Thomas Russell

 Thomas Russell Mallow

Thomas Russell was born near the village of Dromahane, Mallow on November 21st 1767 to parents of minor Anglo-Irish gentry stock. His father John Russell was Church of Ireland from Kilkenny and a veteran of wars against France; his mother Margaret O’Kennedy was a Roman Catholic from Tipperary. Thomas was baptised a member of the Church of Ireland.

In the early 1780’s John Russell was appointed a “captain of invalids” at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, and his family were 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 young Thomas were either to become a clergyman in the established church or to follow his father and brothers into the British army. Thomas was commissioned an Ensign in the 52nd Regiment of Foot, July 1783 at about the age of 15 and was posted to India where he served for almost five years. His regiment was sent to relieve Mangalore on the Malabar coast, protecting the business interests of the British East India Company. He didn’t say much about his time in India: "When in India I could not find either words or ideas to write a letter home to my father and was in great distress at my want of capacity."

The journals he kept at that time are lost, however his journals from 1791 to 1795 survived and have been compiled into a book (CJ Woods (ed.), Journals and Memoirs of Thomas Russell 1791-1795 (Dublin 1991))
He returned to Ireland in 1787 as a 'half pay' soldier. In Dublin, Russell met and begun a great friendship with Theobald Wolfe Tone who, at the time, was a young Dublin lawyer. In August 1790 Russell was posted to Belfast as an Ensign with the 64th Regiment of Foot.

In Belfast. Russell participated fully in the exhausting social round of meetings, dinners and dancing .He was present at the formation of the first Society of United Irishmen in Crown Entry, off High Street, on October 14, 1791.

In December 1791 he sold his commission, as the only means of meeting a liability of £200 which he had incurred for a friend. He obtained the position of Seneschal to the Manor Court of Dungannon, and was made a justice of the peace for the County of Tyrone. It was not long before he threw up both appointments, declaring "he could not reconcile it to his conscience to sit as magistrate on a bench where the practice prevailed of inquiring what a man's religion was before going into the crime with which a prisoner was accused."

 Thomas Russell 2



Russell returned to Belfast where he worked with Tone in advancing the work of the Catholic Committee, a body set up to secure the removal of Penal Law disabilities. He also found time to embark on geological expeditions in Co Down with his friend John Templeton from 'Orange Grove', Malone.

In January 1794 Russell was appointed as librarian to the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (later the Linenhall Library), and even though he was also a prolific contributor to the United Irishmen's paper Morning Star, he found time to commence the study of Irish and collect Irish ballads.

The United Irish movement was forced underground following pressure from Dublin Castle and reorganised itself as a secret military and revolutionary movement. Tone had compromised himself by taking part in treasonable activity and after giving required information to the authorities, he was permitted to emigrate to the United States. Before he left for America, he traveled to Belfast, and on the summit of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast, in early June 1795 with Tone met Russell, Henry Joy McCracken, Sam Neilson and, Simms at McArt’s Fort. Here, they swore an oath "never to desist in our effort until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence".

 Thomas Russell 3


Russell, who was an amazing walker, moved across great distances in Ulster countryside, organizing and spreading the United Irishmen’s message, he was comfortable mixing with all social classes. He was also well informed on social injustices occurring beyond Ireland: in protest at slavery in the Americas, he refused to use sugar, rum or tobacco. This was observed by Mary Ann McCracken who noted that Russell had “abstained from the use of slave labour produce until slavery in the West Indies was abolished, and at the dinner parties to which he was so often invited and when confectionery was so much used he would not take anything with sugar in it . . .” He is quoted as saying “In every lump of sugar I see a drop of human blood”.

In September 1796 he published his ambitious pamphlet ‘A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country’. This document laid out his vision of social and economic reform for the Irish nation - he writes that the earth was given to all for our subsistence not for the privileged few.

Dublin Castle at this stage considered Russell to be too dangerous to remain a free man and, faced with imminent arrest, he surrendered himself into custody on September 16 1796. For the next six years Russell was a state prisoner, first in Newgate, Dublin and then at Fort George near Inverness in Scotland. As a result, frustratingly for him, he was absent for the disastrous 1798 rebellion and the subsequent 1801 Act of Union. Resulting from the Peace of Amiens (Franco-British agreement), Russell benefitted from an amnesty to political prisoners and on June 30 1802 he boarded a ship bound for exile in Hamburg as a condition of his release.

He immediately immersed himself in revolutionary activities, traveling to Amsterdam where he met Robert Emmet. They discussed the prospects of a future rising in Ireland. In the spring of 1803, Emmet decided to prepare for insurrection and he summoned Russell home from exile.

Russell travelled via England where he was seen crossing Westminster bridge by John Beresford, one of the Ascendancy and an Orangeman. He hurried to his brother's, cut his hair, and left that night for Liverpool.

He quickly moved on to Dublin where he continued with military preparations for another rebellion. He was assigned to lead the rebellion in Ulster and, along with James Hope the Templepatrick weaver, travelled through counties Down and Antrim in a hopeless attempt to resurrect the revolutionary spirit of 1798. They found no support. The spirit of Ulster in 1803 was much changed from what is was in the period up to 1798 and attempts to incite rebellion among the Presbyterians of Carnmoney and Broughshane ended in complete failure. A former 1798 insurgent said to Russell that nobody "but fools or madmen" would join him.

Russell reached McCartan's public house at Saintfield on July 22, 1803 and went on to Annadorn, about three miles west of Downpatrick. The time and place of rebellion was fixed for Loughinisland on Saturday July 23 1803, the plan being to march on Downpatrick. The rising in Loughinisland was abandoned and Russell went on the run. Initially, sympathizers provided him with shelter, but after some narrow escapes he slept rough to avoid capture. He found his way to Dublin by early September whereupon he heard of Emmet's arrest.

 Thomas Russell 4


In the days following the failure of Emmett's rebellion the authorities launched a campaign of raids and arrests in an effort to finally eradicate the United Irishmen. There was price of £1500 on his head and Russell was now the most wanted man in Ireland. An informer betrayed Russell and he was arrested on 9 September 1803 in Parliament Street, just opposite Dublin Castle, by the infamous chief of police Major Henry Sir. Russell was brought back to Downpatrick for trial, where his execution would be a warning to any remaining rebels.

On Thursday October 20th, Russell was tried in Downpatrick, found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. Russell delivered an address stating he had "committed no moral evil". He called himself "a soldier of the Lord Jesus Christ" and said he would "depart from this, for a better world".

On Friday October 21st 1803 Russell was hanged and beheaded and was buried nearby in the St Margaret's Church of Ireland cemetery. His last words were "I forgive my persecutors; I die in peace with all mankind, and I hope for mercy through the merits of my Redeemer Jesus Christ."

His gravestone inscription simply states “The Grave of Russell”; it was arranged for by Mary Ann McCracken who was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken (executed in 1798). They were both friends of Russell.

Thomas Russell was the ultimate United Irishman, from the founding of the society in 1791 to its destruction in 1803. He was well travelled - "I have travelled much and seen various parts of the world", He had been to India, Africa, Scotland, England, Germany, Holland and France - "and I think the Irish the most virtuous nation on the face of the earth - they are a good and brave people, and had I a thousand lives, I would yield them in their service." He was extraordinary in his pursuit of the cause, and in his ability to frequently move : between Belfast and Dublin: between Protestant and Catholic: between town and country: between England and Ireland: between the social classes. "Few, few have I known like him ....." said his friend, Mrs Martha McTier in a letter to her brother , Dr William Drennan, a number of days after the execution: " ........ Wednesday, Cabin Hill, Belfast I have not been in Belfast these six weeks. The subject there of late would have been very painful. Now I find it is mostly pity and admiration. To the last moment Russell's fortitude was conspicuous, his speech was eloquent and affecting. A Mr. Cole, a relation of the Kennedys and also of Russell's, repeated it, word for word, at Doctor Mattear's, as he said he never, never could forget it, the appearance, manner and voice of the man who uttered it. D. G[ordon] sat beside him, and as he had notes of his speech he either dropped or lost one (which, I suppose, was the occasion of what was called embarrassment). He said there would be a wrong account of it, and pointed out to Gordon the cause. The judge remarked (for he answered him) that he was sorry to hear him say he gloried in what he had done. He denied the word glory, and to the other observations of the judge, he always bowed. There was no answer returned to his request of a few days at the time, but when he returned to prison he was told it would not be granted. The next morning Fulton was sent to him. He entered by saying he was sorry to. Russell told him he was sure of it, that he was quite ready. He received the Sacrament twice and went with him; bowed to some gentle-men he passed, and gave them his good wishes, directed the hangman in his office and put the rope round his neck himself. Gordon saw the book and the letter he left for his sister-affectionate and grateful and religious. Enthusiastic he did indeed appear; religious, he always was since I knew him, and in his late confinement it was not to be wondered at that such a mind as his might have grown even flighty. I rejoice in it, and that whatever it was- enthusiasm, fortitude or error- that it bore him up to the last. Few, few have I known like him."

Mary Ann McCracken’s memories of Russell, recorded many years later are interesting:

"A model of manly beauty, he was one of those favoured individuals whom one cannot pass in the street without being guilty of the rudeness of staring in the face while passing, and turning round to look at the receding figure. Though more than six feet high, his majestic stature was scarcely observed owing to the exquisite symmetry of his form. Martial in his gait and demeanour, his appearance was not altogether that of a soldier. His dark and steady eye, compressed lip, and somewhat haughty bearing, were occasionally strongly indicative of the camp; but in general, the classic contour of his finely formed head, the expression of almost infantine sweetness which characterised his smile, and the benevolence that beamed in his fine countenance, seemed to mark him out as one, who was destined to be the ornament, grace and blessing of private life. His voice was deep-toned and melodious . . . His manners were those of the finished gentleman, combined with that native grace, which nothing but superiority of intellect can give. There was a reserved, and somewhat haughty, stateliness in his mien, which, to those who did not know him, had, at first, the appearance of pride; but as it gave way before the warmth and benevolence of his disposition, it soon became evident that the defect, if it were one, was caused by the too sensitive delicacy of a noble soul; and those who knew him, loved him the more for his reserve."