Russell slipped from public attention soon after her December 1920 testimony before the American Commission on Condition in Ireland. She began working as a Chicago public high school English teacher and student newspaper adviser.1 She traveled back to Ireland and other parts of Europe a few times with her younger sister, Cecilia, also a teacher.2
Ruth Russell in 1932 Calumet High School, Chicago, yearbook photo, about age 43.
Eleven years after What’s the matter with Ireland?, Ruth published Lake Front, her novel of Chicago’s first 100 years told through three generations of the O’Mara family. The book nods to 19th century Irish nationalism through a character called “the Fenian,” an immigrant veteran of the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion. “Irishmen must no longer be subject but free, and they must have the chance to be free in their own republic,” he says. “I will hold that every Irishman’s first duty is to Ireland.”3
In a review, the Chicago Tribune’s Fanny Butcher identified Russell as “a native Chicagoan, daughter of the late Martin J. Russell,” then dead for 31 years. The reviewer named three newspapers he was associated with in the 19th century, but nothing of his daughter’s work at the Daily News, or her earlier Ireland book.4
Robert Morss Lovett also praised Lake Front. An associate editor of The New Republic and an English professor at the University of Chicago, Russell’s alma mater, he also was a former member of the Committee of One Hundred for the Commission on Conditions in Ireland. Lovett wrote, “in Lake Front, an outstanding piece of writing, Miss Russell has made excellent use of her great opportunity and a stout bid toward its fulfillment.”5
In an interview with the hometown Hyde Park Herald, Russell described Lake Front as “the book I have always wanted to write.”6She dedicated the novel to Cecilia, “whose faith and love created this book.”7Ruth was a “guest of honor” at the Friends of American Writers meeting in the Wedgwood room of Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store.8 The 1932 yearbook at Calumet High School, where she taught, also noted her novel.9
Russell continued teaching another 20 years. She took a few sabbaticals to continue her education at the University of Chicago, including an English course on narration. In January 1954, she “resigned” from the public school system shortly before her 65th birthday, though nothing in the file suggests this was other than a routine retirement.10 Soon after, she moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to join Cecilia, then a romance language teacher at the University of Arkansas.
The two unmarried sisters attended book groups and university functions together, according to newspaper social columns. Cecilia died in 1959 and was buried at the St. Joseph Catholic Church cemetery in Fayetteville. Two years later, Ruth filed her will at the Washington County, Arkansas, courthouse, which provided a $10,000 endowment upon her own death for a university scholarship in her sister’s name.11 The Cecilia Russell Memorial Scholarship to this day provides study abroad funding for students focused on French.
Ruth remained in Fayetteville until August 1963, when she entered the Rosary Hill Convalescent Home, 16 miles southwest of the Hyde Park neighborhood of her youth. She died there Nov. 28, 1963, age 74, of heart disease.12 Headlines about the assassination and burial of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Irish-American and Catholic president, dominated the last week of her life. Irish President Éamon de Valera, then 81, returned to America for Kennedy’s funeral, 44 years after being interviewed by Russell in Ireland and providing the letter for What’s the matter with Ireland?
In a short news obituary, the Daily News described Russell as a “onetime reporter” for the paper and noted her teaching career. It mentioned Lake Front, her novel, and suggested she wrote “a number of books on Ireland.”13 I have not found other references or evidence that Russell published other titles about Ireland.
Russell’s body was returned to Fayetteville, and buried Dec. 2, 1963, next to her sister, according to the wishes of her will.14 On the headstone, below the centered Russell surname, the bottom left corner is engraved with Cecilia’s first name and dates. The bottom right corner remains smooth where Ruth’s name and dates should be similarly etched.15
The Russell headstone in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
This monograph is the first attempt to detail Ruth Russell’s life. Her Irish reporting and activism have received limited attention from historians, though not in as much detail as this series.16 I believe more material about Russell’s life remains to be discovered. Since I began publishing this series, one historian has made me aware that the Kathleen O’Brennan papers in Ireland contain a hotel receipt showing that Russell and activist Helen Merriam Golden shared a Washington, D.C. hotel room during the April 1920 women’s protest. The 1919 American consulate in Ireland records are another source of potential material.
After a year of research, however, I wanted to post this series in the heart of the centenary of Russell’s 1919-1920 Irish activity. I hope the open, easily accessible format will prompt more research suggestions or sources. I will update the material as appropriate as I continue to work toward a print monograph. I invite readers to submit comments, including criticism.
Beyond What’s the matter with Ireland? and her December 1920 testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, I have not located any diaries, letters, or interviews with Russell that illuminate her private thoughts about the 1919 reporting trip to Ireland or journalism in general. “I was sent as a correspondent to Ireland and wrote a book about it,” she told the Hyde Park Herald in a 1931 interview about her novel. The story says Russell “gave up newspaper work” and began teaching in 1921.17
I wonder if her decision to leave newspapers was driven by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, or by harassment from male colleagues or reporting subjects? Was she professionally blacklisted for her short burst of pro-Irish activism, or privately steered away from revolutionary politics and social activism under the threat of scandal or the risk of losing a middle-class inheritance? Or was Russell simply needed at home to care for her widowed mother, whom she lived with for nearly 20 years after her Ireland trip, never marrying?
Describing Russell as a pioneering woman journalist is probably an overstatement. Her undercover reporting from Chicago’s factory floors and Dublin slums appeared more than 30 years after Elizabeth Cochran (Nellie Bly), Nora Marks, and other “stunt girl” reporters began writing first-person accounts about oppressive conditions in workplaces, hospitals, and public institutions. Margaret Sullivan’s book about Ireland’s social, economic, and political troubles under British rule was published in 1881, nearly 40 years before Russell’s trip. As Russell’s book published in 1920, Ireland’s revolutionary women voiced their views in nationalist newspapers and other publishing ventures on both sides of the Atlantic.
Women reporters like Russell “have been hiding in plain sight” for over a century, Alice Fahs has observed: “They achieved a measure of fame in their own day; enlivened the pages of metropolitan mass-circulation papers that sometimes reached hundreds of thousands of readers; innovated across a variety of new genres, developed styles of newspaper writing that in some cases remains startlingly fresh today; and created a rich set of public conversations within the public spaces of the newspaper.”18
Maurice Walsh has noted: “The evident reluctance in Irish historiography to take an interest in the work of journalists is puzzling … When media scholars do get around to writing history they are curiously neglectful of individual journalists.”19
This is changing. Groups such as the American Journalism Historians Association and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland encourage research and widen interest in journalists like Russell. I have benefited from and contributed to that work as a non-academic member of both groups.
Making my presentation about Russell at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2019 conference, Queens University Belfast.
Expanding digitization also increases access to the work of early journalists. Many of Russell’s 1919 dispatches are available through online newspaper databases, though not the Daily News. Digital editions of What’s the matter with Ireland?, now out of copyright, are easy to find online.
The Irish republican website An Sionnach Fionn posted the book in 2017. It described Russell’s work as “notable for its intimate and sympathetic style, with no sign of the phonetic ‘stage Irish’ accents and racist caricatures which were so beloved by the press in Britain.”20
Indeed, Russell’s reporting from the early months of the Irish revolution, especially her focus on women and workers, helped counter prevailing British and American press narratives of a contented Irish peasantry. Her vivid, 400- to 600-word dispatches would be at home on today’s digital news platforms. These vignettes about ordinary Irish lives caught in the crossfire of the revolution’s social and economic strife are valuable, underutilized snapshots of the period.
The lives of these forgotten people are worth weaving into the tapestry of historical consideration, as well as Russell’s encounters with Ireland’s mainstream political and social figures, especially at the centenary of the revolution. This mostly forgotten woman journalist is also worthy of rediscovery and reconsideration.
Ruth M. Russell’s enlarged signature from a 1961 document establishing a scholarship in her sister’s name.
I am returning to Ireland–my tenth visit since 2000, my fifth since 2016–to make a presentation at the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s annual conference at Queens University Belfast. I am speaking about pioneering woman journalist Ruth Russell, who in 1919 reported on the early months of the Irish revolution for the Chicago Daily News. Watch for updates and tweets from @markaholan.
The Irish Bibliography of Press History (IBPH) has been updated for the first time in over a year. This searchable, open access resource of secondary literature on the history of print media in Ireland is an initiative of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI). (Disclosure: I am a member.)
“The number of new entries in this update indicates the encouragingly healthy state of research being carried out in the history of Irish print media and the IBPH now contains nearly 1,200 individual entries,” IBPH Editor James T. O’Donnell wrote. The latest entries are indicative of the database:
Christopher Doughan, The voice of the provinces: the regional press in revolutionary Ireland, 1914-1921 (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2019)
Davide Mazzi, Views of Place, Views of Irishness: Representing the Gaeltacht in the Irish Press, 1895-1905 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019)
Louise Ryan, Winning the Vote for Women: The Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018). (See my coverage of her presentation at last year’s NPHFI conference.)
Joe Breen and Mark O’Brien (eds.), The Sunday Papers: a history of Ireland’s weekly press (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018)
Ian Kenneally and James T. O’Donnell (eds.), The Irish regional press, 1892-2018: revival, revolution and republic (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018)
As relates to the study of the Irish in America and the Irish-American press, the IBPH includes, among many other entries:
Christoper Dowd, “The weird tales, spicy detectives, and startling stories of Irish-America: Irish characters in American pulp magazines” , Irish Studies Review, Special Issue: Texts and Textures of Irish America, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2015), pp. 176-183
James M. Farrell, “Reporting the Irish Famine in America: Images of ‘Suffering Ireland’ in the American press, 1845-1848” , in Ciaran Reilly (ed.) The famine Irish: emigration and the great hunger, (Dublin: History Press Ireland, 2016)
Alan O’Day, “Media and power: Charles Stewart Parnell’s 1880 mission to North America”, in Hiram Morgan (ed.) Information Media and Power Throughout the Ages, (Dublin: UCD Press, 2001)
Bernadette Whelan, “American propaganda and Ireland during world war one: the work of the Committee on Public Information” , in American propaganda and Ireland during world war one: the work of the Committee on Public Information.
“Though the IBPH continues to grow, and hopefully be useful, I am sure there is still much out there that is missing and more coming down the line, so, as always, if you aware of any forthcoming or previously published works that should be included in the IBPH and aren’t I would be most grateful for your suggestions,” O’Donnell wrote. The website linked in the first paragraph above contains a “suggestion sheet” and contact details.
This month marks the blog’s seventh anniversary, which is a good opportunity to thank readers for their interest in my work. I am grateful to my email subscribers; people who have written to me about the content; and those who help share it on social media. I’m also grateful to the archivists, librarians, and historians who have guided me along the way.
My wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, has lovingly contributed to this effort as editor and webmaster. She and I will be traveling in Ireland and Northern Ireland over the next two weeks, and we will post words and images about the island’s natural beauty and contemporary culture.
Further ahead, I’ve been asked to present my Irish-related research at the American Journalism Historians Association‘s annual conference in Dallas; and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Details coming this fall.
For now, thanks again for supporting the blog, and watch for our posts from Ireland. MH
Angie and I at the Marian Year, 1954, shrine in Lahardan townland, County Kerry, in 2012. My grandfather was a born near this hillside holy well in 1894.
Dublin-born writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 made a yearlong, coast-to-coast lecture tour of America. It’s the focus of a new book, Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn. In the Jan. 25 issue of America magazine, reviewer Jeffrey Myers says the author:
developed a new approach to biographical research. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure trove of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde had lectured that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Her innovative approach and exploration of unsuspected territory has yielded rich results, illuminating new aspects of Wilde’s life and afterlife.
Wilde, in 1882, the year of his U.S. tour.
Digitized database and online newspaper archives are fairly recent conveniences, to be sure. But the material was always there for earlier biographers; it just required more time, travel, and tribulation to dig from bound, clipped, or microfilmed editions of the old papers.
As a journalist, I once did this sort of thing all the time in what where called “morgues,” usually a musty back corner of the newsroom. It’s important to know the past, the back story, whether writing about today’s news developments or yesterday’s events.
The work can be tedious. In his Jan. 28 essay for The New Yorker, L.B.J. biographer Robert A. Caro recalls the advice he received from one of his early newspaper editors about doing investigative research; in Caro’s case, a cache of government records. “Turn every page,” the editor said. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.”
Digital searching quickly and seductively whisks you to what the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software finds. But it may bypass misspellings; pages that are smudged and damaged; or relevant stories that don’t contain your search term(s).
Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland co-founder Felix Larkin addressed other concerns in our November 2018 interview:
Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.
I’ve been scrolling through microfilm of 1919 Chicago newspapers for a project I’ll unveil later this year. Seeing the surrounding headlines puts the Irish stories in wider context. And there are delightful distractions, such as following the game-by-game performance of Chicago baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson in the months before that year’s controversial World Series.
I have benefited from digital access to old newspapers since 2008, when I found the 1941 account of my Kerry-born grandfather’s death in Pittsburgh. It prompted me to write his biography. I am currently reading digitized 1919 editions of The Irish Press, Philadelphia; Kentucky Irish American, Louisville; and similar ethnic papers to explore U.S. reporting of Ireland’s revolutionary period.
But I still love viewing original records inside archives and libraries. The undigitized material forces me to turn every goddamn page; every … faded … page.
Irish-American files in the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Historian Felix M. Larkin specializes in the study of Irish newspapers, including editorial cartoons. He is an expert on the Freeman’s Journal, the prominent Dublin newspaper published from 1763 to 1924. His work is widely published in books and journals. See Larkin’s website for more details of his biography and bibliography.
In 2008, Larkin helped found the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI), a “very cumbersome name – which, however, does have the merit of accurately describing what the focus of our activities is,” he said in a 2013 address. The organization’s mission, as stated on its homepage, is to facilitate contact between researchers and writers in the field of newspaper, periodical, journalism and printing history, and strengthen the links between teaching and research institutions, libraries, and other organizations concerned with media history.
I met Larkin earlier this month at NPHFI’s 2018 conference at the National University of Ireland/Galway. In the Q & A below, conducted via email shortly afterward, Larkin discusses the importance of studying history through newspapers; weighs the advantages and pitfalls of such research in the digital age; and cautions about “State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries,” such as the Irish War of Independence and Civil War over the next five years. MH
You helped found the NPHFI in 2008. What are your surprises, insights, delights, or disappointments about its first decade? What would you like see happen with the Forum by 2028?
LARKIN: I have been genuinely surprised by the success of the NPHFI, as newspaper history is really a niche subject. We have had 11 successful annual conferences, and have inspired six essay collections and at least two more that are in preparation. In addition, we have put together and maintain the immensely useful on-line Irish Bibliography of Press History, which is a great resource for scholars.
The insight that I have gained from my experience with the NPHFI is the extent to which journalism history benefits from an inter-disciplinary approach – and I say this as someone who is trained as a historian and deeply respects the rigorous methodology of history. The delights are, of course, the very interesting people I have met through the NPHFI and the friendships that I have made.
My only real disappointment is that, notwithstanding the NPHFI’s 10 years of effort, mainstream history does not yet acknowledge the importance of newspapers in the social and political life of the last two centuries. Thus, for example, the new Cambridge History of Ireland doesn’t have a chapter, or even a dedicated subsection within a chapter, on newspapers. (Editor’s note: See Larkin’s 7 June 2018 piece in The Irish Catholic.)
As regards 2028, my main hope is that I will still be around to enjoy the proceedings of the NPHFI conferences! My hope more generally for the future of the NPHFI is that it will remain faithful to its focus on the print media – newspapers and periodicals – as distinct from broadcasting and the electronic media which receive quite enough attention in other forums. Ironically, as newspapers decline in popularity and influence, it is all the more necessary to have a place specifically dedicated to the study of their history – lest they fall off our radar completely.
Digital newspaper archives are more common today than in 2008, allowing more people to access the content. What tips or cautions would you offer about historical research of newspapers/periodicals? Any specific advice for those exploring Irish papers, especially regarding the run of War of Independence and Civil War centenaries over the next five years?
LARKIN: I have always believed that one of the reasons why so few people have worked on newspaper history is the sheer quantity of material to be waded through – whether you are using the print editions, microfilm or a digital archive. Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.
Using a digital archive also means that you miss out on a sense of what the paper looked like – its size and general appearance – and this is important for context, especially for specialist newspaper historians.
As regards newspapers in the period of the War of Independence and the Civil War, during such periods of great conflict there is a tendency for newspapers to become more partisan than in normal times – and there is a greater risk of censorship and intimidation – and so historians using newspapers as a source need to be even more conscious of bias in newspaper coverage than they would ordinarily be.
Are there any periods of history, or types of stories, or kinds of research, that you think are under-explored in the realm of Irish newspapers and periodicals?
LARKIN: Oh yes! There is relatively little work done on Irish newspapers before the 1840s. I accept that newspapers don’t reach the zenith of their power and influence until the second half of the 19th century, but there is a rich earlier history of the press to be explored – and we have not done that. For instance, only one early-period paper was offered in response to the Call for Papers for the most recent NPHFI annual conference – and we were very glad to have it.
A century from now, will there be a Digital Content History Forum of Ireland? Your thoughts about the shrinking contemporary newspaper industry, and whether today’s digital content will even be available for future research, given the rapid evolution of technology?
LARKIN: Well, I am a historian – not a fortune-teller. I find it difficult enough to deal with the past without worrying about the future. So I would be very reluctant to speculate about the future of newspapers as a print medium – or about what aspects of the media, print or otherwise, will interest historians in future years.
What does concern me, however, is the declining quality of journalism in the print media – e.g. the jettisoning of sub-editing and other “checking” functions in the interests of cutting expenditure – which means that newspapers are an increasingly less reliable source for future historians, as well as for their current readers. We seem to have come a long way from the Woodward & Bernstein standard of “the best obtainable version of the truth”.
As regards access to digital sources, I am old enough to remember accessing music on vinyl, then tape cassette, then CD and now via my computer – such rapid change, and nothing was compatible with the previous iteration of the technology. The same thing will inevitably happen with today’s digital portals. We can only hope that libraries will retain – and maintain in working order – obsolete equipment so that data can be recovered as technology progresses and made available in whatever new forms emerge. But I am not optimistic on that score.
Other thoughts or comments about NFPHI … or the upcoming centenary period?
LARKIN: There have been four chairpersons of the NPHFI to date, and each of us was a founding member. The term of office of our current chair, Regina Uí Chollatáin, ends next year – and we will have to find her successor from the ranks of those who have come on board in the years since our foundation. The baton is being passed to the next generation, and this will bring its challenges – but it is also healthy, an opportunity for renewal. We have a great crop of younger scholars who work with the NPHFI and I am satisfied that the NPHFI will be in good hands for many years to come.
On the upcoming centenary period, suffice it to say that I am not much in favor of commemorating or celebrating historical events. It is more important to try to understand the past in all its complexity. That’s the responsibility of the historian, and historians should be very uneasy when faced with State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries. Such jamborees rarely add anything to the sum of human knowledge.
GALWAY ~ The Irish Citizen, a Dublin-based feminist newspaper published from 1912 to 1920, not only covered women’s struggle to obtain the right to vote, but also produced ground-breaking reporting about sexual assault and other abuses, especially among domestic servants. The paper was 100 years ahead of the #MeToo Movement.
As alternative media, the Citizen “privileged a journalism wedded to social responsibility rather than the ideology of objectivity” claimed by the mainstream press, Louis Ryan, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield, told the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland 2018 Conference, “The Press and the Vote.”
Irish suffragettes faced a more complex struggle than their British sisters, Ryan said. When Irish women sought support from the Irish Parliamentary Party, then trying to secure Home Rule, the male politicians said wait until Ireland secured domestic political autonomy. Militant Irish republicans criticized the feminists for wanting any franchise at all with the London government.
Women on both shores of the Irish Sea obtained limited voting rights in February 1918. In December 1918, Irish nationalist Constance Markeivicz, who was jailed for her role in an anti-conscription protest, became the first woman elected to the British House of Common. She refused to take the seat, instead joining the revolutionary parliament in Dublin and the ensuing Irish War of Independence.
The Citizen, which survived the turmoil of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Great War on the continent, folded before the Irish conflict was resolved a few years later. But the paper left an invaluable feminist archive, Ryan said.
For this year’s centennial, she has published an updated and revised edition of her 1996 book, Winning the Vote for Women: The Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland, available from Four Courts Press. Listen to an April 2018 podcast on Dublin City FM’s Mediascope.
The first day of the NPHFI Conference featured nine other excellent presentations about the role of newspapers in the 1918 British elections, corrupt elections practices in 20th century Ireland, the Catholic Standard newspaper’s anti-communism campaign in the 1950s, and other topics. Nine more presentations are scheduled for 10 November.