I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


When Everything Seemed Possible

Barra Ó Seaghdha

An American journalist sympathetic to the causes of labour, the emancipation of women and Ireland’s liberation from British rule shaped her journalism into a book. Soon enough, she disappeared into the quiet obscurity of a worthy teaching life. Ruth Russell’s account of her Irish experiences, What’s the Matter with Ireland?, disappeared into obscurity too, surfacing occasionally decades later in a footnote here and a passing reference there. My purpose here is not to investigate a hidden life (Mark Holan seems to have uncovered as much about Russell as is knowable), or to reflect on the different reasons that certain books languish in darkness, but to demonstrate the value and interest of the impressions, perspectives and perceptions gathered in one such neglected work.

One of the surprises of What’s the Matter with Ireland? lies in the fact that it contains a prefatory letter ‘(signed) Eamon de Valéra’. This is addressed from the ‘Elected Government of The Republic of Ireland (American delegation)’ to ‘Miss Ruth Russell, Chicago, Illinois’ and dated January 29th, 1920. We know how important a role the amplifying voice and the financial support of Irish America would play in de Valera’s political life. Do we know whether he really read the book ‘with much interest’ as the letter affirms in congratulating Russell on ‘the rapidity with which [she] succeeded in understanding Irish conditions and grasped the Irish viewpoint?’ Did he read or skim beyond the first chapter (the only one specifically mentioned)? Whether he wrote or dictated this letter, or delegated the task to a subordinate, the content, apart from some unattributed lines of verse (‘There never was a nation yet / Could rule another well’), places de Valera in the line of Davis and Griffith. Russell, having seen the nature of British rule here, must realise ‘better than before what it was your American patriots of ’76 hastened to rid themselves of’. And de Valera’s economic and political thinking, while it shows concern at unemployment and the misery of the poor, seems to assume that independence will, almost of its nature rather than through a solidly worked out economic programme, bring about prosperity:

In a country with such natural resources as Ireland, can you believe it possible that if government by the people obtained there could be such conditions of unemployment and misery as you found?

He invokes Lord Clare’s claim in 1798 (‘There is not a nation on the face of the habitable globe which has advanced in cultivation, in manufactures, with the same rapidity in the same period as Ireland – from 1782 to 1798’) to suggest that ‘progress like this, with the present social outlook in Ireland, would mean the peace, contentment and happiness of millions of human beings’. Though neither Lord Clare’s economic stewardship nor his anti-Catholic invective and obstructionism would mark him out as an obvious authority within de Valera’s ideological universe, the quote from him, plucked from its context, could be usefully deployed in the cause of Irish independence. We can imagine that de Valera at this stage in his career looked forward to an independent Ireland that would lift the ordinary poor out of misery (and we should not forget that the Fianna Fáil governments of the 1930s enacted some progressive policies in areas such as housing and the encouragement of small industry). If Ruth Russell’s political views at this stage were more radical than those of Sinn Féin, it was more important to add another sympathetic voice to the pro-independence chorus in the United States than to quibble over the arrangement of the hymns to be sung.

Pat Cooke makes an important observation in his recent study The Politics and Polemics of Culture in Ireland, 1800-2010:

Irish nationalists of the revival period, then, could dream of Ireland free but not of an Ireland free from an essentially liberal, pragmatic sense of how the relations between government and society should be conducted. The only exception was a small number of urban socialists like James Connolly and agrarian radicals like Michael Davitt, both of whom advocated the nationalisation of the country’s material resources. Virtually every other political grouping, from radical republicans to constitutional nationalists and unionists, shared an implicit attachment to the norms of liberal government.

Let us move to Ruth Russell’s own foreword. It indicates a particular mixture: a hatred of the conditions in which the poor live; an attachment to republicanism; a belief that a radical new order might emerge from the Irish crucible; an underestimation of the strength of resistance to change in Ulster, along with a distinctly optimistic assessment of the strength of the forces for radical change in the country as a whole. Let us avoid the easy knowingness of the backward glance and respect the personal quest and the vision of the future that animated Russell’s engagement with Ireland:

‘And tell us what is the matter with Ireland.’
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.

The opening sentences of the first chapter show how diligently Russell responded to her fellow-journalist’s injunction. (We can assume that international labour contacts had already supplied her with names, addresses and tips.) She did not content herself with interviews and opinion, or with official sources (though her footnotes demonstrate a period of immersion in such sources):

Is Ireland poor? I decided to base my answer to that question on personal investigation. I dressed myself as a working girl – it is to the working class that seven-eighths of the Irish people belong – and in a week in the slums of Dublin I found that lack of employment is continually driving the people to migration, low-wage slavery, or acceptance of charity.

And so it is that we first encounter Irish life as it was experienced by a fragilely optimistic young woman who trudges through the rain in search of work (in the end, dispiritedly, accepting work in Scotland), by the activist widow of one of Connolly’s followers killed in 1916, or by a neighbour who has to ask the widow Hanna to look in on her children and ‘keep the young ones out of the grate for me’. (The family is increasingly reliant on her washing work, as her husband’s casual work on the docks is dwindling.) Russell quickly sketches the direct young woman at the hatch of the ministry of munitions office, the impatient self-pitying manager of a small factory, or another manager who says that he faces unemployment himself as the women’s trade union league is demanding an increase in wages. Russell mentions the distrust in the eyes of one woman and the advice of an old charwoman: ‘Hold on to whatever you can get – whatever.’ Her whole account is studded with details of wage rates and differentials, but also with her own precise observation:

The big shoes that must once have belonged to the visitor’s man, hit the floor loosely as she walked slowly out. Then as 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 street and back 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 crumbled bread.

The conversations she retails largely avoid the kind of heightened blather that renders parts of O’Casey’s plays and autobiographical volumes tedious, but this is recognisably the social world of the Dublin trilogy or of James Stephens’s The Charwoman’s Daughter – through a leftist woman’s lens.

Russell vividly depicts the shockingly high incidence of tuberculosis in overcrowded slum conditions but is also attentive to impoverished sectors of rural Ireland. She has a gift for selecting telling quotations from government reports. She highlights how rules intended to cater for the conditions of industrial England provide legal cover for children in rural Donegal, for example, to be used as unpaid labourers by their parents or others and thus deprived of a proper primary education.

In another chapter, Russell paints the tension and excitement as crowds – and journalists like herself – wonder whether de Valera, in hiding since his escape from Lincoln jail, will be permitted to show himself and meet the lord mayor of Dublin at Mount Street Bridge before an official reception. We glimpse the black-clad Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington lost in thought, earnest young Sinn Féin secretaries, Harry Boland relaying updates on whether or not the planned reception will be attempted … Russell reminds us how youthful this revolution was and how anything seemed possible in those early days.

She is granted an early-morning interview with de Valera in a residence well past Portobello Bridge and just beyond the edge of town; she is escorted by car and briefly on foot by Harry Boland:

As we walked I made I forget what request in regard to the interview from young Mr. Boland, and with the reverent regard and complete obedience to DeValera’s wishes that is characteristic in the young Sinn Feiners – a state of mind that does not, however, prevent calling the president ‘Dev’ – he said simply: ‘But I must do what he tells me.’

That prefatory letter becomes more understandable – especially as we read the next few paragraphs, with their depiction of the (as yet untainted) sternly charismatic leader at work:

    DeValera was giving rapid, almost breathless, orders in Irish to some one as I entered his room. His thin frame towered above a dark plush-covered table. A fire behind him surrounded him with a soft yellow aura. His white, ascetic, young – he is thirty-seven – face was lined with determination. Doors and windows were hung with thick, dark-red portieres, and the walls were almost as white as DeValera’s face.

De Valera is not one for unbuttoned chat with journalists. He is polite but knows exactly what he wants, and insists on it:

‘Pardon us for speaking Irish,’ he apologized. ‘We forget. Now first of all, we will go over the questions you sent me. I have written the answers. They must appear as I have put them down. That is the condition on which the interview takes place.’

Traits of the future politician can be discerned in the calculated ambiguity of his answers to the visiting journalist. More than the usual level of quotation is required here:

Did Sinn Fein plan immediate revolution? The president ran a fountain pen under the small, finely written lines as he remarked in an aside that he was not a writer but a mathematician. No. The sudden set of the president’s jaw indicated that this man who had fought in the 1916 rebellion till even his enemies had praised him, was the man who had decided there would be no reception at the bridge. No. There would be no armed revolt till all peaceable methods had failed.

Russell was not alone in wondering what kind of revolution was brewing in Ireland, and in underestimating the forces that would impede the growth of the kind of revolution she dreamed of; de Valera personally and Sinn Féin as a movement understood at an early stage how important the foreign press was in amplifying and broadcasting the struggle of a small nation against an imperial power.

The interview continued:

If Sinn Fein succeeded in getting separation, would it establish a bolshevistic government? DeValera returned that he was not sure what bolshevism is. As far as he understood bolshevism, Sinn Fein was not bolshevistic. But perhaps, by the way, bolshevism had been as misrepresented in the American press as Sinn Fein. Right there, I took exception and said that from his own point of view I did not see what good slurring the American press would do his cause. Immediately he answered as if only the principal phase of the matter had occurred to him: “But it’s true.” Then he continued: The worker is unfairly treated. Whether it is bolshevistic or not, Sinn Fein hopes to bring about a government in which there will be juster conditions for the laboring classes.

For a moment, one may wonder if, through the twists of history, Ireland did not lose a proto-Chomskian media critic when de Valera opted for the life of a political leader. More seriously, he was not wrong to see bias in the American press and Russell (while showing a rare touch of American defensiveness) not wrong to advise against needless provocation of a force that could help the Irish cause at a crucial time. Was de Valera, in his encounter with Russell, tilting his message towards the particular sector of opinion that she represented? That would have been a normal political tactic. At the same time, de Valera’s American tour would show that he was perhaps not quite as shrewd a reader of the American game as he imagined.

In the remaining sections of the chapter Russell mixes reportage and statistical analysis as she looks for the ‘Causes and remedy of social conditions.’ In this context, Arthur Griffith’s original and relentlessly repeated Sinn Féin message, with its emphasis on native industry and independence, is depicted as potentially revolutionary and transformative.

‘England kills Irish industry,’ said the succinct Arthur Griffith as he rose from the right hand of DeValera to address the delegates. ‘Early in the nineteenth century, England wanted a cheap meat supply center. She therefore made it more profitable for the landowners in Ireland to grow cattle instead of crops. Only a few herders are required in cattle care. So literally millions of Irish, tillers of the soil and millers of grain, were thrown out of employment, and from 1841 to 1911 the population fell from 8,000,000 to 4,400,000. Today, Ireland, capable of supporting 16,000,000, cannot maintain 4,000,000.

This, and an impatience with Westminster politics resulting in clear abstentionism, are depicted as key to Sinn Féin’s success in the post-war elections. This message will also be carried back to the Philadelphia Race Convention by the visiting delegates. De Valera was to obtain American capital to back Irish industry. But money was not to be his sole business. He was to work for the recognition of Irish consuls and Irish mercantile marine. And inside Ireland the movement to establish industry on a sound basis was going on. Irish banks, Irish courts, Irish schools are to sustain the movement.

We catch glimpses of Maud Gonne, the ‘rich young Protestant Robert Barton’, ‘[k]een boyish Michael Collins’, Sylvia Pankhurst (‘in Dublin for the purpose of persuading the Irish parliament to become Soviet’), Desmond FitzGerald (‘pink and fastidious’), the seventeen-year-old Sean McBride almost impish in teasing the police or explaining the cheerful tone of Irish street demonstrations to a puzzled Pankhurst.

Russell’s question to de Valera about Bolshevistic thinking in Ireland was not as naive as it may appear. The third chapter of her book Irish Labour and Class Revolution (subtitled ‘A change of flags is not enough’), recounts her impressions of events surrounding Constance Markievicz’s return to Dublin after one of her spells of imprisonment. The writing is not significantly different from Russell’s usual style, but events are filtered through what might be called a red romanticism. The young voices of waiting members of the Irish Citizen Army sing ‘The Red Flag’: ‘Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, / We’ll keep the red flag flying here.’

Young voices, impatient of the interim of waiting, sang the socialist song. The burden was taken up by the laborers, whose constant movement to keep a good view was attested by the hollow sound of their wooden-soled boots on the stone walks. And the refrain was hummed by the shawled, frayed-skirted creatures who were coming up from Talbot street, Gloucester street, Peterson’s lane, and all the family-to-a-room districts in Dublin. On the skeletonish railroad crossing suspended over the Liffey, tin-hatted and bayonet-carrying British soldiers were silhouetted against the moon-whitened sky. Up to them floated the last oath of ‘The Red Flag’.

Russell’s fervour does not blunt her pragmatic ‘journalistic’ side: her admiration for Constance Markievicz does not prevent her from noting ‘the apparent desire to say everything at once that makes her public speech stuttery’. Later, she raises an important question:

How strong are the revolutionaries? The Irish Labor party is new but it already contains about 300,000 members. It plans to include every worker from the ‘white collar’ to the ‘muffler’ labor. And the laborers alone make up seven-eighths of the population. For while there are just 252,000 members of the professional and commercial classes, there are 4,137,000 who are in agricultural, industrial and indefinite classes – most of the farmers are held to be laborers because outside the great estates, holdings average at thirty acres and are worked by the holders themselves.
There’s the revolutionary rub. The Irish farmers make up the largest body of workers in Ireland. The Irish farmer sweated and bled for his land. Would he yield it now for nationalization? I put the question up to William O’Brien, the lame, never-smiling tailor who is secretary of the Irish Labor party. He said that the farm hand should be taken into consideration.

The paragraphs that follow are either a paraphrase of O’Brien’s elaboration of the point or, more likely, Russell’s own reflections informed by her encounters with labour figures and by her investigations. The lot of a land-labourer is, in any case, painted with sympathy:

At present he is condemned to slavery. At a hiring fair – called a ‘slave market’ by the labor unions – he stands between the mooing cows and snorting pigs and offers his services for sale for as little as $100 a year. He may wish to get more money. But his employer is also very often his landlord.

Labour bases its actions on Connolly’s vision:

Irish labor fosters the “one big union.” In some towns all the labor, from teachers to dock-workers, have already coalesced. These unions select their district heads. The district heads are subsidiary to the general head in Dublin. When each union inside the big union is ready to take over its industry, and their district and general heads are ready to take over government there will be a general strike for this end. The strike will be supported by the army – the Citizens’ Army of the workers.
‘There you have,’ said James Connolly, who promoted the one big union, ‘not only the most effective combination for industrial warfare, but also for the social administration of the future.’

Thomas Johnston (‘a big-browed man with thick, pompadoured, gray hair, and the aspect of a live professor’), Nora Connolly (always depicted with affection and admiration) and Cathal O’Shannon (‘the bright young labor leader who goes about with his small frame swallowed up in an overcoat too big for him’) are variously quoted.

‘After the republic, a workers’ republic? After Sinn Fein, the Labor party?’ Russell may be allowing herself to be persuaded. The concluding sentences of the chapter may read one way to us at a century’s remove. Is Russell entirely convinced by Markievicz’s intuitions?

Madame Markewicz is high in the councils of both Sinn Fein and Labor. One day, lost in one of her trance-like meditations in which she states her intuitions with absolute disregard of expediency, she said to me:
“Labor will swamp Sinn Fein.”

We are in the early days of the struggle for independence, when it seems possible to progress towards radical transformation by drawing on the inspirations and practices of seemingly divergent philosophies. The fourth chapter shows even overt revolutionaries acknowledging and respecting the pacifism articulated by AE (George Russell) while also seeing how elements of the co-operative vision could be harnessed towards the national future as they envisioned it. In ‘the building of a co-operative commonwealth on co-operative societies’ (AE’s vision) lay an escape from poverty and gombeenism for the rural poor, who would with time be infused with radical ideas. AE’s praise for the transformative work undertaken by Paddy Gallagher of Dungloe leads Ruth Russell to witness it for herself. The story was later told by the man himself, and by others, and so doesn’t need to be repeated here. What impressed Russell was the energy and practicality with which Gallagher pursued his initiatives for the betterment of the lives of the ordinary people of the area – and overcame resistance by priest and gombeen. One observation stands out:

When I saw Patrick Gallagher in Dungloe, he was dressed in a blue suit and a soft gray cap, and looked not unlike the keen sort of business men one sees on an ocean liner. And indeed he gave the impression that if he had not been a co-operationist for Ireland, he might well have been a capitalist in America.

As we have seen, Russell responded enthusiastically to events and people that pointed towards a radical future. She was, of course, drawn to the Limerick Soviet. The fifth chapter, titled ‘The Catholic Church and Communism’, strikes a dramatic note:

A soviet supported by the Catholic Church – that was the singular spectacle I found when I broke through the military cordon about the proclaimed city of Limerick.

She makes her way to headquarters, where John Cronin explains the origins, immediate achievements and grand plans of the revolting workers. As usual, she conveys the atmosphere in the streets. If the mayor of Limerick speaks of priests firmly supporting the movement, he dismisses the idea that the people want communism. (‘There can’t be. The people here are Catholics.’) Russell proceeds to Ennis, to speak to Bishop Fogarty, one of the most fervent Sinn Féin supporters among the hierarchy.

Russell tells the bishop that she is a Catholic and says that an Irish-American priest had told her that the bishops were in a bad way, trusted neither by the English government nor by the people:

‘Priest-ridden?’ The bishop smiled. ‘Priest-ridden? England would like us to control these people for her today. We couldn’t if we would. Priest-ridden? Perhaps the other way about.’

While it is true that, from the Parnell split to the Civil War, for example, a significant minority of Catholics did not accept the church’s right to dictate their political choices, and the hierarchy as a whole was to scramble from support for one established order to another as a new state emerged, Bishop Fogarty is rhetorically tilting matters too far in the opposite direction. The bishop fervently rejects the notion that working class areas in the centre of Dublin are drifting from the Church, with its support for capitalists, towards socialism:

‘A lie!’ exclaimed the bishop as his jaw shot out and his great muscular frame straightened as if to meet physical combat on the score. ‘It is simply not true. The loyalty of the Irish to the Catholic Church is unquestionable.’

The bishop still maintains a certain radicalism – a Catholic version of Connolly’s idea of early Irish society as proto-socialist allows him to suggest that ‘if the people desired a communistic government there is no essential opposition in the Catholic Church’ and to mention the co-operative experiment in Rahaline in the 1830s. The chapter concludes on a note of accord between journalist and bishop:

When I spoke of the Russian soviet, and stated that I heard that the Roman Catholic church had spread in eight dioceses under the new government, the bishop nodded his head. The Church, he said, had nothing to fear from the soviet.
‘Certainly not from the Limerick soviet,’ I suggested. ‘It was there that I saw a red-badged guard rise to say the Angelus.’
‘Isn’t it well,’ smiled the bishop, ‘that communism is to be Christianized?’

Bishop Fogarty was to surprise many by his emergence as a supporter of the Treaty and his adjustment to the realities of the new state and ecclesiastical order.

Russell’s tendency to underestimate the obstacles to radical change colours her answer to the question ‘What about Belfast?’ – the title of her last chapter. Dawson Gordon, the Protestant president of the Irish Textiles Federation, incarnates the overcoming of sectarian division and the emergence of working class solidarity. Like Russell’s other heroes, he is passionate in his exact denunciation of the living and working conditions of the poor and of the mechanisms of oppression. The dreamed-of future is prefigured in the solidarity he has helped to forge. In his own words:

Catholics began to go to meetings in Orange halls. Protestants attended similar meetings in Hibernian assembly rooms; at a small town near Belfast there was a recent labor procession in which one-half of the band was Orange and the other half Hibernian, and yet there was perfect harmony.

So it is that Russell can affirm: ‘This is the way labor killed Carsonism. I saw it done. I was in at the death.’ Her belief is confirmed by the defeat of an old-style Carsonite in a by-election campaign she witnesses and re-confirmed in Belfast by the generosity of Protestant neighbours to the wife of Dennis McCullough, a frequently imprisoned Sinn Féiner (his political history is more complicated than the term suggests), after the birth of her first child.

The chapter, and the book, concludes on a sweeping assertion:

The rank and file of the Belfastians, then, are joining the priests, co-operationists, labor unionists and Sinn Feiners in their fight for self-determination. For it is believed that as long as the Irish people, Irish or Scotch-Irish, remain under the domination of England, they will continue to suffer under exploitation by her capitalists. And the people of the north and the south are unanimous that English exploitation is what’s the matter with Ireland.

Russell and others like her can be dismissed as deluded, but there are some things that we should not forget. The injustices she loathed were real. The fervour of her political faith is what enabled her to capture the world as it appeared to those who stood against the forces of empire and of social injustice – and who could not know what disappointments, tragedies, betrayals and disasters lay ahead. We do not understand history if we think of it as a mere chronicle of events or as an unfolding of predetermined destinies. We must imagine the world as it was lived and imagined by the actors within it, and of course attempt to understand the larger forces that construct the stage on which the actors improvise their parts, before we bring judgement to bear. Ruth Russell’s What’s the Matter with Ireland can still refresh our understanding of the turbulent times she bore witness to and wrote about.

What’s the Matter with Ireland? (New York, Devin-Adair, 1920). I was lucky enough to come across a copy in pre-internet days; the book is now accessible online. Spellings, sterling-to-dollar conversions, etc are left almost untouched here.
Most of the personalities and situations mentioned in the book are well-known or easily checked. While much work has been done on journalism of the revolutionary period in recent years, Mark Holan seems to have done the most to uncover the details of Ruth Russell’s journalism and biography (see and explore https://www.markholan.org/ ) as part of a wider Irish-American project.
Nicholas Allen’s George Russell (Æ) and the New Ireland (Four Courts Press, 2003) convincingly explains the logic of AE’s seemingly rapid turn from benign encourager of diverse young talent to harsh supporter of state-enforced order. It may also be worth saying that, on a broader level, periods of war and upheaval can induce sudden conversions and reversals of opinion, not always explainable as opportunism or hypocrisy.


Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, interviews, reviews and other writings in the fields of cultural and intellectual history, music, politics and poetry to a wide variety of publications. He edited a special feature on contemporary music in Ireland for Enclave Review (ER 16) in 2018. ‘Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music: A Reassessment’ appeared in Éire/Ireland (Spring/Summer 2019). He supplied the text for Barry Guy’s composition Flyways (for mezzo soprano, piano and string quartet). His most recent publication is the introduction to Benjamin Dwyer’s Music Autopsies: Essays and Interviews (1999–2022), (Wolke Verlag, 2023).



Dublin’s Oldest Independent BookshopBooks delivered worldwide