Seán Russell

Seán Russell (13 October 1893 – 14 August 1940) was an Irish republican who held senior positions in the IRA until the end of the Irish War of Independence, and was chief of staff from c. 1938 to April 1939. It was under Russell's leadership that the IRA began the Sabotage Campaign, in which the group began bombing civil, economic and military infrastructure in the United Kingdom, primarily England, between 1939 and 1940. Following this, Russell actively collaborated with the Germans, personally spending 3 months training in Germany in the use of explosives. Russell died returning to Ireland aboard a Kriegsmarine U-boat following a sudden stomach illness and was subsequently buried at sea.

Seán Russell
Sean Russell.jpg
Chief of Staff of the IRA
In office
1938 – April 1939
Preceded byMick Fitzpatrick
Succeeded byStephen Hayes
Personal details
Born(1893-10-13)13 October 1893
41 Lower Buckingham Street, Dublin, Ireland
Died14 August 1940(1940-08-14) (aged 46)
U-65, Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles (160 km) off Galway, Ireland
Military service
Branch/service Irish Volunteers
Irish Republican Army
Anti-Treaty IRA

Early lifeEdit

Born John Angelo Russell at 41 Lower Buckingham Street, Dublin, in 1893, he was one of the ten children of James Russell, a clerk, and Mary L'Estrange, both of whom were originally from County Westmeath.[1][2]

Irish revoluntionary periodEdit

Russell joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. He participated in the 1916 Easter Rising as an officer in Dublin Brigade's 2nd Battalion, under Thomas MacDonagh.[2] Following the Rising he was interned in Frongoch and Knutsford. After the Irish War of Independence began, he was attached to the IRA General Headquarters Staff (GHQ) and became IRA Director of Munitions in 1920. During the Irish Civil War, he fought against the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the Anti-Treaty IRA.[2] Russell was interned along with Ernie O'Malley (the assistant chief of staff of the Anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War) in the Curragh Camp and was released on 17 July 1924, well over a year after the end of hostilities.[3] In 1925, after the civil war, he was jailed in Mountjoy Prison but escaped on 25 November in a breakout he helped organise.[2]

Post-Civil War activismEdit

Russell was one of those within the much-reduced IRA pushing for more revolutionary activities in 1925. That year, he and Gerald Boland travelled to the Soviet Union on an IRA weapons-buying mission.[2] On his return from Moscow, Russell reported back to Seán Lemass.[4] He was appointed IRA quartermaster general in 1927 and held that position until 1936. From 1929 to 1931, he travelled widely throughout Ireland, reorganising the IRA. Russell was due to give the oration at the 1931 Bodenstown commemoration but was arrested on its eve.[citation needed]

He visited the United States in the autumn of 1932. During the Northern Ireland rail strike of 1933, he organised IRA intervention from Belfast. Russell remained aloof from the IRA's political debates and, following the split of 1934, chaired the court-martial of Mick Price and Peadar O'Donnell who had left the IRA to form the left-wing Republican Congress.[2] He met Éamon de Valera, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State at Government Buildings during 1934, to discuss potentially uniting the IRA and Fianna Fáil.[2][5] In return for political support, De Valera asked for the IRA to lay down their arms and cease any overt actions. Russell was open to the idea, but would only agree to IRA inactivity for 5 years, believing that sufficient time for Fianna Fáil to declare an outright Irish Republic. De Valera turned down the time-bound offer.[5]

In October 1936 Russell wrote to the German ambassador to the United States, and apologised on behalf of the Irish people for the refusal of the de Valera government to grant landing rights to the German air service. In the same communication, Russell informed the ambassador that he would be willing to cooperate with the Germans in any future military conflicts they found themselves in.[6]

While in the United States during 1936, he seems to have conceived, along with Joseph McGarrity, the plan for the bombing campaign in England. In January 1937, Russell was accused by the IRA leadership of misappropriating funds and was court martialled. He had also embarked on his American tour without Army Council permission. He stayed out of Dublin until October 1937, when he approached the IRA leadership in an attempt to convince them that the campaign in England should go ahead.

Chief of Staff of the IRAEdit

In April 1938, an IRA General Army Convention was held, and Russell and his supporters, including McGarrity and IRA members from Northern Ireland, secured enough support to get a majority on the IRA Army Executive, and to have him re-instated in the organisation and elected to the Army Council. That has been described as a takeover by historian Brian Hanley. Following Russell's election, Tom Barry, John Joe Sheehy, and Tomás Óg MacCurtain immediately resigned from the IRA, with Barry denouncing Russell's planned bombing as campaign as "doomed to failure as the Fenian dynamite campaign" and "unethical and immoral",[5] while subsequently, more conservative Republicans such as Patrick McGrath and Seamus O'Donovan returned to the fold.[2] Barry would later claim that Russell and his supporters had said that the German American Bund would fund their planned attack on the United Kingdom.[6]

After becoming IRA chief of staff, Russell put into motion the bombing campaign and forged links with Nazi Germany.[citation needed] During the summer of 1938, the IRA held training classes in explosives throughout the country.

In January 1939, claiming to be the legitimate government of the Irish Republic, the Army Council under Russell's leadership declared war on the United Kingdom.[7] The Sabotage Campaign commenced some days later with bombing attacks on a number of English cities.[7] Russell was also involved in a meeting with German Intelligence (Abwehr) agent Oscar Pfaus.

The Sabotage Campaign (S-Plan) in USA 1939Edit

The leader of Irish-American Republican group Clan na Gael, Joseph McGarrity, was an eager supporter of Russell's bombing campaign in England

To pursue the propaganda arm of the S-Plan, Russell travelled to the United States in April 1939. Prior to leaving, he stood down as IRA chief of staff and was replaced by Stephen Hayes.[8][9] The aim of his journey was to 'show the flag' and place himself in the public mind as the leader of militant Irish nationalism.[10] While there Russell made several public addresses. He was trailed by Federal Bureau of Investigation "G-Men" at the request of Scotland Yard, and then detained by the United States Immigration Service at the Detroit border with Windsor, Ontario[11] during the American visit of King George VI. The incident immediately aroused enormous indignation among Irish-Americans, culminating in a protest by 76 Irish-descended members of Congress. They demanded an explanation from President Roosevelt about the 'Russell Case', failing which they would not participate in the Congressional reception for the King.[12]

While in the United States, Russell met with his Clan na Gael host Joseph McGarrity and Robert Monteith, one of Casement's colleagues in 1916 and, at that time, director of Father Charles Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice. Anxious to skip his bail, which expired on 16 April, Russell made contact, through the offices of McGarrity, with German agent 'V-Rex', also known as Carl Rekowski. 'V-Rex' contacted John McCarthy, a steward on the steamer George Washington, berthed in Tampa, Florida. The George Washington then sailed to fascist Italy. McCarthy met Abwehr agent 'Professor' Franz Fromme in Genoa on 19 and 30 March 1940. That meeting arranged for Russell's journey across the Atlantic, arrival in Genoa on 1 May, and reception in Berlin four days later.

Nazi GermanyEdit

Arriving in Berlin in May 1940, Russell was informed of Operation Mainau, the plan to parachute Hermann Görtz into Ireland. Russell was asked to brief Görtz on Ireland before his departure that night, but missed his takeoff from the Kassel-Fritzlar airfield.[citation needed]

Accorded the privileges of a diplomat and provided with a villa and a chauffeur-driven car, Russell's liaison officer while in Nazi Germany was SS-Standartenfuhrer Edmund Veesenmayer.[13] Veesenmayer indicated particular interest that the IRA had no clear idea of what form an Irish government would take in the event of a German victory.[14]

By 20 May 1940, Russell began training with Abwehr in the use of the latest German explosive ordnance at the training area for the Brandenburg Regiment, the 'Quenzgut', where he observed trainees and instructors working with sabotage materials in a field environment. As he received explosives training, his return to Ireland with a definite sabotage objective was planned by German Army Intelligence. His total training time with German Intelligence was over three months.[citation needed]

Operation Dove and death aboard U-65Edit

Russell rendezvoused with Frank Ryan in Berlin in August 1940

On 15 July 1940, Frank Ryan – an IRA man who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and was captured by Franco forces – was handed over to the Abwehr and taken to Germany. The capture of the German agents from Operation Lobster I did not prevent Abwehr Chief Canaris sanctioning the transport of Russell to Ireland. Both Russell and Frank Ryan, who had arrived in Berlin on 4 August, departed from Wilhelmshaven on 8 August, aboard U-65 – the mission was titled Operation Dove ("Unternehmen Taube" in German).

Russell became ill during the journey and complained of stomach pains. The crew of U-65 did not include a doctor and Russell died on 14 August, 100 miles (160 km) short of Galway. He was buried at sea and the mission was aborted. Following the return of the submarine to Germany, an inquiry was set up by the Abwehr into Russell's death. The inquiry included the interrogation of U-65's crew and Frank Ryan. The conclusion was that Russell had suffered a burst gastric ulcer and, without medical attention, he had died.

A number of conspiracy theories arose around the subject of Russell's death, including that he was poisoned on board the ship, shot by the British Secret Service in France, or murdered by Kurt Haller.[citation needed] However, Russell's brother, Patrick, confirmed after the war that Russell suffered from pre-existing stomach problems.


Russell became the idol of traditionalist republicanism during the 1950s, and a memorial to him was unveiled by the National Graves Association, in Fairview Park in September 1951.[2] A prominent role in the ceremony was taken by Cathal Goulding and other participants included Brendan Behan and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh.[15]

Russell's legacy is deeply contested. Both Sinn Féin and Republican Sinn Féin continue to commemorate him as an Irish patriot. Others condemn him as a Nazi collaborator. It has been claimed he "cared little for Nazi ideology" and he was accused of being a communist spy.[16] Irish historian Brian Hanley states that while Russell was uninterested in political debate and was committed to the use of armed force,[6] Russell's leadership unquestionably saw the IRA shift to the political right and become permeated with those with pro-fascist and pro-German sentiments.[17] Journalist and IRA Chief of IRA during the late 1950s Seán Cronin said that of "all the IRA leaders of the 1920s and 30s…, [he was] probably the most conservative, politically and socially".[5]

Russell reportedly told the Germans that "I am not a Nazi. I’m not even pro-German. I am an Irishman fighting for the independence of Ireland." and that "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 attached"[18][19] In August 1940 an open letter was published by the IRA leadership while Russell was still alive, stating that if "German forces should land in Ireland, they will friends and liberators of the Irish people". Readers were informed that Germany desired neither "territory nor...economic penetration" in Ireland but simply wanted Ireland to play its part in the "reconstruction" of a "free and progressive Europe". The Third Reich was also praised as the "energising force" of European politics and the "guardian" of national freedom.[6]

Erwin Lahousen said that Russell disagreed with Nazi philosophy and strongly rejected attempts to convert him.[20]

In September 2003, then Sinn Féin MEP, Mary Lou McDonald, spoke at a rally to commemorate Russell held at the site of the memorial. The same rally was also addressed by then Provisional IRA Army Council member Brian Keenan who said:

I don't know what was in the depth of Seán Russell's thinking down the years, but I am sure he was never far from Pearse's own position, who said, as a patriot, preferring death to slavery, I know no other way. There are things worse than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them. We are not and will not be slaves.[21]

The National Graves Association has defended Russell from accusations of fascism saying "He went to Germany, the Soviet Union and the US seeking arms. If people want to call him a fascist they would also have to claim he was a communist."[22]

Historian Caoimhe Nic Dhaibheid states that Russell's motivation was to obtain arms and money from Germany to further Irish republican aims.[23]

Attacks on memorial to RussellEdit

The statue was bronzed in 2009
The statue spraypainted with the LGBT rainbow in 2020
The statue was decapitated in 2004

In July 1953,[24] the raised right arm was broken off by right-wing radicals, who explained the vandalism by claiming the arm had been raised in a communist salute rather than oratorical pose.[25] The damaged arm was replaced posed downward instead of raised.[26] The 31 December 2004 attack saw the decapitation of the memorial by an unnamed group, described by the Sunday Independent as anti-fascist.[27][20] The memorial's right forearm was also removed. A statement issued to the press in justification of the vandalism read (verbatim):

Six million Jews, thousands of political dissidents, homosexuals, Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war and the disabled were put to death by the fascist hate machine that overran and terrified Europe from 1939 to 45. Sean Russell was one of many nationalist fanatics who looked to Hitler for political and military support in the IRA's quest to reunify Ireland at the point of the bayonets of the Gestapo. At the Wannsee Conference, the infamous Nazi gathering that planned the "Final Solution", the Jewish community in Ireland was marked down for annihilation. Having freed Ireland from British rule, the Nazis expected their collaborators to help them round up Dublin's Jews and ship them off to Auschwitz. That was the price Sean Russell was prepared to pay to end partition.[28][20]

Ógra Shinn Féin condemned the vandalism saying "Those who carried it out clearly know very little about Seán Russell or what he stood for."[29]

The missing pieces of the memorial were not recovered. A spokesman for The National Graves Association announced that the memorial to Seán Russell would be rebuilt in more permanent bronze to deter vandals.[20] In May 2009, the plinth was cleaned and the new bronze was erected. Allegedly, the new statue has alarms to detect attempted vandalism, as well as a GPS tracker.[26]

On 9 July 2009, the plinth of the memorial was again vandalised with graffiti proclaiming Russell to have been a Nazi.[30]

In June 2020, Leo Varadkar suggested that the statue of Seán Russell may need to be removed because of his collaboration with the Nazis.[31]

Later, on 23 June 2020 the base of the statue was painted in the colours of the Rainbow flag.[32] The paint was later removed.[33] Lord Mayor and Tom Brabazon condemned the painting of the base.[32]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "General Registrar's Office" (PDF). Archived from the original on 22 September 2021. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hanley, Brian. "Russell, Seán". Dictionary of Irish Biography. 16 March 2022.
  3. ^ Richard English and Cormac O'Malley (ed.) (1991). Prisoners: the Civil War Letters of Ernie O'Malley (Poolbeg Press), pp 36
  4. ^ Oireachtas, Houses of the (14 October 1931). "Dáil Éireann debate - Wednesday, 14 October 1931". Archived from the original on 2 November 2019. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d Shannon, Gerard (13 July 2020). "'Worthy successor of Tone and Casement'? Seán Russell and the IRA, (Part Two, 1931-40)". Retrieved 16 March 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d Hanley, Brian (2005). "'Oh here's to Adolph Hitler'?…The IRA and the Nazis". History Ireland. Archived from the original on 17 July 2020. Retrieved 6 July 2020.
  7. ^ a b Bowyer Bell, J. (1997). The Secret Army: The IRA. Transaction Publishers. p. 156. ISBN 1-56000-901-2.
  8. ^ Bowyer Bell, J. (1997). The Secret Army: The IRA. Transaction Publishers. p. 159. ISBN 1-56000-901-2.
  9. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat (2002). The I.R.A. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 134. ISBN 978-0312294168.
  10. ^ Russell also had another motive – there was concern that the main pipeline of financial aid to the IRA, the profits from Clan na Gael's Irish Hospital Sweepstake fund, were being skimmed. See Hull P.61.
  11. ^ "Detroit Free Press from Detroit, Michigan on June 7, 1939 · Page 11". Archived from the original on 2 April 2019. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  12. ^ Stephan, Enno, Spies in Ireland, Macdonald & Co., 1963, pp. 41–42. and report of Seán Russell arrest Archived 28 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Stephan, Enno (1963). Spies in Ireland. London: MacDonald. pp. 104–106.
  14. ^ Terence O'Reilly, Hitler's Irishmen, ( Mercier Press), 2008 ISBN 1-85635-589-6
  15. ^ SAOIRSE – 50 Years Ago September 2001 Archived 17 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine at
  16. ^ How De Valera asked UK to smear IRA chief Sean Russell Archived 21 April 2018 at the Wayback Machine By Mike Thomson, Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4.
  17. ^ Hanley, Brian (1 September 2020). "The IRA and the Nazis".
  18. ^ Irish Foreign Affairs Volume Five, Number 3 September 2012
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 June 2020. Retrieved 10 June 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ a b c d "'Anti-fascist' group beheads IRA memorial". Irish Examiner. 13 January 2005. Archived from the original on 11 June 2020. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  21. ^ Sean Russell honoured, An Phoblacht, 21 August 2003
  22. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 June 2020. Retrieved 10 June 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  23. ^ Nic Dháibhéid, Caoimhe (2011). Seán MacBride: A Republican Life, 1904-1946. Liverpool University Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-1846316586.
  24. ^ Donal (20 April 2012). "Statues of Dublin: Seán Russell, Fairview Park". Come Here To Me!. Archived from the original on 28 June 2020. Retrieved 2 June 2020.
  25. ^ Stephan, Enno (10 February 1965). "Spies in Ireland". Stackpole. Archived from the original on 22 September 2021. Retrieved 11 February 2021 – via Google Books.
  26. ^ a b A target again ..statue of IRA boss accused of being a Nazi. Archived 24 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Brian Whelan, Sunday Mirror, 19 July 2009
  27. ^ Seán Russell statue attacked in Dublin Archived 24 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine, An Phoblacht, 6 January 2005
  28. ^ McDonald, Henry (2 January 2005). "Statue of Nazi ally vandalised". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 5 February 2017. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  29. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 June 2020. Retrieved 10 June 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  30. ^ Kelly, Olivia (9 July 2009). "Vandals deface memorial statue of republican leader Seán Russell". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 16 October 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  31. ^ "There are statues in Ireland that 'we need to talk about' - Varadkar". Irish Examiner. 10 June 2020. Archived from the original on 15 July 2020. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  32. ^ a b Slater, Sarah (23 June 2020). "Base of Seán Russell statue painted in rainbow colours". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 13 July 2020. Retrieved 23 June 2020.
  33. ^ Slater, Sarah (23 June 2020). "Statue of IRA leader Sean Russell vandalised as LGBT flag is painted on by Dublin protesters". The Irish Post. Archived from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 24 June 2020.


  • Culleton, Brendan & Maldea, Irina, Seamróg agus Swastica (English: Shamrock & Swastika), Dublin (Akajava Films), 2002. (Broadcast on TG4, 24 January 2002).
  • Hanley, Brian, The IRA. 1926–1936, Dublin (Four Courts Press), 2002. ISBN 1-85182-721-8
  • Terence O'Reilly, Hitler's Irishmen, ( Mercier Press), 2008 ISBN 1-85635-589-6
  • Mark M. Hull, Irish Secrets. German Espionage in Wartime Ireland 1939–1945 2003. ISBN 978-0-7165-2756-5
  • Enno Stephan, Spies in Ireland 1963. ISBN 1-131-82692-2 (reprint)
  • Carolle J. Carter, The Shamrock and the Swastika 1977. ISBN 0-87015-221-1
  • Detroit Free Press, 7 June 1939, page 11, "Irish Chieftain Is Kept In Jail".

External linksEdit