In fact in his efforts to secure weapons and/or finance for the IRA, Russell was to travel abroad five times. Once to the Soviet Union, three times to the United States and once to Germany.
Russell enjoyed widespread respect from the rank and file of the IRA and was elected Quarter-Master-General in 1931.
As QMG, he was in close communication with the leading figures of the Irish-American support networks which he visited in 1932. A second visit in 1936 cemented a relation with Clan na nGael leader Joe McGarrity, a Tyrone man who lived most of his life in Philadelphia. On McGarrity’s advice, Russell contacted the German Embassy in Washington, seeking financial support for an IRA campaign in England.
He sent proposals for such an England campaign to the 1937 General Army Convention. His proposals were rejected on the basis that the IRA didn’t have sufficient resources for such a campaign to be successful. A proposal by Tom Barry for a major attack in the Six Counties was also rejected for similar reasons. Factions developed within the Republican Movement as impatience mounted for some kind of armed initiative against partition. However, crucially, there was an overall agreement that no direct conflict would be sought with the forces of the Free State. The basic principle of fighting in the Six Counties and in England gradually came to dominate long term Republican Strategy. This was despite the fact that IRA was proscribed once more in 1936. The fact that a Fianna Fail administration ordered the crackdown led to a sense of bitterness which greatly worsened during the grim 1940’s.
Russell’s persistence ultimately paid off. In April 1938, the General Army Convention assembled in Dublin and advanced Russell to the position of Chief of Staff. He had a substantial following who knew that he was determined to deliver a significant military campaign. Russell’s American connections were now vital as Clan na nGael would be relied upon to provide both finance and weapons, for any such campaign.
Also, in 1938, Joe Mc Garrity paid a rare visit to Ireland and met with Sean Russell at the Spa Hotel in Lucan. Russell reputedly also liaised that year with DeValera in a final effort to explore the possibility of a constitutional push for reunification. Whereas McGarrity offered a lifeline to the IRA, DeValera sough its dissolution.
Meanwhile, as all this was going on, the IRA, at local level, were increasingly in conflict with Ireland’s Fascist organisation. ‘The Blueshirts’, who by 1936, were claiming a membership of 100,000 men.
The IRA were by far the most active organisation in opposing the spread of Fascism in Ireland and many street battles erupted during the period as the IRA disrupted rallies and recruitment meeting of The Blueshirts.
The IRA was also the principle source of volunteers who joined the International Brigades, under Frank Ryan’s leadership, to fight against Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
A development hugely significant for all republicans occurred in 1938 when Russell secured transfer of authority from the surviving members of the Second Dail to the Army Council of the IRA. This gave the IRA the mandate to act on the authority of the Republic and imbued the armed strategy with great moral force in Republican circles. This was an important factor in stabilizing an IRA that had been struggling with factionalism.
Armed with their mandate from the Second Dail, the IRA issued a dramatic ultimatum to the British Government. When, predictably, the ultimatum was ignored, the IRA declared War on Britain on the 16th of January 1939.
An offensive called the ‘S-plan Campaign’ was launched. This closely resembled Rory O’Connor’s sabotage of British economic targets during the War of Independence. Power, finance, postal and telecommunication services were targeted. In this respect, Russell, an alleged extremist, was more reserved than either Michael Collins or Cathal Brugha who approved assassination operations in Britain in the 1920’s. However, the IRA of 1939 lacked resources, particularly, in trained activists and high grade explosives. Coupled with the vigilance and resources of the British authorities, this mitigated against striking the prestige targets that would have garnered the level of international publicity necessary to pressurize the British Establishment on its unresolved Irish Question.
From an operational point of view, the S-Plan was partially successful. Substantial disruption and damage was inflicted on the British state. However, the campaign ran itself into the ground long before any tangible Republican objectives could be secured. Major problems were posed by the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939. The DeValera government introduced extremely harsh measures against the IRA including internment and capital punishment. Also, Clan Na nGael became virtually inactive as it was politically untenable to activity support a group at war with Britain at a time when American foreign policy was to take all measures to keep the United States out of the conflict.
On the 3rd of February 1939, Russell was one of several GHQ members who met the German agent Oskar Pfaus in Dublin. The prospect of securing modern weapons and munitions from Germany was too appealing for the ex Quarter-Master-General to discount. However, the most urgent requirement was cash to sustain the S-Plan Campaign in England. Thus, Russell again left to tour the Clan Na nGael strongholds in America in April 1939. The American government was pressurised by the British Authorities resulting in Russell’s arrest in Detroit in June. Following protests from the Irish-American Community Russell was released on bail. The Longshoremen’s Union in New York smuggled him on board a ship bound for Italy masquerading as a fireman. He worked his way on board and the conditions may have led to deterioration in his health.
He was met in Genoa by Professor Farnz Fromme who brought him to Berlin. There he met with German Intelligence.
When meeting Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbontrop, Russell stressed the necessity of the IRA always acting on its own terms. Assistance with weapons and finance was fine but the IRA would have no cooperation with German military or intelligence.
In his dealings with the Germans, Russell sought the release of Frank Ryan from Burgos Prison in Spain. Ryan was then the most prominent IRA man still in captivity following his leading role in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Ryan was released and arrived in Berlin on August 4th 1940. He was in poor health having received repeated severe beatings in Burgos for refusing to give the Fascist salute.
Together, Russell and Ryan left Germany on August 8th on board a German U-Boat to return to Ireland. However, on August 14th, just miles off the Irish west coast, Russell became ill and died apparently of a perforated duodenal ulcer. He was buried at sea. Ryan abandoned the mission and returned to Germany where he died on June 10th 1944.
In September 1951, the National Graves Association unveiled a monument in Dublin’s Fairview Park, dedicated to the IRA volunteers who had sacrificed their lives’ in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Such was Russell’s legacy that the monument was dominated by a statue of him.
A huge crowd attended the unveiling comprising of various arms of the Republican Movement and the broad Irish left. This included units of the IRA, along with Sinn Fein, Cumann na MBan, Na Fianna and Clan na nGael.
From the left came the Transport Workers Union band, along with members of Clan na Pobhlachta, The Labour Party and the Trade Union Movement.
Public bodies represented included Dublin Corporation and the G.A.A.
Many well known individuals also attended. These included the writer Brendan Behan, and TD’s of Clan na Phoblachta and the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, in the ensuing years, some people with a limited historical knowledge, or an agenda of their own, have misconstrued Russell’s politics by making judgement solely based on the politics of the countries from which he sought weapons. Thus in 1954, his statue was vandalised by a right wing group who believed Russell was a Communist because of his trip to the Soviet Union. More recently in 2004, the statue was again vandalised, this time by a group claiming to be of the left who believed Russell was a Fascist because of his mission to Germany.
In fact, despite his struggle against the spread of Fascism in Ireland, Sean Russell was neither a Communist nor a Fascist but a traditional physical force Republican. He was happy to accept weapons from the Soviet Union, America or Germany but not their ideologies. He himself made this clear.
In recent years, there have been repeated attempts by some, in both, the Irish Media and establishment, to further this image of Sean Russell as a Fascist. This is in fact a good example of revisionism at work. To criticise Russell as a Republican is fair enough if that’s one’s viewpoint. But false character assassination is entirely a different matter. That! Is both politically and historically, dishonest, immoral and underhanded. This is particularly the case when it comes from members of political groups with far, far closer historical links to Ireland’s Fascists than any of Sean Russell’s comrades.
Here in their own words is what people said at the time. You can make up your own minds:
‘I am not a Nazi. I am not even pro German. I am an Irishman fighting for the independence of Ireland. If it suits Germany to give us help to achieve independence, I am willing to accept it, but no more, and there must be no strings to the help.’
Sean Russell; Chief of Staff, IRA
‘However, willing he (Russell) might be to use the Germans for his own political ends, he regarded the Nazi philosophy as anathema.’
Lt. Colonel Lahousen; Head of Div. il Abwehr. (German Intelligence)
‘Russell throughout his stay Germany had shown considerable reticence towards the Germans and plainly did not regard himself as a German agent.’
British Intelligence; File KV 2/1292
‘The Black-Shirts have been victorious in Italy and Hitler’s Brown-Shirts have been victorious in Germany, as assuredly the Blue-Shirts will be victorious in Ireland.’
John A. Costello; Leader of Fine Gael/Taoiseach 1948-1951 & 1954-1957
The following and final quote is such a loathsome piece of bigotry that it disgusts me to repeat it. But, it’s important that modern politicians be aware of their own party’s past before throwing mud at the memory of patriots like Sean Russell.
Oliver J Flanagan was elected to Leinster Houser as an independent TD in 1943. He soon joined Fine Gael and went on to be their longest ever serving TD. He was Fine Gael Minister of Defence in 1976-1977 and enjoyed the title ‘Father of the Dail’ from 1981-1987. In his maiden speech in Leinster house in 1943 he said the following:
‘There is one thing that Germany did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is honey, and where the Jews are there is money.’
Oliver J. Flanagan; Fine Gael TD 1943-1987
Minister of Defence 1976-1977
‘Father of the Dail’ 1981-1987
In 2005, rather than again repair the statue of Sean Russell, the National Graves Association decided to avail of the opportunity presented by the most recent act of vandalism. Thus, a decision was reached to commission a major new work to replace the damaged statue. The new statue, sculpted by Willie Malone, is a life size solid bronze sculpture. It is in itself a significant work of art.
We in the National Graves Association believe that it completes a fitting tribute to Sean Russell and all the others named on this monument.