Tag Archives: American Commission on Conditions in Ireland

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

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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.