‘An Obstinate Quill’: Fr. Matthew Russell SJ and The Irish Monthly, (1873-1898)

Declan O’Keeffe
Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare

Matthew Russell (1834-1912) was a Jesuit priest who founded a literary magazine called The Irish Monthly in 1873. Russell was a key supporter of the young writers, who inaugurated the Anglo-Irish literary revival and his talents lay in editing, writing and persuading others to contribute to the fledgling magazine. He had a talent for friendship and people of many different backgrounds and beliefs wrote for him including W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde and Hilaire Belloc. Russell was also particularly successful in getting women such as Katharine Tynan, and Rosa Mulholland to contribute to the journal.

Late nineteenth-century Ireland has often been seen as a mere trough before the brilliance of the Anglo-Irish Revival, when in fact it was a vital seedbed and the 1880s in particular was a distinct decade, both in poetry and realist fiction, that featured a mix of writers from a mélange of religious backgrounds and from both sides of the gender divide. The period from 1870 to 1891 has been somewhat overlooked both literally and metaphorically by researchers seduced and distracted by the Literary Revival that would follow in the next decade. There was a marked increase in literacy and education in Ireland in this period, which led to a greater appetite for fiction. As books were still relatively expensive, newspapers and periodicals were important media for the publication and consumption of novels.

The nineteenth century was also a fertile period for Irish female writers, with over five hundred women publishing in all genres, and The Irish Monthly was especially diligent in promoting writing by women as well as recording important information about the authors in its ‘Nutshell Biograms’. Notable among the regular contributors was the prolific and highly popular Rosa Mulholland whose Marcella Grace (1885), one of the most significant novels of the land war, was serialized in the journal. Russell excelled in encouraging connections among female writers and the monthly facilitated the development of literary schools among these women.

This presentation will address two strands of the call as The Irish Monthly was an individual publication of considerable note (with a very significant editor) that would quickly establish a reputation for publishing fiction favourable to the hopes of the resurgent Catholic upper-middle class hungry for self government. It will also assess the Irish Monthly as a literary review during the first twenty-five years of its existence and its importance to young women writers in this period. The paper will examine the role of The Irish Monthly and evaluate its importance to the Catholic upper middle classes who wished to challenge the stereotypical view of John Bull’s other island that pertained in Britain and to replace it with their own vision of a respectable and peaceful society in harmonious relationship with metropolitan Britain and its empire.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900