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Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Correspondent

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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Russell arrived in Ireland the day before St. Patrick’s Day, 1919, a week before her 30th birthday. Over the next few months she reported from Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and rural Dungloe in County Donegal.1 At least two dozen of her dispatches appeared in the Chicago Daily News, and other U.S. and Canadian newspapers that subscribed to its foreign news service. 

She was not the only Daily News reporter in Ireland, which had attracted scores of American and other foreign correspondents after Dáil Éireann, the break away parliament of the Irish Republic, was established Jan. 21, 1919. As Maurice Walsh notes, “The Irish revolution became an international media event … The way in which visiting correspondents wrote up the Irish revolution was crucial to its outcome, both in the sense that they affected perceptions of the war and that they connected Ireland to the world.”2

Russell’s 1919 passport photo.

Russell’s first story from Ireland appeared in the Daily News on March 18, 1919, a day after the newspaper recognized St. Patrick’s Day with a full page of “greetings from noted Irish writers to their compatriots in Chicago.”3 She covered the prison release and triumphal Dublin return of Constance Georgine Markievicz, known as “Countess” Markievicz, who in December 1918 became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. As a separatist Sinn Féin candidate, Markievicz won a Dublin constituency while incarcerated for her role in Ireland’s anti-conscription protests earlier that year, months before the armistice.

Markievicz’s election and the Sinn Féin route of old guard Irish parliamentary nationalists received considerable press coverage in America. Her release from prison and decision to join the revolutionary parliament in Dublin was largely ignored by U.S. newspapers, giving Russell a scoop. Her story4 did not contrast Markievicz’s historic election win to American women still struggling for the vote. Her home state of Illinois would not ratify the 19th amendment until June, and U.S. suffrage waited until August 1920. 

Instead, Russell offered a narrative, scene-setting approach to the homecoming that differed from most straight-news reporting of the day. She even placed herself in the action, close enough for Markievicz to whisper an aside. Listen to a lightly edited passage of the story, read by my wife, and reproduced below:

Down one curb of the Eden quay uniformed boys with coat buttons glittering in arc lights were ranged in soldier formations. Up the other curb squads of girls were blocked. All were members of the citizens’ army of the Transport Workers union. … Up in the bare front room of the Liberty hall headquarters, where dim yellow electric bulbs were threaded from the ceiling, the countess welcomed her friends of the days of the revolution of 1916. … With her eyes slight behind her metal rimmed glasses, the countess marched to the big central window and flung it wide open to the spring night. Before she addressed the crowd below, she said to me: “Our fate all depends on your president [Woodrow Wilson] now.” 

Russell interviewed other leading political and cultural figures of the Irish revolutionary movement, including: 

  • Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, describing his “white, ascetic, young–he is thirty-seven–face lined with determination”5;
  • “sharp-mustached, sardonic little”6 Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Féin founder;
  • Maud Gonne McBride, widow of an Irish revolutionary leader, “tall and slim in her deep mourning”7;
  •  “keen, boyish” Michael Collins8, the revolution’s guerrilla warfare strategist; and
  • George William Russell [no relation], “the famous AE, poet, painter and philosopher, the ‘north star of Ireland.’ ”9

Russell witnessed the Dublin arrival of the American Commission on Irish Independence, a non-U.S. government delegation of three prominent Irish Americans sent to the 1919 Paris peace conference to lobby for Ireland. She reported on a failed effort in the international race to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight. 

The three members of the Irish-American delegation, at right, receive an address written in Irish from Cumann na mBan Photo: Irish Life, 16 May 1919. From the National Library of Ireland collection, via Century Ireland.

As in her Markievicz piece, Russell was self-referential in other reporting, in both first and third person, such as her March 1919 interview with de Valera, then hiding from British authorities: “In a small white room where reddish tapestry and draperies concealed closed doors and shaded windows Mr. de Valera was talking to me as a representative of the Chicago Daily News,” she wrote. Later in the same story, Russell described being escorted from the secret meeting location: “In the darkness the correspondent was guided along a narrow garden walled to a waiting car.”10

IN THE SHADOWS

Russell’s reporting was at its best when she mixed with Ireland’s poorest citizens, those in the shadow of the revolution. She lived in the Dublin slums with families crammed into one-room tenements. She applied for hard-to-find jobs with other women, many caring for children and supporting unemployed husbands and brothers. “Their constant toil makes the women of Ireland something less than well-cared for slaves,” Russell wrote.11

Checkpoint in Limerick, April 1919.

She interviewed workers and labor leaders in the short-lived Limerick soviet, at Belfast textile mills, and outside a soon to open Ford-owned tractor plant:  “On the edge of the sidewalks in Cork there is a human curbing of idle men,” she reported. “Just now most of them are sons of farmers or farm hands, for the farmer of the south is turning his acres back to grazing and extra hands are not needed.”12

Most of Russell’s stories were published on inside pages of the Daily News with dispatches of its other foreign correspondents. A few times the paper promoted her by name in secondary headlines, such as “Ruth Russell Describes Barring of Workers from Home Town” (Limerick), and “Ruth Russell Tells Pathetic Story of Why Women Go to England”.13 It is unclear if this was an attempt by the Daily News to market her as a “stunt girl” reporter, or leverage the reputation of her late father, Martin J. Russell, one of Chicago’s pioneering newspaper editors.

In this reading from “Why Women Go to England”, Russell describes looking for work in Dublin with recently unemployed female munitions workers, like those she had labored with two years earlier in a Chicago armament plant.14:

Down a puddly, straw-strewn lane we were blown by the wind to a candy factory. It was next in factory size to the biscuit plant. Dublin considers a 50 to 100 hand plant very large. At this place, it was possible to earn $4.50 a week, but the thumbed sign on the door read: No hands wanted. … Up the narrow wooden treaded stairs we mounted to a big room where girls sitting sideways on a long table nailed yellow wooden candy containers together. Through a crack between the planks of the floor we could see hard red candies swirling below. As the melting sleet was pooling off our hats, the ticking aproned manager came out to sputter: Can’t you read? … That night along Gloucester Street, past the Georgian mansions built before the union of Ireland and England, flat uprising structures from behind whose verdigrised brass trimmed doors came the mummers of many membered tenement families–I walked until I came to a shining brass plated door. “Why don’t you go to England?” was the first question the matron of the working girls home put to me when I told her I could get no work. “All the girls are.”  

Note how this story was published on June 3 but has a May 5 dateline.

IRISH CHILDREN, CHICAGO CONNECTIONS

Russell detailed malnourishment, mental illness, and other social problems in Ireland’s cities and rural western counties. She reported about children, teachers, and schools, likely drawing on her own earlier classroom training. Perhaps 175,000 of 500,000 enrolled children did not attend school; and only 3,820 of 13,538 teachers were efficient because their pay was low, $405 to $1,440 per year, she reported from government data.15

“Dead, mentally dead, teachers are frequent in Ireland,” Russell wrote.

Russell followed Daily News Publisher Victor F. Lawson’s advice about the paper’s correspondents to stay close to the native people. Here is an example from her stay in the Dublin slums16:

Then as a lodger I was given the only chair at the breakfast table. The mother and girl sat at a plank bench and supped their tea from their saucerless cups. As there was no place else to sit, the children took their bread and jam as they perched on the bed, and when they finished, surreptitiously wiped their fingers on the brown-covered hay mattress. Before we were through they had run to the streets to warm their cold legs inside the fender till the floor was tracked with mud from the street, ashes from the grate, and bits of crumbling bread.

Russell named other children in her reporting, detailing their young ages and harsh circumstances:

  • Six-year-old Mary Casey “has some difficulty curling her arm about the papers she carries” as the youngest member of the Dublin Newsgirls’ Club.
  • “Eight-year-old Michael Mallin drags kelp out of a rush basket and packs it down for fertilizer between the brown ridges of the little hand-spaded field in Donegal.”
  • “Nine-year-old Patrick Gallagher may go to the Letterkenny Hiring Fair to sell his baby services to a farmer.”
  • “Ten-year-old Margaret Duncan can be found sitting hunched up on a doorstep in a back street in Belfast.”17 

And like any good reporter, Russell found Chicago connections in Ireland to relay back to her hometown readers: 

  • Fr. J. P. Flannigan at St. Mary’s procathedral in Dublin, who led a committee of Catholic priests trying to quell Irish labor unrest, had studied in Rome with Archbishop George William Mundelein of Chicago.18
  • Progressive social reformer Jane Addams of Chicago helped send rubber boots to war-torn Germany through the Women’s International League.19
  • “Chicago girl” Stella M. Franklin, former secretary-treasurer of the city’s Woman’s Trade Union League, worked to improve housing conditions throughout the British Isles.20
  • Russell’s story on the Irish economy questioned whether England prevented Ireland from developing “all the Chicago side industries that can be established in connection with the cattle trade.” Money was lost shipping the animals across the Irish Sea for slaughter and processing. Russell reported that a London firm “has just issued a prospectus for a plant designed for slaughtering, tanning, chandlery, glue making, and which is intended to transform Drogheda in Ireland into a Chicago.”21 

Some of Russell’s stories published up to two months after their dateline. Her byline from Ireland appeared in American newspapers at least through October 1919, though she returned home in August.22

In 1920, Russell would expand her reporting into magazine articles and her book, What’s the matter with Ireland? She also would take on a new role of publicly speaking out for Irish independence beyond the printed page.

NEXT: Russell’s Irish activism in America.

May 1919: Irish-American commission visits Ireland

In May 1919, the American Commission on Irish Independence arrived in Dublin. Before long, all hell broke loose in London and Paris.

The ACII was a non-government delegation of three prominent Irish-Americans formed in the wake of the February 1919 Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia. The trio of labor lawyer Frank P. Walsh; former Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne; and Philadelphia city solicitor Michael J. Ryan were sent to the post-war Paris peace conference to obtain safe passage for Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith and Count Noble Plunkett; plead the Irish cause on their behalf if such travel was denied; and secure U.S. government recognition of the Irish republic.

“The commission thought a trip to Ireland was a good idea, for it allowed them an opportunity to meet and talk with the [Irish] leaders elected in December 1918,” historian Francis Carroll wrote.1 In their public comments, the three Americans congratulated the Irish people for voting to create an independent Irish republic; emphasized the parallels between Ireland’s and America’s struggle for independence against the British; and reminded U.S. President Woodrow Wilson of his pledges for the self-determination of small nations in Europe. “They pulled no punches.”

Dunne, Ryan and Walsh of the Irish-American Commission receiving an address written in Irish from Cumann na mBan Photo: Irish Life, 16 May 1919. From the National Library of Ireland collection, via Century Ireland.

Unsurprisingly, there was “immediate and explosive” press reaction in Britain. The Globe headlined: “IMPUDENT YANKS FLAUNTING ‘IRISH REPUBLIC’ BEFORE OUR EYES“. The Mail said the Irish Americans gave “strength and countenance” to the rebel faction in Ireland.2

“The public debate in the newspapers and in parliament spelled the end of the commission’s prospects for getting the Irish leaders over to Paris,” Carroll continued. “What had prompted [Walsh, Dunne, and Ryan] to speak publicly in Ireland with complete disregard for the delicacy of the situation or the sensitivity of the British government is difficult to say. … Either their own weakness and inexperience, or the shrewdness of the British in perceiving that they would undo themselves, saved [Prime Minister] Lloyd George from having to come to grips with the Irish question at the peace conference.”3

In June 1919, de Valera would sail west to New York instead of east to Paris. The ACII returned to America, where they turned their efforts to help Ireland to the U.S. Senate.

Read coverage of the ACII’s travels in Ireland in The Irish Press, Philadelphia:

Also see:

Irish Americans reach Paris, demand Wilson’s answer

The American Commission on Irish Independence emerged in spring 1919 from the failed New York City meeting between representatives of the just-concluded Irish Race Convention and President Woodrow Wilson.

Convention leaders appointed the three-member delegation to travel to Paris to support the cause of Irish self-government at the post-war peace conference. “They were a distinguished group,” Whelan noted.1

Walsh

Frank P. Walsh: a nationally-known lawyer, he had served on the National War Labor Board and War Labor Conference Board. Named chairman of the commission, Walsh became its “most important and dynamic member.”2

Dunne

Edward F. Dunne: another lawyer and former judge, he had served as Chicago mayor, then Illinois governor. Along with several Irish-American U.S. senators, Dunne was the highest elected official identified with the Irish nationalist movement in America.3

 

Ryan

Michael J. Ryan: a former Philadelphia city solicitor and public service commissioner, he had been president of the United Irish League of America.  Ryan publicly distanced himself from Irish Parliamentary Party support for the British during the war and repudiated home rule politicians. 4

At the March 4 New York meeting with Irish nationalists, Wilson banned New York Supreme Court Judge Daniel F. Cohalan, a longtime political nemesis who had opposed his 1916 re-election. None of the three commission members carried such political baggage to Paris. “Consequently, the group had a national prominence in orthodox politics and were of good character.”5

The trio’s mission was threefold: obtain safe passage to Paris for Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith and Count Noble Plunkett; plead the Irish cause at the peace conference on their behalf if such passage was denied; and secure U.S. recognition of the Irish republic.  In the Kentucky Irish American, Walsh was quoted:

“The committee is going to France as American citizens, holding no allegiance, material or spiritual, to any other nation on earth, but imbued with the necessity of extending the principals of free government to Ireland, which is the typical small nation of the world, being deprived of the right to determine for itself the form of government under which it shall exist.”6

The commission reached Paris on April 11, 1919. In a front page-story in The Irish Press, Philadelphia, Dunne recalled that six weeks earlier in New York Wilson told the delegation that he was not prepared to say whether Ireland qualified for self-determination.

“We then informed the president that we were in no hurry and were prepared to wait for his answer, and were even willing to journey to Paris to obtain it. President Wilson now has had sufficient time to reflect.  We have come to Paris for his answer.”7

More on the American Commission on Irish Independence in future posts.