Thomas O’Neill Russell in Nineteenth-Century America : Friend or Foe to Ireland?

We are very happy to include a blog post on the Irish diaspora and engagement with the Irish language. Fiona Lyons draws our attention to the endeavours, and controversies, of Thomas O’Neill Russell and the struggles of formalising the printing and teaching of Irish at home and abroad. We are very keen to have more stories from the diaspora which consider language and belonging, so please get in touch if you would like to get involved.

Thomas O’Neill Russell was a key figure in the Irish language revival movement, both in the U.S. and Ireland, during the nineteenth century. Born in Westmeath in 1828, O’Neill Russell was co-founder of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1876 and was present in 9 Lower O’Connell Street, Dublin, when the Gaelic League was formed on 13 July 1893. A fiery man with great intentions for the Irish language, O’Neill Russell was very vocal of his opinions, so vocal that he often strayed from the main point and descended into the personal. While he is well known for causing many of the language revival movement’s controversies, his influence as a main contributor in Irish-U.S. connections during the pre-revival cannot be forgotten, nor can the great impression that his stay had on the Irish diaspora in the US.

O’Neill Russell often used print media to convey his disapproval of certain methods or actions used in the US surrounding the language revival and cultivation. One of his most famous arguments was with Michael Logan, editor of the Brooklyn newspaper An Gaodhalin relation to Logan’s improper use of grammar in the paper. O’Neill Russell attacked Logan in the Irish-American press claiming that the Irish  in An Gaodhal, and on the front page in particular, was grammatically incorrect. The basis of O’Neill Russell’s argument was that the genitive was to follow ‘chum’ instead of the word being in the nominative as found in Logan’s paper. This debate, which began in December 1882, was well documented in Irish-American newspapers especially in the Citizen in Chicago, the Irish-American in New York, and in An Gaodhal itself where Logan defended himself. Logan even printed an editorial note in An Gaodhal on January 1887 stating that O’Neill Russell ‘said that he sat down on the Gael because it printed bad Irish.’[1]

Another debate began by O’Neill Russell was with John Fleming, editor of the Gaelic Journal in Dublin, in the Irish-American on January 14, 1888. It regarded faults he found with expressions within Irish sermons printed in the Gaelic Journal. O’Neill Russell had previously been appointed ‘corresponding member’ to the Gaelic Union in 1882 as ‘resident abroad, and the official representative of the society’ in the US.[2] However, this didn’t stop him creating an argument with Fleming, a member of the Gaelic Union. In 1888 Fleming decided that he could no longer be silent to O’Neill Russell’s accusations and responded publicly through the newspapers. He stated, amongst other things, that:

‘Mr. Russell is not an Irish scholar at all. In his life he has not written or spoken half a dozen consecutive sentences in Irish correctly. Nor is he improving.’[3]

Similarly, in 1879 when O’Neill Russell supported the use of the Roman characters for the printing of Irish instead of the traditional Gaelic font P.J. O’Daly, later editor of the Irish Echo and secretary of the Boston Philo-Celtic Society, wrote to the Boston Pilot stating

‘I thought T. O’Neill Russell came here to America to advance the movement set on foot for the revival of the Language and Literature of Ireland, but when I find him endeavouring to throw cold water on the movement, so far as saying there were “no Irish letters,” I really do not imagine how to gauge him.’[4]

It is easy to see, therefore, why so many look to O’Neill Russell with wary eyes before acknowledging him as a key influencer in the pre-revival movement in the US. However, it is important not to overlook his positive impact. He was appointed editor to the Gaelic column of the Chicago Citizen in 1882 and elected vice-president of the Chicago Gaelic Society in 1885 and editor to the New York Gaelic Society in 1888. In the 1880s he undertook a tour of the US visiting the various Irish language societies and classes giving lectures and helping with language tutoring.

Despite his outspoken ways the Irish diaspora in the US also seemed to have a great regard for him and for his work. They praised him highly for his contribution to the language movement and always saw it as a great honour to have him as a guest at society events:

‘a gentleman who has to the fullest extent exemplified in his own person the principles which he advocated and that faith that is in him […] The gentleman is Mr. T O’N. Russell’[5]

‘Mr. Russell’s remarks were listened to with great attention and it is to be hoped that the advice which he gave will not be lost upon those who had the pleasure of hearing him’[6]

‘The appearance of Mr. T. O’Neill Russell at the meeting was made the occasion of quite an ovation. A hearty welcome was tendered to him by the President’.[7]

When O’Neill Russell eventually left the US to return to Ireland in 1893 his departure was regretted by many and he was given a farewell dinner by the New York Gaelic Society. He was highly praised for his work, support, and furtherance of the ‘Celtic idea in America’. It was also noted by the society that his decision to return was last minute and had they known earlier of his departure their send off for him ‘would have been much more impressive’.[8]

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So where does this leave us with Thomas O’Neill Russell?

Douglas Hyde described him as a man ‘liable to fly off at some extraordinary tangent or to find a stumbling block of offense in something apparently perfectly innocent. His was one of those natures before whose mental vision nearly all things bulk equally big. He saw everything in livid colours. His mental vision knew no neutral tints.’[9] Whilst this description is apt for the O’Neill Russell who created many controversies surrounding the language, it also describes a man who was passionate for its future and who devoted his life to its survival. He was a man who I believe was more a friend than a foe to Ireland and whose passion for the Irish language and for its revival and cultivation was, at times, more important to him than friendship and co-operation. He truly was ‘a slave to his own imagination.’[10]


Fiona Lyons is a third-year PhD student in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, and Folklore in University College Dublin. Her thesis is entitled ‘”Thall agus Abhus” The Irish Language Revival, Media and the Transatlantic Influence 1857-1897’ examining ideas, concepts and theories on the Irish language revival as a transatlantic venture. She is a recipient of the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship with the Irish Research Council and can be contacted through email Fiona.lyons[@] and on twitter @FLiathain.


[1] An Gaodhal, January 1887

[2] Irish-American, 4 March 1882

[3] Irish-American, 5 May 1888

[4] Boston Pilot, 19 April 1879

[5] Irish American, 30April 1881

[6] Irish American, 6 January 1883 [referring to a report from the New York Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language]

[7] Irish American, 12 November 1887

[8] Irish American, 29 July 1893

[9] Hyde memoir, part 4, page 1

[10] Hyde memoir, part 4, page 18

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