Seán Russell and the IRA
Worthy successor of Tone and Casement?
For over half a century, the statue of IRA Chief-of-Staff Seán Russell in Fairview Park has been both a flashpoint of controversy and site of devoted Irish republican pilgrimage. But who was this key IRA figure of the early 20th century – and what was the nature of his still-controversial contacts with the Nazi government in the midst of the Second World War?
Born in Dublin’s inner city, Russell cultivated a reputation as a devoted and gifted militant for the republican cause across the revolutionary period. On joining the Irish Volunteers’ Dublin Brigade in 1914, he rose through the ranks of the 2nd Battalion to eventually being appointed Director of Munitions on the IRA GHQ staff by late 1920.
A series of biographical articles written by a former comrade in the 1950s state the following: ‘In May 1921, Seán Russell hardly slept a wink. With Oscar Traynor and Tom Ennis he was up night and day planning the burning of the Custom House, the mainspring of the British civil administration.’ Given his position on IRA GHQ, and his frequent dealings with his old command of the Dublin Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, it is likely Russell may indeed have been a key architect in the plan to burn the Custom House on 25 May, 1921.
Being one of the few GHQ staff to oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Russell spent much of the Civil War in prison. Through the 1920s and 30s, he remained an active IRA figure, aloof from internal political debates and determined to see the organisation return to war. On becoming IRA Chief-of-Staff in 1939, Russell oversaw an ill-fated bombing campaign in England and the following year in the last weeks of his life, embarked on a fateful journey to Berlin that remains the most contested aspect of his legacy.
Gerard Shannon is a historian from Skerries in north county Dublin. He has an MA in History from the DCU School of History and Geography. He is currently working on a biography of the IRA Chief-of-Staff Liam Lynch, due to be published by Merrion Press in 2022.