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Seán Russell (1893 – 14 August 1940) was an Irish republican who held senior positions in the IRA until the end of the Irish War of Independence. From 1922 until his death on board a Kriegsmarine U-Boat in 1940 he remained a senior member and chief of staff of the IRA, while it divided and was outlawed, and removed itself to the political fringe of Irish society.

Early life

Born in Fairview, Dublin in 1893, 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. 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. In 1925, after the Irish Civil War, he was jailed in Mountjoy Prison but escaped on 25 November in a breakout he helped organise.

Post-Civil War activism

Russell was one of those within the much-reduced IRA pushing for more revolutionary activities in 1926. That year he and Gerald Boland travelled to the Soviet Union on an IRA weapons buying mission. On his return from Moscow Russell reported back to Sean Lemass.[1] He was appointed IRA quartermaster general in 1927 and held that position until 1936. He travelled widely throughout Ireland reorganising the IRA during 1929-31. Russell was due to give the oration at the 1931 Bodenstown commemoration but was arrested on its eve.

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. He met Éamon de Valera, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State at Government Buildings during 1934.

While in the United States during 1936 he seems to have conceived along with Joseph McGarrity, the plan for the bombing terror campaign in England. In January 1937, Russell was accused of misappropriating funds by the IRA leadership 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. 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 get him re-instated in the organisation and elected to the Army Council. This has been described as a "take over" by historian Brian Hanley. After becoming IRA chief of staff, he put into motion the bombing campaign and forged links with Nazi Germany and during the summer of 1938, the IRA held training classes in explosives throughout the country.

Claiming to be the legitimate government of the Irish Republic, in January 1939, the Army Council under Russell's leadership declared war on the United Kingdom in alliance with the increasingly aggressive III Reich. The so-called Sabotage Campaign commenced some days later with bombing attacks on a number of English cities. Following this Russell was also involved in a meeting with German Intelligence (Abwehr) agent Oscar Pfaus.

The Sabotage Campaign (S-Plan) in USA 1939

To pursue the propaganda arm of the S-Plan Russell travelled to the United States in April 1939. The aim of his journey was to 'show the flag' and place himself in the public mind as the leader of militant Irish nationalism.[2] While there Russell made several public addresses. He was detained by the Secret Service in Detroit during the American visit of King George VI. The incident immediately aroused enormous indignation among Irish-Americans, culminating in a protest by seventy-six 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.[3]

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, he 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 then-neutral Italy. McCarthy met with Abwehr agent 'Professor' Franz Fromme on 19 and 30 March 1940 in Genoa. This meeting arranged for Russell's journey across the Atlantic, arrival in Genoa on 1 May, and reception in Berlin four days later.

Arrival in Berlin May 1940

Once in Berlin, Russell was informed of Operation Mainau, the plan to parachute Dr. 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. Russell is known[by whom?] to have liased primarily with SS-Standartenfuhrer Edmund Veesenmayer. Russell is also thought to have talked with the German Foreign Ministry and Abwehr about raising an "Irish Brigade" from Irish national POWs captured fighting for the British Army. The Germans were to eventually give up on this idea in 1943 after only being able to select ten suitable volunteers from the approximately 180 who joined Stalag XX A (301) in Germany.[citation needed]

By 20 May 1940, Russell had begun training with Abwehr in the use of the latest German explosive ordnance. This training was conducted at the Abwehr training school/lab at Quentzgut near Brandenburg which specialised in the design of explosives as everyday objects. Russell also visited 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 3 months.

Operation Dove and death aboard U-65

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 aboard U-65 from Wilhelmshaven on 8 August- the mission was titled Operation Dove ("Unternehmen Taube" in German).

Russell became ill during the journey and complained of stomach pains. U-65 was not equipped with a doctor and he died on 14 August, 100 miles short of Galway. He was buried at sea and the mission aborted. Following the return of the submarine to Germany an inquiry was set up into Russell's death by the Abwehr. This inquiry included the interrogation of U-65's crew and Frank Ryan. The conclusion drawn 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 onboard ship, shot by the British Secret Service in France, or murdered by Kurt Haller. However, Russell's brother, Patrick, confirmed after the war that he suffered from pre-existing stomach problems and as a result did not drink alcohol.

Legacy to republicanism

Russell became the idol of traditionalist republicanism during the 1950s and a memorial to him was unveiled by Cumann Uaigheann Na Laochra Gael, (the National Graves Association group), in Fairview Park, September 1951. A prominent role in the ceremony was taken by Cathal Goulding and other participants included Brendan Behan and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (see[4]). The group claims its mission is to:

restore, where necessary, and maintain fittingly the graves and memorials of our patriot dead of every generation.

Russell's legacy is deeply contested. Both Provisional Sinn Féin and Republican Sinn Féin continue to commemorate him as an Irish patriot. Others condemn him as a Nazi collaborator despite it being said he cared little for Nazi ideology and he was accused of being a communist spy.[5] Irish historian Brian Hanley suggests that Russell was not a Nazi but concludes that his letters to his German contacts "betray astonishing political naiveté". 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.[6]

Attacks on memorial to Seán Russell

Headless Memorial to Seán Russell

After the memorial was erected, 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.[7] Following this the damaged arm was replaced posed downward instead of raised.[8] The 31 December 2004 attack saw the decapitation of the memorial by an unnamed group, described by the Sunday Independent as anti-fascist.[9] 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.[10]

In fact, the Wannsee conference did not take place until after Russell's death. However, the Nuremberg Laws had been well-publicized since 1935.[citation needed]

Bronze of Seán Russell erected in May 2009.

The missing pieces of the memorial have not yet been recovered. A spokesman for The National Graves Association announced that the memorial to Seán Russell will be rebuilt in more permanent bronze to deter vandals. In May 2009 the plinth was cleaned and the new bronze was erected. The new statue allegedly has alarms to detect attempted vandalism and a GPS tracker.[8] The plinth of the memorial was again vandalised on 9 July 2009 with graffiti proclaiming Russell to have been a Nazi.[11]

See also


  1. Constitution (Amendment No. 17) Bill, 1931—Allocation of Time Motion. Dáil Eireann Debate, Vol. 40 No. 1 Wednesday, 14 October 1931
  2. 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.
  3. Stephan, Enno, Spies in Ireland, Macdonald & Co., 1963, pp. 41-42. and report of Seán Russell arrest
  4. SAOIRSE -- 50 Years Ago September 2001 at
  5. How De Valera asked UK to smear IRA chief Sean Russell By Mike Thomson, Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4.
  6. See An Phoblacht 21 August 2003 available here. (Free registration required)
  7. Stephan, page 112
  8. 8.0 8.1 A target again ..statue of IRA boss accused of being a Nazi., Brian Whelan, Sunday Mirror, 19 July 2009
  9. Seán Russell statue attacked in Dublin, An Phoblacht, 6 January 2005
  10. Statue of Nazi ally vandalised, Henry McDonald, The Observer, 2 January 2005
  11. Vandals deface memorial statue of republican leader Seán Russell, Olivia Kelly, The Irish Times, 9 July 2009


  • 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 071652756
  • 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

External links

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