William Howard Russell was born in Tallaght at Lily Vale, Jobstown in 1820. There is little known of his early life at Lily Vale, but it was the home of his maternal grandfather Captain Jack Kelly who was heavily involved in fox hunting in Tallaght. Russell later wrote, ‘my mother’s father, Captain John, or as he was generally called, Jack, Kelly, had a small property and a big, untidy house, where he held revels as Master of the Tallaght Pack’.
He studied at Trinity College and got his first break in journalism in 1841 when he was asked to cover the Irish elections for The Times of London. This was the first election in which Daniel O’Connell campaigned for the repeal of the Act of Union. He became a regular reporter for The Times, covering Irish life, including Daniel O’Connell’s repeal movement and The Famine. His reports of O’Connell’s meetings were powerful and he considered O’Connell unrivalled as an orator.
The editor of The Times, John Delane, sent Russell to cover the Crimean War. The Crimean War was the first conflict to be covered by war correspondents and Russell became the most famous of them. As well as being the first war to be covered in the media, it was also unique in that the reporters were able to do their jobs without any form of censorship whatsoever. Russell’s reports revealed the sufferings of the British Army during the winter of 1854, where they were hindered by a lack of supplies and medical assistance. These accounts resulted in severe public criticism for the British government and military commanders but the reports themselves also came in for some criticism. They upset Queen Victoria who described them as “infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers”. Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that “the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country”. His reports caused sufficient controversy to undermine the government, which fell in 1855. The Times reports also contributed to the appointment of Florence Nightingale to lead a team of nurses to care for stricken British troops in Scutari (near modern day Istanbul).
Russell developed a reputation as Britain’s finest military reporter with accounts of the Indian Mutiny (1858), the American Civil War (1861-65), the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and finally the Zulu War (1879). He never lost interest in Irish affairs and looking back on his career he wrote that in all his years ‘supping full of horrors in the tide of war, I never beheld sights so shocking as those which met my eyes in that Famine tour of mine in the West [of Ireland]’.