A Journey In Ireland, 1921, Revisited: Final thoughts

Novelist and journalist Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland from mid-April to early May 1921. His dispatches for London newspapers were later collected and revised in the book, ‘A Journey in Ireland, 1921.’ Previous installments of this centenary series are collected at American Reporting of Irish Independence, which also includes my earlier work on Ruth Russell. By coincidence, Russell is included in the just released ‘Toward America‘ video at the new Mná100 website, part of the Irish government’s Decade of Centenaries commemorative program.

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Ruth Russell reported from Ireland in spring 1919, shortly after the separatist Dáil Éireann opened in Dublin and the first shots of the War of Independence. Wilfrid Ewart traveled through Ireland in spring 1921, shortly before the truce that helped end the war later that year.

Ruth Russell, 1919 passport photo.

Both journalists recorded their observations of Ireland for newspapers: Russell in America, Ewart in Britain. Each expanded their work into books that combined their journalism with literary flourishes: Russell’s What’s The Matter With Ireland?, and Ewart’s A Journey In Ireland, 1921.

The two books are complementary, similarly-styled snapshots from opposite ends of the war. Both reporters interviewed and quoted key people who are still remembered in histories of the period. Both also mingled with the Irish living in the shadows of the revolution: Russell among women and children of the Dublin slums and the west of Ireland; Ewart with characters he encountered on several 20-mile walks between towns and at markets and rail stations. Both journalists sought to calculate nationalist and unionist enthusiasm and measure Catholic and Protestant division.

Though written two decades into the 20th century, the two books each offer glimpses of the long dusk of 19th century Irish rural life. They also offer wartime descriptions of Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and Dublin.

From Russell:

In the evening I heard the murmur of revolution. With the shawled mothers who line the lane on a pleasant evening, I stood between the widow and a twenty-year-old girl who held her tiny blind baby in her arms. Across the narrow street with its water-filled gutters, barefoot children in holey sweaters or with burlap tied about their shoulders, slapped their feet as they jigged, or jumped at hop-scotch. Back of them in typical Dublin decay rose the stables of an anciently prosperous shipping concern; in the v dip of the roofless walls, spiky grass grew and through the barred windows the wet gray sky was slotted. 

From Ewart:

When night did finally close down and as curfew hour approached, the tide of the people set hurrying, over O’Connell Bridge towards the tram junction at the Nelson Pillar. The street lamps were lit and there were vague, shadowy crowds through which one had to press one’s way. Black motor cars containing mysterious-looking men rushed out of College Green at breakneck speed like bats or night-insects. Half an hour later–silence. I looked out of a window high up and saw spires, chimneys, rooftops bathed in moonlight, and heard one sound–a rifle shot.

Wilfrid Ewart

Both writers were college educated. Neither arrived in Ireland as wide-eyed innocents, nor were they as hardened and cynical as many journalists and politicians. Russell, 29, was the daughter of a Chicago newspaper editor who cut her reporting teeth on undercover assignments about women munitions plant workers. Ewart, 28, witnessed the horrors of Great War battlefields, where he survived wounds and illness. 

To be sure, Russell and Ewart each missed some nuisances of Irish revolutionary politics. Both appear to have allowed some personal bias to creep into their reporting. The same could probably be said of most journalists or historians.

On her return to America, Russell joined a Washington, D.C. protest against British rule in Ireland and testified about her experiences at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. Ewart, a former British military officer, published an acclaimed debut novel about the Great War. 

Year-long delays in publishing their Ireland books and rapidly evolving events minimized the impact of their reporting in the country. Russell disappeared into the career of a Chicago public school teacher; Ewart was accidentally killed at the end of 1922. His book has received more attention and reissues than hers. One reason could be a sexist bias for the male military officer over the American woman. Another, I believe, is that Ewart wrote the better book.

This blog occasionally considers the cinematic possibilities of Irish history, such as the 1913 travels of two French women who produced the first color photographs of the country, and the Lartigue monorail of County Kerry. There is an opportunity for a movie about Russell and Ewart traveling through revolutionary Ireland, at the same time instead of two years apart. They compete for scoops, dodge danger, and, of course, fall in love. The film has either a tragic ending amid the ambushes and reprisals, or a happy one at the threshold of Irish independence.

For now, their accounts stand together as companions on my bookshelf.

Below: Adverts for Russell’s and Ewart’s Ireland books.

 

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