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
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 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 any other references or evidence that Russell wrote about Ireland after her 1920 book.
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 was engraved with Cecilia’s first name and dates. The bottom right corner of the headstone, where Ruth’s name and dates would be similarly etched, remained smooth until 2020.15
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 circulated in 1920, Ireland’s revolutionary women published their views in nationalist newspapers, pamphlets, and books 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.
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.