Tag Archives: Chicago Daily News

1919 Revisited: American reporting of Irish independence

This year I explored 1919 U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of events in the struggled for Irish freedom. I produced 32 stand-alone posts for my American Reporting of Irish Independence series about developments on both sides of the Atlantic, including:

  • Dáil Éireann, revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic
  • Irish Race Convention
  • American Commission on Irish Independence
  • Éamon de Valera’s tour of America
  • News reporting and opinion pieces for and against the Irish cause

Many of my posts are focused on three Irish-American weeklies: The Irish Press, a short-lived (1918-1922) Philadelphia paper with direct political and financial ties to revolutionary Ireland; the Kentucky Irish American, published from 1898 to 1968 in Louisville; and The Irish Standard, circulated from 1886 to 1920 in Minneapolis, Minn. Since all three papers are digitized, my posts are laced with links to the original pages. The Irish American and Standard offered more moderate coverage of Ireland’s cause than the Press, reflecting a more conservative Irish America in the heartland, rather than the more activist immigrant pockets of the East Coast.

Ruth Russell’s 1919 passport photo.

I also produced a five-part monograph, Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland, about a young Chicago Daily News correspondent who reported from the early months of the revolution. Upon her return to America, Russell wrote a book about her experience, protested against British rule in Ireland; and testified before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.

“They were extremely cool-headed and intelligent,” Russell said of the Sinn Féin leaders. “[They were] 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.”1

Here’s the full series:

Thanks to the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland for the opportunity to present my research at conferences in Dallas and Belfast, respectively.

Presenting at the NPHFI conference, Queens University Belfast, November 2019.

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

***

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.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Activist

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

***

After six months overseas, Russell returned to America in August 1919, back to her widowed mother and two sisters in Chicago.1 In January 1920, her story of being “broke” in England during a two-week wait for her ship appeared in The Ladies Home Journal.2 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.”3

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”4 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.5

It is unclear whether her “special correspondent” relationship with the newspaper was so informal6 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.

FOREIGN NEWS

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 19187, 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.8

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.”9

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.10

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.”11

WOMEN PICKETS

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 published as front matter in What’s the matter with Ireland?12 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. They might have written the letter for de Valera, who was in Washington, D.C., on the date of the published facsimile. His diary and related papers from the U.S. tour do not mention his March 1919 Dublin interview with Russell, or any exchanges with her in America.13

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.14

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.15 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.16 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.

WIDE OUTLOOK

Longer and more detailed versions of her Ireland reporting soon appeared in The Freeman17, 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.18

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.”19

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.”20

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.

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

***

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.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Beginnings

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

***

On Jan. 27, 1919, a Chicago Daily News editor urged the federal government to expedite a passport for one of his reporters, Ruth Russell. “Because of the news conditions in Ireland at the present time, it is hoped that she may leave as soon as possible,” News Editor Henry J. Smith wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing.1 

Six days earlier, the separatist Sinn Féin party declared independence from Britain and established a breakaway government in Dublin, a move based on its near sweep of Irish parliamentary seats in the United Kingdom’s first election after the Great War. In County Tipperary, 125 miles southwest of the Irish capital, two policemen were killed in an ambush, the first shots of Ireland’s latest uprising against centuries of British rule. 

Russell’s 1919 passport photo.

In Washington, D.C., Lansing approved Russell’s passport, and she was assigned to answer this question: “What’s the matter with Ireland?” Russell recalled later, “This was the last injunction a fellow journalist, propagandized into testy impatience with Ireland, gave me before I sailed for that bit of Europe which lies closest to America.”2 

Nearly a year to the day after Smith’s State Department outreach, another letter was written on Russell’s behalf. This time the author was Éamon de Valera, president of the provisional Irish republic. Russell interviewed him in March 1919, shortly after her arrival in Dublin. 

“I congratulate you on the rapidity with which you succeeded in understanding Irish conditions and grasped the Irish viewpoint,” de Valera wrote in the Jan. 29, 1920, letter published as front matter in Russell’s new book, What’s the matter with Ireland?, based on her 1919 reporting. “I hope we shall have more impartial investigators, such as you, who will take the trouble to see things for themselves first hand, and who will not be imposed upon by half-truths.”3 

Russell’s reporting from Ireland at times was insightful and compassionate, especially her sketches of women, children, and workers living in the shadows of the revolution. It is debatable whether she remained an impartial investigator. Her experiences in Ireland transformed her into a pro-Irish activist. She left the Daily News; joined at least one Washington, D.C., protest against British rule in Ireland; and testified before an American commission exploring conditions in Ireland. Russell’s activism was fleeting, however, and her 1919 reporting became dated by rapidly evolving events in Ireland. By 1921, she withdrew from journalism and public attention. 

BEGINNINGS 

Ruth Marie Russell was born March 24, 1889, in Chicago, the eighth child of Martin J. Russell, a 43-year-old Chicago Times editorial writer, and 39-year-old Cecilia [nee Walsh]. Both parents were the offspring of pre-Great Famine Irish immigrants. The couple lived in Hyde Park, just a few blocks from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, where their newborn was baptized April 21, 1889.4 A live-in cook and a household “servant” tended the family, which also included Russell’s paternal grandmother, 76-year-old Jane Lewis [nee Mulligan].5 

“Among my earliest recollections are long twilight hour discussions with my grandmother about early Chicago–she came here in 1835,” Russell recalled in a 1931 newspaper interview to promote her novel, Lake Front.6

In the book, about Chicago’s first 100 years, the 42-year-old Russell described her hometown in the 1890s of her youth: “It was an ugly city. Its lines were hard and sharp. Its color, smoke. Its air, gritty. Its noises, strident. Its smell, salt with the blood of slaughterhouses. Its people, pale and hurried.”7  

Postcard image of the Irish Village.

Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, developed near Russell’s Hyde Park neighborhood, included an Irish Village with a recreation of the Blarney Castle and white-washed, thatched-roof cottages. An organizer of the exhibit wrote that it would be a great mistake “if any who boast of Irish blood in their veins do not resort thither with their children in order to call to mind the stories told by parents of the scenes of their childhood, or muse over bygone days which they themselves can recall in the dear old home.”8 

During this period, Chicago’s 16 percent Irish-born population9 read newspaper stories about the murder of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, a member of the city’s Irish nationalist underground, and the divorce case downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell, Ireland’s “uncrowned king.” Irish immigrant Margaret F. Sullivan, who worked with Russell’s father at the Chicago Herald, wrote a popular book about the agrarian agitation in her native country.10  

In June 1900, when Russell was 11, her popular father died of kidney disease at age 54. “All the newspaper reading public recognized Mr. Russell as an editorial writer of learning, caliber, force, and judgement,” the Chicago Tribune quoted one of his friends.11 At St. Thomas the Apostle Church, the Rev. Daniel Riordan described the deceased as “a conspicuous example of scrupulous integrity.”12 

Russell attended nearby St. Xavier Academy, a Catholic girls school. Upon graduation in 1906, she enrolled at Chicago Normal College and for the next two years prepared for a teaching career.13 In September 1909, Russell matriculated into the University of Chicago, and she graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree.14 In June 1914, she sailed to France to study in Grenoble, but hurried home with the outbreak of the Great War.15

It appears Russell helped manage the St. Mary’s Campfire Girls program on Chicago’s south side.16 By October 1917, she “decided to enter the family field” and followed her late father and an older brother, James Russell, into the newspaper business.17

She began working as a reporter at the Daily News

REPORTER 

Chicago Daily News Building, 15 North Wells St., circa 1903. Chicago History Museum.

At the time of Russell’s newspaper debut, fast-growing Chicago was the second-largest city in America and “home to some of the most influential and dynamic journalists, editors, and newspaper owners in the United States.”18 Investigative efforts and literary styles flourished in the city’s newsrooms. Carl Sandburg joined the Daily News staff the same year as Russell and would bolster his reputation through coverage of Chicago’s 1919 race riots and profiles of the city’s African-American population.19 Russell was hired as a “special writer”20, typically an ad hoc or freelance arrangement that was one of the best ways for women to enter the newsroom.21

For two weeks in 1918, the 5-foot, 9-inch reporter22 hauled heavy steel tools to shell turners inside a Chicago munitions factory for an undercover series about women in war work. She profiled the manual laborers, including “a big woman whose straggly blond hair was stuck to the side of her wide, flat face with perspiration” as she pushed a 200-pound load. The reporter strained and “blushed at my little loads.” Russell estimated that she “walked about four miles, trucked approximately 900 pounds of steel, shouldered less heavy tools and earned $2 in an eight-hour night.” At the end of the shift, “I threw myself on a restroom cot.”23

In addition to such domestic coverage, the Daily News aggressively pursued foreign news. Publisher Victor F. Lawson established bureaus in London, Paris, and Berlin “on the best sites in town, with big signs, to lure in Chicago tourists,” foreign correspondent Paul Scott Mowrer recalled.24 But Lawson was interested in more than good publicity. In the paper’s handbook for foreign correspondents, he wrote: 

The key words of the service are significance and interpretation. Generally speaking, we aim to chronicle only what is significant, and we aim to show the significance of everything we chronicle … how and why it happened, and what it means. We have therefore to be clearer, more analytical, more thorough, less superficial, more cautious and generally more accurate, and perhaps more conscientious than our competitors.25

Lawson advised his correspondents to stay close to the native people, report on their styles and customs, fads and fancies, including business, education, science, religion, art, sports, and social problems. As the United States entered the Great War, his reporters fanned across Europe, including poetess Eunice Tietjens, sent to cover the conflict “from a woman’s perspective.”26

More than three dozen female journalists filed dispatches from the war in Europe for U.S. newspapers and magazines; more than doubling the number of women foreign correspondents since the Mexican-American War of the mid-19th century.27 Russell joined this still-small and under-appreciated sorority soon after the armistice.

The revolution erupting in Ireland was a story of particular interest to Chicago readers.

NEXT: Russell’s reporting from Ireland.

U.S. press coverage of April 1919 ‘Limerick soviet’

“The story of the Limerick soviet has always had a special place in the narrative of the Irish left,” Patrick Smyth wrote earlier this year in The Irish Times. “For two weeks in [April] 1919 the ordinary people of the city took over, creating, albeit briefly, the embryonic elements of workers’ control – or, some would say, a new society – that mirrored developments throughout a revolutionary Europe convulsed and worn down by war.”

Checkpoint in Limerick, April 1919.

The Limerick soviet occurred three months after the establishment of the first Dáil Éireann and the earliest skirmishes of the Irish War of Independence. In Paris, an Irish-American delegation had just arrived at the post-war peace conference to press world leaders to recognize Irish self-determination. The trio would soon visit Ireland; just before Irish leader Eamon de Valera’s June 1919 arrival in America.

The front page of the April 26, 1919, issue of The Irish Press, Philadelphia, declared:

LIMERICK IN STATE OF SIEGE

Remember, the newspaper had direct ties to the provisional government in Dublin through its editor, Patrick McCartan. The Pressun-bylined story, datelined four days earlier, vividly set the scene:

This city is an armed camp with large forces of troops supported with tanks and machine guns in control. Numerous shots were fired Monday morning (April 21) but there were no casualties. The troops are in full war panoply, even to their tin hats. All the roads leading into the city are guarded and at some points barbed wire entanglements are set up. The principal bridge over the Shannon is being patrolled. Tanks are drawn up in the principal streets with the guns trained to sweep the thoroughfares. The muzzles of Lewis machine guns peer menacingly from windows of buildings. Armoured cars lumber through the streets and at night the city is patrolled by soldiers with fixed bayonets.

The event also caught the attention of the American mainstream press. Several U.S. newspaper headlines are shown in the video below. Ruth Russell, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, brought readers even closer to the action. This is from her April 10, 1919, dispatch:

“Permit?” demanded the soldier with the bayonet.

Two by two a long dark line up the white road from Caherdavin a thousand workers marched permitless to the Sarsfield bridge over the Shannon at Limerick. Girls with primroses tucked in their waists, breathless boys with hurling sticks in their hands, stooped, mustached laborers.

“What permit? I want to go to my home,” said a workman.

The crowd come with its incessant demand to pass. Past the sentry the workers swung around a corner between the soldiers and Thomas Johnson, national executive of the Irish Trade and Labor council. They swung down the right of the bridge and up the left again–an unending circle picketing the military, whose presence in Limerick they are protesting against.

Russell expanded on her experiences in Limerick in her 1920 book, What’s the matter with Ireland? Jump to page 127.

Cian Prendiville, a contemporary Limerick activist and member of the Limerick Soviet Centenary Committee, has written a two-part remembrance for the Limerick Leader:

Below, a 7-minute video explaining the origins and more details of the event:

Covering the countess’s return to Dublin, 1919

When Constance Georgine Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British parliament in December 1918, she was far from the Dublin St. Patrick’s constituency she won with two thirds of  the vote. The republican leader known as Countess Markievicz was held at Holloway Prison, in England, for her role in anti-conscription protests earlier in the year, before the Great War ended in November.

Upon her release from the prison 15 March, 1919, Markievicz returned to Dublin, where she was greeted by cheering supporters. The Irish Times, on page 6 of its St. Patrick’s Day issue, reported:

A demonstration of welcome had been organized at Liberty Hall for Madame Markievicz, and at 6 p.m. a large crowd assembled at Beresford place, where a procession was formed by the Citizen Army, headed by the St. James band, and including such bodies as the Cuman na mBan, Fianna, Irish Women’s Franchise League, Sinn Fein bodies, Irish Volunteers, and trades organizations. … She entered Liberty Hall amidst loud cheers and the waving of Sinn Fein flags from the windows. Addressing the crowd from one of the windows as “Fellow Rebels” … she said that it was worthwhile going to prison to find such a reception awaiting her … and advised them to work for an Irish republic.  

The Times reported “a strong force of policemen was on duty,” but “the proceedings passed off without any incident of a disorderly character, and when the procession had passed by, the crowd rapidly melted away.”

The Irish Independent of 17 March, page 5, published the photo at the top of this post under the headline, “Warm Welcome Home From Prison.” The caption underneath said, “A big demonstration of welcome was accorded to Countess Markievicz on her arrival in Dublin on Sat. evening. In the photo … taken at Liberty Hall, she is in the center with bouquet.”

Markievicz’s release was largely ignored in the American press, including the New York Times and Washington Post, except for one or two lines in wire service stories. The Chicago Daily News, however, published an account from its own correspondent, Ruth Russell, who had arrived in Dublin about the same time. Here is some of Russell’s reporting from the 18 March 1919, issue of the Daily News. Note how the American female reporter places herself inside Liberty Hall, close enough for the Irish female politician to make a personal aside:

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. About them were grouped laborers shamrocked for St. Patrick’s day. On the railway bridge that spans the Liffey above Butt bridge soldiers on night patrol were silhouetted against the moon whitened sky, impatiently the crowd awaited the coming of the Countess Markievicz, released eight years before the expiration of her term in Holloway jail.  … 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.” 

The Irish Press, Philadelphia, which had direct ties to the two-month-old Dáil Éireann, suggested that “it seemed as though everyone in the Irish metropolis had turned out to do honor to this notable Irish woman patriot.” The story disputed wire service reports that Markievicz would take her seat in the British House of Commons.