Thomas Russell (1767–1803)
In the early seventeen-eighties John Russell was appointed a "captain of invalids" at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, and his family was assigned comfortable residential quarters at the hospital. For Thomas, his new home, his religious affiliation and his social position combined to afford him easy access to the world of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.
The career options open to the young Russell were to become a clergyman in the established church or to follow his brothers into the British army. In 1783 he decided to join the army (like many future Irish republicans, including James Connolly, who also began their careers in the imperial army), and he was posted with the 52nd Regiment to the Malabar coast of India, to protect the business interests of the British East India Company.
In 1786 Russell returned to Ireland on half pay and continued his studies in science, philosophy, and politics, which were later to serve him well in the cause of the United Irishmen. He entered into the society of Whig liberalism, dominated by Henry Grattan; and on a July day in 1790 he met Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitors’ gallery in the House of Commons, College Green, Dublin—a truly historic meeting.
Russell and Tone became firm friends, and on political matters their views were to merge. Russell visited Tone’s home at Irishtown, where they discussed parliamentary reform and the removal of religious disqualifications from the law. They also showed themselves to be men of action by deciding to form a political club for the following winter.
In 1790 Russell resumed his military career as a junior officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot and was posted to Belfast. With its thriving linen and textile industries and mercantile community, Belfast had been dubbed the "Athens of the North." As an officer of the garrison, Russell entered socially into the circles of the emerging professionals and businessmen (and women, such as Mary Ann McCracken). Their politics were radical; being Presbyterians, they were excluded from the Ascendancy.
The kinsmen and women of Belfast Presbyterians had figured prominently in the campaign for American independence, and they greeted the revolution in France, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Many were active in the anti-slavery movement. With his keen mind and radical ideas, Russell was soon drawn to the McCrackens, Simms, Templetons, McCabes and other families who were to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement. With these new friends he developed ideas of parliamentary reform, to include the bulk of the people, and Catholic emancipation, and even raised the question of separation from England.
By July 1791 Russell was out of the army and attending a convention of the Whig Club in Belfast to mark Bastille Day. The convention was addressed by William Drennan, who proposed a brotherhood that would "go further than speculate or debate . . . and come to grips with practicalities." He went as far as promoting separation from England and co-operation with the increasingly radical Catholic Committee in the pursuit of political and social reforms.
Many radical Ulster Dissenters were suspicious of Catholicism as a fundamentally conservative force that might easily be bought off with limited concessions. Russell informed Tone of the Belfast developments, and within weeks Tone published his Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. Aimed principally at the Ulster Dissenters, Tone’s pamphlet called for unity, fraternity, and tolerance, without which the government would "play upon terrors of Protestants, the hopes of Catholics and, balancing the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both." The Argument had a profound effect on its intended audience.
Tone and Russell were invited by the Belfast radicals to assist in the task of establishing the proposed brotherhood, and on 18 October 1791 the inaugural meeting of the Society of United Irishmen took place, with twenty-eight people present. The society’s declaration urged constitutional reform, cordial unity among Irish people, and the removal of all religious disqualifications. Dublin quickly followed suit, and on 9 November, in the Eagle Tavern, Eustace Street (around the corner from the present-day Connolly Books), the Dublin Society of United Irishmen was formed.
The movement quickly developed a strategy of spreading its ideals by means of leaflets, newspapers, ballads, "catechisms," and travelling emissaries. The Northern Star of Belfast was especially successful, both commercially and politically.
Russell was a dedicated and consistent anti-slavery campaigner. He abstained from confectionery products, because they were made with sugar from the West Indies. He wrote impassioned letters to the Northern Star and Belfast Telegraph declaring that "on every lump of sugar I see a drop of human blood." He identified the fact that slavery existed for the sole purpose "of contributing to the luxury and avarice of Europeans," and he denounced the slave traders for introducing "the vices of Europe—fraud, subtilty, war and desolation to these once happy countries."
The outbreak of war between England and France in 1793 enabled the College Green government to enact repressive laws, including the dispersion of the Volunteers and the establishment of the Militia. Russell attacked Grattan in the Northern Star, saying that "he peddled and he pranced, he reviled the government and the French, republicans and levellers" but facilitated the "perfect Inquisition." Russell now looked to the excluded majority, the Catholics and Dissenters. The Whigs’ compliance with repression helped radicalise the United Irishmen and opened up the possibility of French support.
In early 1794 Russell was appointed librarian of the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (the Linen Hall Library)—a post with a salary and a house, welcome indeed for the now-impoverished activist, and the perfect cover for a revolutionary. The library’s policy included the promotion of books in Irish, and Russell himself took lessons from a teacher of Irish, Patrick Lynch of Loughinisland. He collaborated on an Irish translation of the New Testament, an Irish dictionary, and the first periodical in Irish, Bolg an tSoláir.
In May 1794 the government officially suppressed the United Irishmen and raided its premises. Russell, McCracken, Hope and other northern leaders responded by reorganising and increasing membership. Communications were maintained with the national leadership by delegates and emissaries from Belfast, notably Russell himself; these structures ensured that the society quickly became a vehicle for political and social change. Under the influence of the new ideas from France and Belfast, Defenderism in rural areas was evolving from a spontaneous Catholic peasant force into a revolutionary army. Influenced by the "plan of union," as it was termed by Hope, the Defenders rallied to the ranks of the United men, and by September 1796 membership was 100,000 in Ulster alone.
In May 1795 Tone and his family set out for France, by way of Belfast and America. Facing imprisonment if he remained, Tone informed Russell, Neilson, Simms and McCracken of his plans at their historic meeting in MacArt’s Fort on the summit of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast; there they entered into a pact "never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence."
In 1796 Russell published his pamphlet A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country, a powerful United Irish analysis of the gathering revolutionary opportunity and especially strong on the ploys used by the administration to split the Catholic leadership from the radical Dissenters. It was Castlereagh who identified the Presbyterian North as the real centre of republican activity. The offices of the Northern Star were raided, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the leadership. Russell, Neilson, McCracken and others were rounded up and lodged in Newgate and Kilmainham, Dublin. They were destined to remain imprisoned without either bail or trial—a form of internment. While the great events during and after 1798 were to unfold, Russell remained incarcerated in Newgate, where he endured many hardships, including tending to the wounded Edward Fitzgerald and the trauma of Tone’s death.
In March 1799 Russell and twenty other leading United prisoners were transferred to Fort George, Inverness-shire. It is interesting to note the religious background of the prisoners: ten (including Russell) were Anglicans; six were Presbyterians; four were Catholics.
During his three-year period of further internment in Scotland, Russell’s belief in the United cause was strengthened. "The numbers who have fallen and among them the great and good . . . imposes a greater obligation on the survivors to persevere in the great cause," he wrote. No doubt Tone and the McCrackens were much on his mind; his soul was "very much on fire," and he viewed the defeat of ’98 as "a temporary miscarriage of the cause."
In June 1802 Russell was finally released, having spent six years in prison. He spent the next nine months in revolutionary preparations in France, at a time when Napoléon Bonaparte’s imperial star was in the ascendant. This changed political atmosphere was not so welcoming to Irish exiles, in contrast to the solidarity extended to Tone before 1798. Another United leader, Jemmy Hope, later claimed that Bonaparte was in league with the English to deport the Irish exiles, "their residence not being considered favourable to Napoleon’s imperial views."
As a former "state prisoner" Russell was banned from entering Ireland, so he returned from exile in disguise, by way of London and Liverpool. By May 1803 he was in hiding in Butterfield Lane (now Butterfield Avenue), Rathfarnham, formulating plans with Robert Emmet and Michael O’Dwyer for another uprising. These ill-fated plans were to lead to his capture and his hanging at Downpatrick Jail on 21 October 1803.
By virtue of his role and achievements as a United Irish leader, Thomas Russell’s prominent place in the history of Irish republican and democratic movements is assured. In particular, his attractive and somewhat enigmatic personality, combined with his genius at uniting Presbyterians and Catholics in the North, gave rise to a rich folklore of ballads and poems in his honour. What better way to end than with these verses from Florence Wilson’s ballad "The Man from God Knows Where," which evocatively recalls his life, work and death in Counties Antrim and Down from 1795 to 1803.
"The Man from God Knows Where"
Into our townlan’, on a night of snow,
Rode a man from God-knows-where;
None of us bade him stay or go,
Nor deemed him friend, nor damned him foe,
But we stabled his big roan mare:
For in our townlan’ we’re a decent folk,
And if he didn’t speak, why, none of us spoke,
And we sat till the fire burned low . . .
Two winters more, then the Trouble Year,
When the best that a man could feel
Was the pike that he kept in hidlin’s near,
Till the blood o’ hate an’ the blood o’ fear
Would be redder nor rust on the steel.
Us ones quet from mindin’ the farms,
Let them take what we gave wi’ the weight o’ our arms,
From Saintfield to Kilkeel . . .
By Downpatrick gaol I was bound to fare
On a day I’ll remember, feth;
For when I came to the prison square
The people were waitin’ in hundreds there,
An’ you wouldn’t hear stir nor breath!
For the sodgers were standing, grim an’ tall
Round a scaffold built there fornent the wall
An’ a man stepped out for death!
I was brave an’ near to the edge of the throng,
Yet I knowed the face again,
An’ I knowed the set, an’ I knowed the walk
An’ the sound of his strange up-country talk,
For he spoke out right an’ plain.
Then he bowed his head to the swinging rope,
Whiles I said "Please God" to his dying hope
And "Amen" to his dying prayer,
That the Wrong would cease and the Right prevail.
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Jail
Was the Man from God-knows-where!