Russell, Seán (1893–1940), revolutionary, was born John Russell, 13 October 1893 at 41 Lower Buckingham St., Dublin, youngest among three sons and four daughters of James Russell, clerk, and Mary Russell (née Lestrange), housewife. Educated at St Joseph's CBS, Dublin, he joined the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, fought in the 1916 rising with E Company, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, and was interned in Knutsford and Frongoch until late 1917. He commanded 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, from 1918, and in December 1920 was brought on to IRA general headquarters staff as director of munitions. He took the anti-treaty side in the civil war and was imprisoned until 1924, enduring forty-one days on hunger strike.
After the civil war Russell returned to IRA activity, and was part of its leadership from 1924. In 1925 he, along with Gerry Boland (qv) and ‘Pa’ Murray visited the USSR on an arms-buying mission. Jailed for a period in 1925, he was among those rescued from Mountjoy in November of that year. In 1927 he was appointed quartermaster-general of the IRA. Russell remained aloof from the political debates within the IRA; he concentrated on military affairs – training and arms procurement – and travelled widely reorganising the IRA from 1929 to 1931. He was arrested the day before he was due to give the address at the June 1931 Bodenstown commemoration. During the ‘coercion’ period of late 1931 he managed to evade capture. In late 1932 he was sent to the USA to brief the Clan na Gael on developments in Ireland. Russell was in Belfast in January 1933, directing IRA operations during the violent railway strike. He chaired the court-martial of Peadar O'Donnell (qv) and Michael Price (qv) after they had left the IRA to form the Republican Congress in March 1934. He met de Valera (qv) during 1934 for brief and unsuccessful talks.
The IRA found itself under increasing pressure during the next two years. Fianna Fáil was established in power, recruitment was in decline, and the movement lacked a focus. In 1936 Russell again visited the USA, and – with Joseph McGarrity (qv) of the Clan na Gael – came to the conclusion that a military campaign against Britain was necessary. On return to Ireland he was accused of misappropriation of funds, court-martialled, and suspended from the IRA. He returned to the USA, gained agreement from McGarrity to fund a campaign, and on return to Ireland canvassed the IRA rank and file for support. Many activists, frustrated at a movement seemingly going nowhere, endorsed his plan for action. At a general army convention in April 1938, he won control of the IRA and became its chief of staff; as a result, leading members such as Tom Barry (qv), J. J. Sheehy (qv), and Tomás MacCurtain resigned. Older veterans such as Patrick McGrath and James O'Donovan (qv) were brought back into the IRA. A plan for a bombing campaign in England was formulated. As a first step, attacks were made along the border with Northern Ireland in November 1938, and three Volunteers were killed in a premature explosion on the first night. To legitimise the Russell leadership, the seven remaining members of the second dáil handed over ‘governmental power’ to the IRA army council in December 1938. On 12 January 1939 the IRA delivered an ultimatum to the British government to leave Ireland or face war. Later that month the bombing campaign began.
Veteran IRA leaders such as Moss Twomey (qv) had warned against the campaign from the beginning. It was a political and military disaster. Seven civilians died in bomb attacks; two IRA volunteers were executed, hundreds were deported or jailed. Its only effect was to increase the isolation of the IRA. In April 1939 Russell again travelled to the USA. He was arrested in Detroit in June 1939, but released after Irish-American protests. Fearing rearrest, he went underground and in April 1940 was spirited out of the country on the SS Washington, sailing for Genoa in Italy. A series of communications with German officials in America had convinced him that help for the IRA was available from that quarter. From Genoa he was transported to Berlin, where he met Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister. Plans were made to return him to Ireland.
The nature of Nazi links with the IRA is shrouded in controversy. Russell had visited Russia looking for arms, but was not a communist; there is no evidence to suggest that ideologically he was a Nazi either. However, some leading IRA figures in Dublin were ideologically pro-fascist. In August 1940 Russell was reunited with Frank Ryan (qv) and put on board a U-boat for Ireland. On board he became violently ill and died on 14 August 1940 of a perforated ulcer. He was buried at sea. A memorial to Russell in Fairview Park, Dublin, was unveiled on 9 September 1951, and a republican commemoration takes place there every August. From the 1950s Russell was an iconic figure for physical-force republicans, but his links with the Nazis have yet to be adequately explained.