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. This post was updated in October 2022 to add the “Easter Rising” section about Russell’s efforts to travel to Ireland in 1916, and other minor edits.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 1919 reporting was soon dated by rapidly evolving events in Ireland, and her activism was fleeting. By 1921, she withdrew from journalism and public attention.
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. 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].
“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.
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.”
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.”
During this period, Chicago’s 16 percent Irish-born population 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.
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. At St. Thomas the Apostle Church, the Rev. Daniel Riordan described the deceased as “a conspicuous example of scrupulous integrity.”
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. In September 1909, Russell matriculated into the University of Chicago, where she was joined by her younger sister, Cecilia, in the activities of the Esoteric, a woman’s social club, and the Brownson Club, a campus Catholic group. Ruth graduated in 1912 with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree.
Her activities over the next four years are less clear. In June 1914, Russell sailed to France to study in Grenoble, but hurried home with the outbreak of the Great War. On her return, Russell might have helped manage the St. Mary’s Campfire Girls program on Chicago’s south side.
Russell was moved by the April 1916 Easter Rising, the failed strike for independence by Irish separatists. The Irish in America, including Chicago, organized relief efforts to help the people of Dublin suffering in the wake of the British military’s suppression of the insurrection and execution of its rebel leaders. By November 1916, the U.S. State Department relayed to the British government Russell’s desire to visit the country to help distribute relief “without expressing any opinion as to her qualification for such a mission.” The British Foreign Office observed that such individuals, “even when recommended by trustworthy organizations, have been unable to avoid reference to political controversaries on their return to the United States of a nature inflame public opinion.”
Within the week Britain’s Consul General in Chicago telegrammed its Foreign Office to report that Russell’s real intention was to act as a correspondent for The New World, weekly organ of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The consul described the newspaper as featuring “anti-English articles about Ireland.” A review of the New World‘s archives from April 1916 through 1917 did not find Russell’s byline or any mention or her work for Irish relief. More provocatively, however, the Consul General’s correspondence says Russell’s request to visit Ireland was “indefinitely postponed as she is suffering a nervous breakdown.”
This psychological evaluation seems dubious; more likely the sexist and patronizing language of male authorities, in the U.S. and Great Britain, during the period. A Dec. 26, 1916, follow-up correspondence from British Ambassador to the United States Cecil Spring Rice to Arthur Balfour, the just beginning his tenure as foreign secretary, says that Russell was informed by Joseph Patrick Tumulty, private secretary to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, “that entrance to Ireland would not be possible at the present time and that she cannot therefore have a passport.”
It is extraordinary that Russell, then 27, was drawing the attention of such high-ranking U.S. and British officials. The episode, documented in Dublin Castle records, calls for further investigation into U.S. State Department and Tumulty/Wilson records, which could revel new details of the 1916 denial, and whether the government was aware of it when Russell’s passport was issued in 1919.
By October 1917, Russell “decided to enter the family field” and followed her late father and an older brother, James Russell, into the newspaper business. She began working as a reporter at the Daily News.
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.” 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. Russell was hired as a “special writer”,typically an ad hoc or freelance arrangement that was one of the best ways for women to enter the newsroom.
For two weeks in 1918, the 5-foot, 9-inch reporter 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.”
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. 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.
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.”
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. 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