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. © 2022
After six months overseas, Russell returned to America in August 1919, back to her widowed mother and two sisters in Chicago. In January 1920, her story of being “broke” in England during a two-week wait for her ship appeared in The Ladies Home Journal. Determined to pass the time as inexpensively as possible, Russell reported that she walked more than 100 of the 234 miles from London to Liverpool. She detailed sights and adventures along the way and concluded: “There was one thing lacking to make the trip a complete success. But that was not a motor [car]; it was a friend.”
Russell’s penny-pinching departure from England appears contrary to the January 1919 promise her Daily News editor made to the U.S. State Department, that she “would continue to be on a salary basis” while outside of America. The magazine story never mentions the Daily News or says why Russell was in England or Ireland. My research of the Daily News archives, including the 1919-1920 papers of Victor Lawson, the publisher; Charles Dennis, the editor; and Henry J. Smith, the news editor who wrote to the State Department; did not yield any documentation of her work or relationship with the paper.
It is unclear whether her “special correspondent” relationship with the newspaper was so informal that it didn’t warrant any discussion, or because such records are lost or undiscovered. There are a few clues about what might have happened.
As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the Daily News enhanced its reputation through the aggressive pursuit of foreign news. It excelled during the Great War and 1919 Paris peace conference. This coverage wasn’t cheap.
Chicago Daily News Publisher Victor F. Lawson, 1920. (Photo of a photo.) Chicago History Museum.
In March 1919, as Russell reported from Ireland, Lawson explained to outside newspaper executives that his paper’s foreign news service cost $260,585 in 1918, nearly double the $148,419 in 1915, the first full year of the war. Syndicate papers contributed $76,265 in 1918, Lawson revealed, leaving the Daily News to cover the $184,320 balance.
By September 1919, less than a year after the war ended, the paper began to shift emphasis. Dennis wrote to Lawson: “I heartily agree with all you say about the enormous importance of making The Daily News a stronger local paper in every possible way. … I can see immense gain in circulation if we could be markedly stronger and more interesting locally.”
In December 1919, Dennis outlined to Lawson 11 important issues facing the paper, including the return of its chief correspondent from the Paris peace conference; plans for an anthology book of its war coverage; discovery that a recently purchased 14-story feature package had previously appeared in the Saturday Evening Post; and the latest fundraising details for the “Chicago’s 100 Poorest Families” Christmas charity drive.
After Christmas, Dennis advised the paper’s London bureau: “Now that the war is over war expenses must be lopped off. Some of our correspondents have spent money altogether too freely, having full regard of war conditions. They have wasted money on loosely constructed and overwritten dispatches, and dispatches telegraphed and cabled when they should have been mailed.”
As Russell’s Ladies Home Journal story circulated in January 1920, an “advance copy” of her book was provided to Éamon de Valera, according to his letter to her, published later that year as front matter in What’s the matter with Ireland? The Irish leader had slipped into America in June 1919 to raise money and build U.S. political support for the fledgling Irish republic. His 18-month tour of the country included several stops in Chicago.
Russell or her publisher likely provided the book to de Valera’s entourage, which must have believed it could be useful propaganda. Support staff probably drafted the letter for de Valera, who was in Washington, D.C., on the date of the published facsimile. Charles N. Wheeler, who reported from Ireland in spring 1918 for the Chicago Tribune, published his own book about Ireland in August 1919, then joined de Valera’s tour as an advance man and press spokesmen, might have assisted his fellow Chicago journalist. De Valera’s diary and related papers from the U.S. tour do not mention his March 1919 Dublin interview with Russell, any exchanges with her in America, or providing the letter for her book.
At the start of April 1920, days before Easter, Russell joined a few dozen other women at a protest in front of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. The demonstration was organized to increase support for the Irish republic as the war there grew more brutal. Irish and Irish-American activists disagreed on the strategy, however, with opponents worried it would undermine de Valera’s mission in America.
Mainstream newspapers accounts identified many of the women demonstrators, including “Miss Ruth Russell of Chicago”. The coverage did not associate her 1919 reporting from Ireland for the Daily News. The Daily News published a front-page brief about the embassy protest, but it did not name any of the women.
Ruth Russell was in the crowd of women protesters, or “Irish pickets,” outside the British Embassy on April 1, 1920. Library of Congress.
The Irish News and Chicago Citizen, a pro-nationalist weekly, did connect Russell to the Daily News; her late father, a well-regarding editor; and an older brother who worked as a journalist. The front-page story described her as “one of the most indefatigable of these vigilante sentinels” outside the embassy. Moreover, it suggested the Daily News sent Russell to Ireland “with a pot of the blackest paint, with, perhaps, a big order to besmirch the character and objects of the Sinn Féiners.”
The overheated, but unsourced, report continued: “…on investigation, [Russell] discovered the odious and detestable nature of the services expected of her and in disgust renounced and repudiated them. She is now engaged, with her devoted associates, in shaking the tottering stronghold of British tyranny like a heroine in Joshua’s besieging army at the fall of Jericho.”
Russell was “among other women connected to journalism” at the protests. Perhaps she participated only in the role of undercover reporter. It does not appear Russell was among several women who were arrested, or who participated in subsequent demonstrations in the following months.
Longer and more detailed versions of her Ireland reporting soon appeared in The Freeman, a monthly magazine edited by libertarian author and social critic Albert Jay Nock. Its editorial, “The Recognized Irish Republic,” was circulated by the women outside the British Embassy a week in advance of publication.
Russell’s Freeman profiles of Dungloe community organizer Paddy Gallagher and Dublin political celebrity Countess Markievicz are similar in style and substance to her Daily News dispatches and passages in What’s the matter with Ireland? There is more narrative in the book and magazine pieces, but no new ground. This undercuts the Irish News’ suggestion of bias by
the Daily News, notwithstanding Russell’s comment about her former colleague’s “testy impatience with Ireland.”
Russell’s 1919 passport photo was used on one of the pages of her Life and Labor magazine coverage about evictions in a West Virginia coal mining “hollar.”
In 1920, Russell also reported for Life and Labor magazine about women being evicted from their homes in the coal-mining “hollar” of Williamson, West Virginia. An editor’s note described her as having “the wide outlook on life which is the natural accompaniment of a journalistic career.”
It is curious that none of the three magazines that published Russell’s work in 1920 referenced her former association with the Daily News; likewise that it was ignored in newspaper coverage of the British Embassy protest, the Irish News and Chicago Citizen excepted. Her writing and comments about Ireland would continue to gain attention through the end of the year.
NEXT: Russell’s book and public testimony about Ireland