Tag Archives: Ruth Russell

Best of the Blog, 2019

Welcome to my seventh annual Best of the Blog–BOB. As always, I want to thank regular readers and new visitors for their support, including social media shares. Special thanks to my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan: editor, webmaster … my dear companion.

Back to Ireland …  

Inisheer, August 2019.

This year I made my ninth and tenth trips to the island of Ireland, traveling both times to the Republic and Northern Ireland. I’m starting this year’s BOB with a sampling of highlights from these 10 trips in just under 20 years:

May 2000: Pilgrimage to the Lahardane (Ballybunion) and Killelton (Ballylongford) townlands, North Kerry, birthplaces of my maternal grandfather and grandmother, respectively; and walked the Cobh waterfront where they emigrated in the early 20th century.

September/October 2001: Climbed Croagh Patrick … Interviewed surviving family at the Bloody Sunday Trust/Museum and watched testimony in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry at the Guild Hall, Derry. (Journalism fellowship from the German Marshall Fund.)

August 2007: (With Angie) Enchanted by the monastic ruins of Clonmacnoise (Offaly) and Glendalough (Wicklow). … Attended first play at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin: The Big House, by Lennox Robinson.

February 2009: Researched historic newspapers and census records at the National Library of Ireland and The National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, before they were digitized and made available online.

May/June 2012: (With Angie) Attended the Listowel Writers’ Week and heard Paul Durcan recite his poem “On the First Day of June” … on June 1, 2012 … at the Listowel Arms Hotel, the River Feale framed by the window at his back. … Strolled the Kinsale to Charles Fort (Cork) coastal walk, stopping for a lovely outdoor lunch.

July 2016: Toured the Falls/Shankill neighborhoods of Belfast by Black Taxi … Visited Titanic Belfast EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum … and Glasnevin Cemetary (Part 1Part 2), the last two in Dublin.

February 2018: Researched at the Michael Davitt Museum and grave (Straide, County Mayo); and read Davitt’s papers at Trinity College Dublin. (Part 1 & Part 2).

November 2018: Walked a muddy, cow-crowded road to reach Killone Abbey (Clare), following the footsteps of American journalist William Henry Hurlbert, who wrote of visiting the site in 1888.

July/August 2019: (With Angie) Cycled the Great Western Greenway from Achill Island to Westport (Mayo). … Hiked the circumference of Inisheer (Aran Islands, Galway) on my 60th birthday, and viewed the Cliff of Moher, which I had visited on my 2000 trip, from the sea.

November 2019: Presented my research about American journalist Ruth Russell’s 1919 travels to Ireland at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University Belfast for the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland annual conference.

Here are 2019 photo essays from both sides of the border:

From an evening walk on Inisheer, August 2019.

A few more photo essays from Irish America:

Before morning Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago, March 2019.

1919, Revisited … 

This year I enjoyed exploring U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of 1919 events in Irish history. Find all 32 stand-alone posts, plus the five-part monograph, Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland, at my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.

Other history highlights … 

… and guest posts

I am always grateful to the contributions of guest bloggers. This year:

The Antrim coast, July 2019.

Other news of note:

RIP Lyra McKee, journalist killed in Derry on April 19. She was 29, the same age as Ruth Russell when the American reporter arrived in Ireland in 1919. … U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi–first, second, and third in succession of power in the American government–each visited Ireland in 2019. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. … Republic of Ireland golfer Shane Lowry won the British Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, the first time since 1951 the Open has been held on the island of Ireland. … American businessman Edward F. Crawford became the new U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. …Abortion and same-sex marriage were decriminalized in Northern Ireland, in part due to the dormant Northern Ireland Assembly. … See more at my monthly roundups from 2019 and previous years of Best of the Blog.

Libraries and Archives

Special thanks for the in-person help I received at these institutions in 2019:

  • Catholic University of America, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and Mullen Library, Washington, D.C.
  • Georgetown University, Lauinger Library, Washington, D.C.
  • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Arlington Public Library, Central Library, Arlington, Va., and the numerous libraries that made books available through the Interlibrary Loan program.
  • University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center, Pittsburgh
  • Heinz History Center, Detre Library & Archives, Pittsburgh
  • The Archives of the Sister of Charity of Seton Hill, Greensburg, Pa.
  • The Newberry, Chicago
  • Chicago Public Library, Herald Washington Library Center, Chicago
  • Queens University Belfast, McClay Library Special Collections, Belfast

And digital assistance from these institutions:

  • University College Dublin, Papers of Éamon de Valera (1882–1975), (Thanks again John Dorney of The Irish Story.)
  • National Library of Ireland, Patrick McCartan Papers (1912-1938)
  • University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
  • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, (Newspaper Collection), Springfield, Ill.
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main, Pennsylvania Dept. Collections
  • Villanova University, Falvey Memorial Library, Joseph McGarrity Collection, Philadelphia
  • University of Kentucky, Margaret King Library, Louisville
  • University of Louisville, Ekstrom Library
  • Louisville Free Public Library
  • The Filson Historical Society, Louisville
  • Library of Congress, Chronicling America
  • Newspapers.com
  • Irish Newspaper Archives

Thanks again to all the librarians, archivists, and readers. Keep visiting this “journalist’s blog dedicated to Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

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: Afterward

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. The post concludes a five-part series: 1) Beginnings 2) Correspondent 3) Activist 4) Witness © 2019

***

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.”6 She dedicated the novel to Cecilia, “whose faith and love created this book.”7 Ruth 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 grave in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 2019.

The Russell headstone in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

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.

Back to Ireland for history conference talk

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.

 

St. Colman’s Cathedral celebrates its centennial

UPDATE:

  • At the centenary Mass, Bishop of Cloyne William Crean said: “One hundred years on an unimaginably different Ireland, Europe and global reality prevails. In the North of Ireland, the ancient divisions have eluded resolution. In the south, a liberal secular world view seeks to suppress the Christian narrative.” Notwithstanding the church’s clergy sex abuse scandals and other challenges, he was confident “the prophets of doom were mistaken” in condemning the church to “a dire future”. Coverage from The Irish Times.
  • Engineers Journal detailed, “The building of St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, 1868-1915“.

ORIGINAL POST:

One of Ireland’s most iconic Catholic churches, St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, has reached its 100th anniversary.

A special Mass will be celebrated Sunday, Aug. 25, by Bishop William Crean, joined by Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, Apostolic Nuncio, and clergy and parishioners from the 46 parishes of the Diocese of Cloyne in County Cork. Irish composer Bernard Sexton has created special music and hymns for the centenary.

The foundation stone for St. Colman’s was laid in 1868, a year after the Fenian Rising. The neo-Gothic church was substantially completed in 1915, when the harbor town was still known as Queenstown. The war-delayed consecration took place Aug. 12, 1919, followed two weeks later by solemn commemoration ceremonies overseen by Cardinal Michael Logue, according to this diocesan history.  

The Irish Examiner exclaimed:

A splendid symbol of the undying faith of the Irish people–a faith as firmly fixed as the granite walls of the Cathedral itself–the Mother Church of the Dioceses of Cloyne looks on the heaving waters of the eternal sea, and proclaims that Catholic Ireland discerns truth beyond material mundane affairs … Ireland and Irish Catholics can feel a justifiable pride in the imposing edifice that overlooks Cork Harbour, which is now finished and devoted to the service of God. … St. Colman’s Cathedral now stands for all time a monument to the Faith and zeal of Irish Catholics …1

St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, formerly Queenstown, in County Cork.

The cathedral was not the only big building opened that summer in Cork. In July, the first tractors rolled off the Ford plant assembly line on the site of a former city park and racecourse on the south bank of the River Lee. The plant had 330,000 square feet of covered floor space. It provided employment for nearly 2,000 workers in the desperate post-war economy.

“On the edge of the sidewalks in Cork there is a human curbing of idle men,” Chicago Daily News correspondent Ruth Russell 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.”2

These two developments, spiritual and commercial, happened as the Irish revolution continued to gather pace. By October 1920, the hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence James MacSwiney shocked the city and the world. His funeral was from the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne, about 10 miles from St. Colman’s in the heart of Cork city.

St. Colman’s was the last dominate structure hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants viewed as they sailed to America from Queenstown/Cobh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My Kerry-born grandmother and grandfather were among this cohort, leaving six years before the dedication ceremonies. I am certain they would have wandered up the hill to whisper a prayer inside St. Colman’s before their departure. Because of that, I was as emotionally moved to enter St. Colman’s as to walk the Cobh waterfront the first time I visited Ireland in 2000.

May God grant that St. Colman’s of Cobh stands to welcome the faithful of Ireland and the world for another 100 years.

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: