less than 30-day-long Irish election campaign will concluded five days after the Iowa caucus, the opening voting of the insufferably long U.S. presidential contest, which began last year and will not end until November.

American interest and influence in Irish political affairs are clearly much different today than during the revolutionary period of a century ago. But the economic connections are much stronger. According to the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland: More than 100,000 people are employed by over 700 U.S. firms operating in Ireland. U.S. investment accounts for about two-thirds of foreign direct investment in Ireland.

Cancellation of police force remembrance stirs debate

The Irish government has cancelled plans to recognize British police forces–many of them born in Ireland–who fought against pro-independence rebels a century ago. The commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), was set for Jan. 17 at Dublin Castle, former seat of British administration in Ireland and now a historical site used for state events.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s center-right government noted that not only were many members of the police forces Irish, but also some were sympathetic to the cause of independence. Others suggested the ceremony was part an effort to understand pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom and is now convulsed by Brexit.

Opposition party members and the mayors of several Irish cities said they would boycott the event. One suggested that no other state would commemorate those who facilitated the suppression of national freedom, especially the brutalities of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, the RIC’s special reserve and paramilitary units.

Commemorating Ireland’s bloody War of Independence (1919-1921) “will prove delicate for the Irish state for many reasons,” John Dorney, editor of The Irish Story, writes in The perils of reconciliation. “One being the potentially antagonistic result of evoking the political violence of the era. But another is that the suggestion that the commemoration of such a bloody and polarizing time can be about ‘reconciliation’, like the 2016 commemoration of the Easter Rising, is probably wishful thinking.”

At The Irish Times, columnist Fintan O’Toole wonders, Why do we fear the ghosts of dead policemen?:

Is it obscene merely to remember such men? Must there be a hierarchy of victims in which they remain, not just at the bottom but even lower down, in the underground darkness of oblivion?

We have, supposedly, been trying to rise above such mentalities, to accept that history, when it turns violent, sweeps all sorts of human lives into the gutter. A society that has moved beyond violence does not leave them there.

Dorney, however, concludes that “value-free commemorations” of the War of Independence, partition of the island, and Civil War (1922-1923) “in general are not possible. It is not ‘mature’ to impose a false consensus but rather to understand the political differences that led to bloody strife in Ireland 100 years ago and how they shaped the Ireland of today.”

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter suggested “an academic event – a conference or seminar – that would look at the issue of policing in Ireland during the revolutionary period” was more appropriate than a state commemoration.

Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) inspection.

Deal Announced to Restore Northern Ireland Assembly

UPDATES (Newest at top)

  • Reports indicate all parties are now on board. The government appears ready to reopen midday Jan. 11. [I’ll have a new post as details–and opinions–become more clear.]
  • Sinn Féin has announced it will accept the deal and rejoin the power-sharing government at Stormont. The DUP has given tentative support. The Northern Assembly’s smaller parties – the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance – are still holding internal discussions, the BBC reports.
  • The Police Service of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, trade union and industry groups are urging Northern politicians to accept the deal.
  • Northern Ireland is facing a fierce story amid the political drama.

ORIGINAL POST

The Irish and British governments late Jan. 9 announced a deal to restore the three-year-dormant Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. Northern political parties are expected to meet Friday, Jan. 10, to approval the proposal, called “New Decade, New Approach.”

Irish Tánaiste and British Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Julian Smith said the framework will transform public services and restore public confidence in the devolved government, with gives Northern Ireland a measure of autonomy from London, and also provides cross-border initiatives with Dublin.

The two government officials said reforms to the health service, education and justice will be prioritized, along with improvements in transparency and accountability, and in how civil servants, ministers, and special advisers conduct themselves. Their statements and key elements of the draft agreement can be found in this Irish government release.

The Assembly was shuttered in January 2017 after Sinn Féin‘s Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister to protest the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) handling of a botched renewable energy scheme. Then, citing health problems, Martin announced he would not run in the elections triggered by the closure. He died two months later. Sinn Féin and DUP have been at loggerheads ever since.

Historian Catherine M. Burns on 1920 Women’s Pickets

I connected last month with America historian Catherine M. Burns via Twitter (@cmburns21) as I published my Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland series. Burns has written about the April 1920 women pickets joined by Russell, both in her dissertation, “American Identity and the Transatlantic Irish Nationalist Movement, 1912-1925” (cited in my series), and in her chapter on Kathleen O’Brennan in The Irish in the Atlantic World

Burns holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The New York Irish History Roundtable recognized her dissertation research with its award for distinguished graduate work on the history of the Irish in New York City. Her articles on Irish-American courtship and the Irish Home Rule movement in New York City have appeared in the journal New Hibernia Review. She has also written about Irish-American theater and the 1922 fight for control of the Irish consulate for Gotham, for the scholarly blog of the Gotham Center for New York City History. We conducted this question-and-answer via email.

***

What is the background of the 1920 women’s pickets on behalf of Irish independence?

BURNS: Dr. William J. Maloney, an advocate for U.S. recognition of the Irish Republic, orchestrated the picketing in Washington, D.C. that began on April 2, 1920. The women he organized are often called the American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America’s War Aims, but that’s not right. I found that women with more radical outlooks later formed that group in New York City.

Maloney envisioned the picketing as a short-term publicity opportunity and deliberately selected young, pretty women who could easily get their photographs in newspapers. He thought the pickets would spend a few days in Washington protesting outside the British Embassy before the Easter holiday. They would call on the British government to pay back war loans owed to the United States rather than funding warfare in Ireland. All the while, the women would pose for newspaper photographers who would, in turn, spread their images and the Irish republican message across the country.

Maloney was surprised when 10 pickets were arrested on the Monday after Easter and faced a federal grand jury. The arrests effectively ended his involvement. Women bolder than Maloney took over the picketing, extended it, and turned it into something more in line with the media stunts of militant women suffragists. Two days after the arrests, Mollie Carroll, a young actress previously paid to picket by Maloney, generated newspaper copy all over the United States by flying an airplane over Washington and dropping pro-republican handbills over the city.

How was the media coverage? What was the reaction from the Irish and Irish America?

BURNS: Prior to the arrests newspaper coverage was relatively even-handed although suspicious of the women because picketing was associated with militant women suffragists. [The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was passed Aug. 19, 1920.] Several newspapers throughout the country published photographs of a regal and somberlooking Mary Manning Walsh, co-leader of the picketing, carrying a sign reading: “England: American women condemn your reign of terror in the Irish Republic.” Maloney had hoped the picketing would brand Walsh as the face of women’s support for the Irish Republic in the United States. This did not come to pass, but Walsh did succeed in drawing the kind of attention Maloney envisioned. After police took pickets into custody, newspapers tended to portray the women as somewhat dangerous. Headlines describing Mollie Carroll’s airplane leafleting as a “bombingof the British Embassy served to imply that the violence of the Irish War for Independence had come to the United States.

Capt. Robert Emmet Doyle and Mary Manning Walsh, 1920.

Daniel Cohalan, the leader of the Friends of Irish Freedom, was also suspicious of Maloney and the pickets. He and his associates gathered intelligence on them, eager to see if they were being directed by Sinn Féin. The Friends advocated for Irish self-determination but stopped short of demanding that the United States risk its relationship with London by recognizing the Irish Republic. Maloney and the pickets rejected this view. Some newspapers, including the Washington Post, stated that the Friends were behind the pickets. Such reporting dismayed Cohalan.

In addition to Ruth Russell, who were the other journalists in the crowd?

BURNS: The Easter 1920 picketing venture was designed to appear in newspapers and female journalists and recognizable women with media connections helped to generate the publicity that Maloney and the pickets desired.

Hammon Lake County Times, April 13, 1920.

Picket Honor Walsh of Philadelphia made her living as a journalist and editor with the Catholic Standard and Times. Constance Todd, a magazine writer married to a Washington newspaper correspondent, was on picket duty. So too was Rosa Hanna, wife of the socialist journalist Paul Hanna. He penned sympathetic reports on the protest for the New York Call. Pickets Theresa Russell and Matilda Gardner were both prominent woman suffragists, but they, too, had close family ties to journalists and newspapers. Gardner’s father was the editor of the Chicago Tribune.

I think journalism is key to understanding the involvement of Kathleen O’Brennan and Gertrude Corless in the picketing. O’Brennan was an Irish journalist and her family played an important role in the revolutionary movement in Ireland. She relayed select information about the pickets to reporters, emphasizing their Protestant faiths and long family lineages in the United States in order to claim that people outside of Irish circles supported the Irish Republic. Gertrude Corless—who shared a Washington hotel room with Ruth Russellserved as the pickets’ co-leader and public spokesperson. Notably, she had ties to the Hearst newspapers. In 1920, the Hearst newspapers backed Irish envoy Harry Boland’s scheme to generate anti-British sentiments in the United States. Corless was the private secretary of an editorial writer who penned pro-republican editorials for Hearst newspapers. As picket co-leader, Corless directed the production of such propaganda.

New year, election year(s): 20-60-20

Happy New Year! In 2020, I’ll continue to build on my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series, which focuses on how key people and events in the Irish revolutionary period were covered by U.S. mainstream papers and the Irish-American press. This year’s work will include the 1920 Irish bond drive in America, creation of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, and escalating violence in Ireland. (See the 1920 Chicago Daily News movie poster below.)

“The year 1920 may see the Republic of Ireland officially recognized by the United States, and then final victory after 750 years,” Éamon de Valera said in a new year’s telegram message to the people of Ireland from New York City.1 He remained in America until December 1920.

This year also sets up well to explore historic and contemporary electoral politics on both sides of the Atlantic, as expressed in the numbers: 20-60-20, meaning:

  • 1920: In the first U.S. presidential election after the Great War, de Valera tried to influence the Democratic and Republican party conventions. U.S. Republican Warren G. Harding campaigned on a “return to normalcy”; that is, recapturing way of life before Word War I and the administration of the outgoing Woodrow Wilson, widely detested by Irish American voters for his deference to Britain. How did coverage of the war in Ireland and the Irish in America impact the U.S. election 100 years ago?
  • 1960: This is the 60th anniversary of the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, the second Irish-American-Catholic nominated by a major party. (Al Smith was first in 1928.) JFK’s victory was an historic and symbolic moment for Irish influence in American politics. Read his Jan. 2, 1960, campaign announcement speech.
  • 2020: By coincidence, there are also national elections this year in Ireland and America, as Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump seek re-election. We’re sure to hear about a “return to normalcy” in the latter race; and Ireland’s preparations for the “new normal” of the post-Brexit border in the former contest. What role will the Irish in America, or Americans in Ireland, have in each of these elections?

As always, I welcome reader comments, suggestions, and offers for guest posts about Irish history and contemporary issues. Best wishes for 2020.

December 1920 newspaper advert for the “motion picture scoop” Ireland in Revolt.

Best of the Blog, 2019

Welcome to my seventh annual Best of the Blog–BOB. As always, I want to thank regular readers and new visitors for their support, including social media shares. Special thanks to my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan: editor, webmaster … my dear companion.

Back to Ireland …  

Inisheer, August 2019.

This year I made my ninth and tenth trips to the island of Ireland, traveling both times to the Republic and Northern Ireland. I’m starting this year’s BOB with a sampling of highlights from these 10 trips in just under 20 years:

May 2000: Pilgrimage to the Lahardane (Ballybunion) and Killelton (Ballylongford) townlands, North Kerry, birthplaces of my maternal grandfather and grandmother, respectively; and walked the Cobh waterfront where they emigrated in the early 20th century.

September/October 2001: Climbed Croagh Patrick … Interviewed surviving family at the Bloody Sunday Trust/Museum and watched testimony in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry at the Guild Hall, Derry. (Journalism fellowship from the German Marshall Fund.)

August 2007: (With Angie) Enchanted by the monastic ruins of Clonmacnoise (Offaly) and Glendalough (Wicklow). … Attended first play at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin: The Big House, by Lennox Robinson.

February 2009: Researched historic newspapers and census records at the National Library of Ireland and The National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, before they were digitized and made available online.

May/June 2012: (With Angie) Attended the Listowel Writers’ Week and heard Paul Durcan recite his poem “On the First Day of June” … on June 1, 2012 … at the Listowel Arms Hotel, the River Feale framed by the window at his back. … Strolled the Kinsale to Charles Fort (Cork) coastal walk, stopping for a lovely outdoor lunch.

July 2016: Toured the Falls/Shankill neighborhoods of Belfast by Black Taxi … Visited Titanic Belfast EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum … and Glasnevin Cemetary (Part 1Part 2), the last two in Dublin.

February 2018: Researched at the Michael Davitt Museum and grave (Straide, County Mayo); and read Davitt’s papers at Trinity College Dublin. (Part 1 & Part 2).

November 2018: Walked a muddy, cow-crowded road to reach Killone Abbey (Clare), following the footsteps of American journalist William Henry Hurlbert, who wrote of visiting the site in 1888.

July/August 2019: (With Angie) Cycled the Great Western Greenway from Achill Island to Westport (Mayo). … Hiked the circumference of Inisheer (Aran Islands, Galway) on my 60th birthday, and viewed the Cliff of Moher, which I had visited on my 2000 trip, from the sea.

November 2019: Presented my research about American journalist Ruth Russell’s 1919 travels to Ireland at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University Belfast for the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland annual conference.

Here are 2019 photo essays from both sides of the border:

From an evening walk on Inisheer, August 2019.

A few more photo essays from Irish America:

Before morning Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago, March 2019.

1919, Revisited … 

This year I enjoyed exploring U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of 1919 events in Irish history. Find all 32 stand-alone posts, plus the five-part monograph, Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland, at my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.

Other history highlights … 

… and guest posts

I am always grateful to the contributions of guest bloggers. This year:

The Antrim coast, July 2019.

Other news of note:

RIP Lyra McKee, journalist killed in Derry on April 19. She was 29, the same age as Ruth Russell when the American reporter arrived in Ireland in 1919. … U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi–first, second, and third in succession of power in the American government–each visited Ireland in 2019. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. … Republic of Ireland golfer Shane Lowry won the British Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, the first time since 1951 the Open has been held on the island of Ireland. … American businessman Edward F. Crawford became the new U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. …Abortion and same-sex marriage were decriminalized in Northern Ireland, in part due to the dormant Northern Ireland Assembly. … See more at my monthly roundups from 2019 and previous years of Best of the Blog.

Libraries and Archives

Special thanks for the in-person help I received at these institutions in 2019:

  • Catholic University of America, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and Mullen Library, Washington, D.C.
  • Georgetown University, Lauinger Library, Washington, D.C.
  • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Arlington Public Library, Central Library, Arlington, Va., and the numerous libraries that made books available through the Interlibrary Loan program.
  • University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center, Pittsburgh
  • Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives, Pittsburgh
  • The Archives of the Sister of Charity of Seton Hill, Greensburg, Pa.
  • The Newberry, Chicago
  • Chicago Public Library, Herald Washington Library Center, Chicago
  • Queens University Belfast, McClay Library Special Collections, Belfast

And digital assistance from these institutions:

  • University College Dublin, Papers of Éamon de Valera (1882–1975), (Thanks again John Dorney of The Irish Story.)
  • National Library of Ireland, Patrick McCartan Papers (1912-1938)
  • University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
  • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, (Newspaper Collection), Springfield, Ill.
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main, Pennsylvania Dept. Collections
  • Villanova University, Falvey Memorial Library, Joseph McGarrity Collection, Philadelphia
  • University of Kentucky, Margaret King Library, Louisville
  • University of Louisville, Ekstrom Library
  • Louisville Free Public Library
  • The Filson Historical Society, Louisville
  • Library of Congress, Chronicling America
  • Newspapers.com
  • Irish Newspaper Archives

Thanks again to all the librarians, archivists, and readers. Keep visiting this “journalist’s blog dedicated to Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

1919 Revisited: American reporting of Irish independence

This year I explored 1919 U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of events in the struggled for Irish freedom. I produced 32 stand-alone posts for my American Reporting of Irish Independence series about developments on both sides of the Atlantic, including:

  • Dáil Éireann, revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic
  • Irish Race Convention
  • American Commission on Irish Independence
  • Éamon de Valera’s tour of America
  • News reporting and opinion pieces for and against the Irish cause

Many of my posts are focused on three Irish-American weeklies: The Irish Press, a short-lived (1918-1922) Philadelphia paper with direct political and financial ties to revolutionary Ireland; the Kentucky Irish American, published from 1898 to 1968 in Louisville; and The Irish Standard, circulated from 1886 to 1920 in Minneapolis, Minn. Since all three papers are digitized, my posts are laced with links to the original pages. The Irish American and Standard offered more moderate coverage of Ireland’s cause than the Press, reflecting a more conservative Irish America in the heartland, rather than the more activist immigrant pockets of the East Coast.

Ruth Russell’s 1919 passport photo.

I also produced a five-part monograph, Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland, about a young Chicago Daily News correspondent who reported from the early months of the revolution. Upon her return to America, Russell wrote a book about her experience, protested against British rule in Ireland; and testified before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.

“They were extremely cool-headed and intelligent,” Russell said of the Sinn Féin leaders. “[They were] the most brilliant crowd of people that I have met in my life, and as a newspaper person I have mixed in at a good many gatherings.”1

Here’s the full series:

Thanks to the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland for the opportunity to present my research at conferences in Dallas and Belfast, respectively.

Presenting at the NPHFI conference, Queens University Belfast, November 2019.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Afterward

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. The post concludes a five-part series: 1) Beginnings 2) Correspondent 3) Activist 4) Witness © 2019

***

Russell slipped from public attention soon after her December 1920 testimony before the American Commission on Condition in Ireland. She began working as a Chicago public high school English teacher and student newspaper adviser.1 She traveled back to Ireland and other parts of Europe a few times with her younger sister, Cecilia, also a teacher.2

Ruth Russell in 1932 Calumet High School, Chicago, yearbook photo, about age 43.

Eleven years after What’s the matter with Ireland?, Ruth published Lake Front, her novel of Chicago’s first 100 years told through three generations of the O’Mara family. The book nods to 19th century Irish nationalism through a character called “the Fenian,” an immigrant veteran of the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion. “Irishmen must no longer be subject but free, and they must have the chance to be free in their own republic,” he says. “I will hold that every Irishman’s first duty is to Ireland.”3

In a review, the Chicago Tribune’s Fanny Butcher identified Russell as “a native Chicagoan, daughter of the late Martin J. Russell,” then dead for 31 years. The reviewer named three newspapers he was associated with in the 19th century, but nothing of his daughter’s work at the Daily News, or her earlier Ireland book.4

Robert Morss Lovett also praised Lake Front. An associate editor of The New Republic and an English professor at the University of Chicago, Russell’s alma mater, he also was a former member of the Committee of One Hundred for the Commission on Conditions in Ireland. Lovett wrote, “in Lake Front, an outstanding piece of writing, Miss Russell has made excellent use of her great opportunity and a stout bid toward its fulfillment.”5

In an interview with the hometown Hyde Park Herald, Russell described Lake Front as “the book I have always wanted to write.”6 She dedicated the novel to Cecilia, “whose faith and love created this book.”7 Ruth was a “guest of honor” at the Friends of American Writers meeting in the Wedgwood room of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store.8 The 1932 yearbook at Calumet High School, where she taught, also noted her novel.9 

Russell continued teaching another 20 years. She took a few sabbaticals to continue her education at the University of Chicago, including an English course on narration. In January 1954, she “resigned” from the public school system shortly before her 65th birthday, though nothing in the file suggests this was other than a routine retirement.10 Soon after, she moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to join Cecilia, then a romance language teacher at the University of Arkansas.

The two unmarried sisters attended book groups and university functions together, according to newspaper social columns. Cecilia died in 1959 and was buried at the St. Joseph Catholic Church cemetery in Fayetteville. Two years later, Ruth filed her will at the Washington County, Arkansas, courthouse, which provided a $10,000 endowment upon her own death for a university scholarship in her sister’s name.11 The Cecilia Russell Memorial Scholarship to this day provides study abroad funding for students focused on French.

Ruth remained in Fayetteville until August 1963, when she entered the Rosary Hill Convalescent Home, 16 miles southwest of the Hyde Park neighborhood of her youth. She died there Nov. 28, 1963, age 74, of heart disease.12 Headlines about the assassination and burial of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Irish-American and Catholic president, dominated the last week of her life. Irish President Éamon de Valera, then 81, returned to America for Kennedy’s funeral, 44 years after being interviewed by Russell in Ireland and providing the letter for What’s the matter with Ireland?

In a short news obituary, the Daily News described Russell as a “onetime reporter” for the paper and noted her teaching career. It mentioned Lake Front, her novel, and suggested she wrote “a number of books on Ireland.”13 I have not found other references or evidence that Russell published other titles about Ireland.

Russell’s body was returned to Fayetteville, and buried Dec. 2, 1963, next to her sister, according to the wishes of her will.14 On the headstone, below the centered Russell surname, the bottom left corner is engraved with Cecilia’s first name and dates. The bottom right corner remains smooth where Ruth’s name and dates should be similarly etched.15

The Russell grave in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 2019.

The Russell headstone in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This monograph is the first attempt to detail Ruth Russell’s life. Her Irish reporting and activism have received limited attention from historians, though not in as much detail as this series.16 I believe more material about Russell’s life remains to be discovered. Since I began publishing this series, one historian has made me aware that the Kathleen O’Brennan papers in Ireland contain a hotel receipt showing that Russell and activist Helen Merriam Golden shared a Washington, D.C. hotel room during the April 1920 women’s protest. The 1919 American consulate in Ireland records are another source of potential material.

After a year of research, however, I wanted to post this series in the heart of the centenary of Russell’s 1919-1920 Irish activity. I hope the open, easily accessible format will prompt more research suggestions or sources. I will update the material as appropriate as I continue to work toward a print monograph. I invite readers to submit comments, including criticism.

Beyond What’s the matter with Ireland? and her December 1920 testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, I have not located any diaries, letters, or interviews with Russell that illuminate her private thoughts about the 1919 reporting trip to Ireland or journalism in general. “I was sent as a correspondent to Ireland and wrote a book about it,” she told the Hyde Park Herald in a 1931 interview about her novel. The story says Russell “gave up newspaper work” and began teaching in 1921.17

I wonder if her decision to leave newspapers was driven by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, or by harassment from male colleagues or reporting subjects? Was she professionally blacklisted for her short burst of pro-Irish activism, or privately steered away from revolutionary politics and social activism under the threat of scandal or the risk of losing a middle-class inheritance? Or was Russell simply needed at home to care for her widowed mother, whom she lived with for nearly 20 years after her Ireland trip, never marrying?

Describing Russell as a pioneering woman journalist is probably an overstatement. Her undercover reporting from Chicago’s factory floors and Dublin slums appeared more than 30 years after Elizabeth Cochran (Nellie Bly), Nora Marks, and other “stunt girl” reporters began writing first-person accounts about oppressive conditions in workplaces, hospitals, and public institutions. Margaret Sullivan’s book about Ireland’s social, economic, and political troubles under British rule was published in 1881, nearly 40 years before Russell’s trip. As Russell’s book published in 1920, Ireland’s revolutionary women voiced their views in nationalist newspapers and other publishing ventures on both sides of the Atlantic.

Women reporters like Russell “have been hiding in plain sight” for over a century, Alice Fahs has observed: “They achieved a measure of fame in their own day; enlivened the pages of metropolitan mass-circulation papers that sometimes reached hundreds of thousands of readers; innovated across a variety of new genres, developed styles of newspaper writing that in some cases remains startlingly fresh today; and created a rich set of public conversations within the public spaces of the newspaper.”18

Maurice Walsh has noted: “The evident reluctance in Irish historiography to take an interest in the work of journalists is puzzling …  When media scholars do get around to writing history they are curiously neglectful of individual journalists.”19

This is changing. Groups such as the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland encourage research and widen interest in journalists like Russell. I have benefited from and contributed to that work as a non-academic member of both groups.

Making my presentation about Russell at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2019 conference, Queens University Belfast.

Expanding digitization also increases access to the work of early journalists. Many of Russell’s 1919 dispatches are available through online newspaper databases, though not the Daily News. Digital editions of What’s the matter with Ireland?, now out of copyright, are easy to find online.

The Irish republican website An Sionnach Fionn posted the book in 2017. It described Russell’s work as “notable for its intimate and sympathetic style, with no sign of the phonetic ‘stage Irish’ accents and racist caricatures which were so beloved by the press in Britain.”20

Indeed, Russell’s reporting from the early months of the Irish revolution, especially her focus on women and workers, helped counter prevailing British and American press narratives of a contented Irish peasantry. Her vivid, 400- to 600-word dispatches would be at home on today’s digital news platforms. These vignettes about ordinary Irish lives caught in the crossfire of the revolution’s social and economic strife are valuable, underutilized snapshots of the period.

The lives of these forgotten people are worth weaving into the tapestry of historical consideration, as well as Russell’s encounters with Ireland’s mainstream political and social figures, especially at the centenary of the revolution. This mostly forgotten woman journalist is also worthy of rediscovery and reconsideration.

Ruth M. Russell’s enlarged signature from a 1961 document establishing a scholarship in her sister’s name.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Witness

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. This five-part monograph is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. © 2019

***

The Library of Congress received What’s the matter with Ireland?, Russell’s expansion of her 1919 Daily News reporting, on July 20, 1920, nearly a year after she returned from Ireland.1 The front page of that day’s Washington Post reported on a “night of terror” in Cork city, as civilians threw home-made bombs at two military lorries in reprisal for an earlier “boyonetting incident” and “indiscriminate firing” by British troops, the latest example of how violence had escalated since Russell’s departure.2

Publisher Devin-Adair Co. of New York does not appear to have aggressively marketed the 160-page book, which was not widely reviewed. Russell’s split from the Daily News and participation in the British Embassy protests3 are not mentioned in the reviews or advertising that I have located. The book’s title, which implies something is wrong with Ireland, may have soured ardent nationalists able to select other 1920 offerings with more uplifting names, such as The Invincible Irish and Why God Loves the Irish.

Original edition of Russell’s 1920 book at the Library of Congress. Digital versions of the book are widely available online.

The New York Tribune’s review suggested the title was “misleading since this little volume … offers not a solution but a statement of the problem.”4 It added: “Her volume is a forthright presentation of the situation as it offers itself to the inquiring sojourner, given in the journalist’s terms of first-hand observation and current statistics.”

The Tribune also found: “Not the least interesting actors in the Irish drama are the women leaders of the revolutionary party.” It pointed to Russell’s reporting of Countess Markievicz; Maud Gonne McBride; suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst; writer and activist Susan Langstaff Mitchell; and Countess Elizabeth Burke-Plunkett, president of the United Irishwomen.

The Catholic World was tougher on Russell: “She succeeds in rousing our sympathy for the poor working girls of Dublin, and other unfortunate people of the city and the bog-field. But when she takes up the political she seems unable to do justice to her subject. … There is no doubt Miss Russell’s intentions are good, but it is doubtful if such books as this will help Ireland’s cause.”5

The Chicago-based Illinois Catholic Historical Review supported the hometown author. It described Russell as a “brilliant young writer” whose “powerful book, in language simple and direct, and yet at times dramatic or poetic” was worthwhile for anyone “interested in knowing the truth about the Irish question.”6 By coincidence, the same issue of the Review featured a story on “The Irish of Chicago,” which mentioned Russell’s editor father and referred readers to the review of his daughter’s “most interesting book.”7

An advertisement for the book8 declared: “Only a determined woman can get at the bottom of the facts,” and Russell “saw Ireland, its people, and its problems as no one else has seen them.” It quoted Eamon de Valera’s January 1920 letter from the front matter, and a testimonial from Frank P. Walsh, a member of the American Commission on Irish Independence, whom Russell met in Ireland. He wrote:

“It is a most valuable contribution to the literature of Ireland. It is a breezy, well-told narrative of Irish life, is more human and charming than anything which I have read, while the economic background is presented in a way that should bring home with terrific force to the reader the real heart of the Irish controversy.”

Here’s the full ad:

On a personal level, Russell dedicated the book to her widowed mother, who she lived with in Chicago. As the year drew to a close, the reporter received one more opportunity to publicly address her experiences in Ireland and her views on its struggle for independence.

COMMISSION TESTIMONY

Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, in 1920 organized the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. He invited U.S. senators, state governors, big city mayors, college presidents and professors, religious leaders, newspaper editors, and other prominent citizens to establish a “Committee of One Hundred” to form and oversee the eight-member
commission of inquiry.

“The situation in Ireland was a proper subject of concern for all peoples claiming either humanity or civilization,” the commission summarized. “It seemed to us that we could best serve the cause of peace by placing before English, Irish and American public opinion the facts of the situation, free from both agonized exaggeration and merciless understatement; for a knowledge of the facts might reveal their cause, and recognition of that cause might permit its cure, by those whose purpose was not to slay but to heal.”9

The commission held six hearings from November 1920 through January 1921, with 18 witnesses from Ireland; two from England (others were invited, but declined); and 18 Americans. The opening session came three weeks after the hunger-strike death of Irish nationalist and Cork Mayor Terance MacSwiney generated international headlines. His widow and sister testified in early December; Russell appeared a week later, Dec. 15, 1920, at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Mary MacSwiney, sister of the late Cork mayor, testified Dec. 8, 1920, at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, a week before Ruth Russell. Library of Congress.

Commission Chairman Frederic Howe called the session to order at 10:05 a.m.10 After stating her name for the record, Russell told the commission she “was employed” by the Daily News “when I went to Ireland … as foreign correspondent studying special economic, social, and political conditions.” She was not asked why she no longer worked at the paper. Questioned about her investigative methods, Russell answered she “used both interviews and personal experiences,” including living in the Dublin slums.

And her views about the Irish republican leaders she met?

“They were extremely cool-headed and intelligent,” Russell replied. “The crowd of Sinn Féin leaders … were, I think, the most brilliant crowd of people that I have met in my life, and as a newspaper person I have mixed in at a good many gatherings.”11 In Russell’s opinion “it would have been impossible for these brilliant young leaders to rally the forces in Ireland behind them unless the people were driven to revolt by the economic conditions that are pressing into them.” She blamed Protestant politicians in the province of Ulster, today’s Northern Ireland, who “work on the religious prejudices of the people, so that the rich mill owners profit by the division of the people, especially the laboring people.”12

For more than two hours,13 Russell answered the commission’s questions about political, economic,  social, educational, and religious conditions. Jane Addams, the Chicago-based progressive social reformer referenced in one of Russell’s Daily News stories, was one of the eight commissioners. She asked Russell about Irish schools, labor laws, and housing conditions.

Near the end of session commission attorney Basil M. Manly asked Russell how conditions in Ireland compared to the streets of New York, Chicago, or other American cities.

“I felt perfectly safe,” Russell replied. “I walked from the telegraph office in Limerick at two o’clock in the morning through perfectly black streets to my hotel. I inquired the direction several times, and was finally assisted to my hotel by a member of the Black Watch (an ancient form of civilian night guard). But there was no interference with my progress at all. … I only had one unpleasant experience while I was in Ireland. It was about three o’clock in the morning in [the Galway] railroad station; but that was all.”14

Manly did not ask her for details.

PRESS COVERAGE

Associated Press coverage of Russell’s testimony identified her 1919 Irish reporting trip for the Daily News,15, and this detail was repeated by newspapers that used the wire service across the country. These reports did not identify Russell with the April 1920 demonstrations at the British Embassy, which also was absent in her testimony. The Daily News did not publish a story about that day’s commission hearing.

The AP highlighted Russell’s comment that religious differences between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster were “artificially worked up.”16 The Irish News and Chicago Citizen quoted her more localized remark that “in some of the southern towns of my own state there is more religious intolerance than there is in Ireland.”17 The Irish Press, Philadelphia, reported Russell’s testimony that blamed British authorities for economic distress in Ireland by turning small farms to gazing land and exporting cattle on the hoof, thus idling farm laborers and industries dependent on agriculture.18 

Coverage of that day’s commission testimony appeared two weeks later in Irish newspapers and focused more on the testimony of nationalist legislator Laurence Ginnell. The Evening Herald of Dublin reported that Russell “gave a terrible picture of poverty in Ireland, and on sweating in mills and factories in the North of Ireland.”19

In spring 1921 the commission released a 152-page interim report. It quoted Russell only once: “On the whole, testified Miss Ruth Russell of Chicago, ‘I think there is possibly the greatest unanimity there that has ever existed in any country of the world.’ “20 Her response had been to a question from U.S. Sen. David I. Walsh, a Massachusetts Democrat, who asked Russell if she had ever known “unanimity of opinion upon any great question anywhere in the world?”21

Iconic image of an IRA patrol on Grafton Street in Dublin during the Irish Civil War.

Russell was mentioned in some press coverage of the report, which British officials dismissed as biased toward the revolutionaries. Fast-moving developments in Ireland continued to eclipse Russell’s 1919 reporting, as violence escalated up until a July 1921 truce. Five months later, Irish and British authorities agreed to treaty that created the 26-county, majority Catholic, Irish Free State, while the 6-county, predominantly Protestant, Northern Ireland remained part of Britain. The dominion status of southern Ireland fell short of the full republic sought by Sinn Féin leaders.

Bitter disappointment about this outcome in 1922 erupted in a bloody civil war in the Free State that lasted for the next two years. By then, Russell had slipped from the spotlight of Irish politics and returned to a quieter life in Chicago.

NEXT:  The rest of Russell’s life, and my personal thoughts, in the series conclusion.