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Thomas Russell (rebel)

Thomas Paliser Russell (November 21, 1767 October 21, 1803) was a co-founder and leader of the United Irishmen who was executed for his part in Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803.



Born in Dromahane, County Cork to an Anglican family, he joined the British army in 1783 and served in India. He returned to Ireland in 1786 and commenced studies in science, philosophy and politics. in July 1790 he met Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitor's gallery in the Irish House of Commons and they became firm friends.

Russell in Belfast

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 was called the "Athens of the North." As an officer of the garrison, Russell had access to the newly emerging professional and business class, many of whose members were radicals (being Presbyterians) excluded from the Ascendancy. In July 1790 he met Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitor's gallery in the Irish House of Commons and they became firm friends.

The French Revolution in 1789 was warmly greeted in Belfast as were its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With his keen mind and radical ideas, Russell soon became a confidante of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, Samuel Neilson and others who were to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement. With them he developed ideas of parliamentary reform, to include the bulk of the people, and Catholic emancipation.

Russell left the army in July 1791 and attended 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", promoting separation from England and co-operation with the increasingly radical Catholic Committee in the pursuit of political and social reforms. However, Russell noted the lack of trust between Dissenters and Catholics which was due to fears that Catholic radicalism could be bought off by religious concessions. Informing Wolfe Tone of his observations, who within weeks published his "Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland" to address these suspicions. The pamphlet was extremely well received and provided the impetus for the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast on 18 October 1791 whose initial aims were constitutional reform, union among the Irish people and the removal of all religious disqualifications.

[edit] United Irishman and reformer

In January 1794, Russell took the post of librarian at the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, later to become the Linen Hall Library. His position as librarian allowed Russell to continue to develop ideas for the emancipation of the Irish people although by now the British authorities in Dublin were becoming increasingly aware of his and others activities and beliefs. Pressure from Dublin Castle would later force the United Irish movement to become a clandestine organisation as the would-be revolutionaries sought to continue their slow progress towards challenging the occupying British.

In 1795 Russell, Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson as they led a band of United Irishmen to the top of Cave Hill overlooking the town of Belfast where 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" prior to Wolfe Tone's exile to America. The event was noted in Dublin Castle although there was to be no immediate move to disband or arrest the members of the United Irishmen.

In 1796, Russell published an ambitious and far-sighted document, Letter to the People of Ireland, which laid out his vision of social and economic reform for the Irish nation. In addition to his stance on religious freedom, he had made clear his anti-slavery views, in the Northern Star on March 17, 1792 whose editorial comment took a less generous view by agreeing with Russell but pointing out the immediate necessity to liberate three million slaves in Ireland. The veteran anti-slavery campaigner, Mary Ann McCracken, sister of Henry Joy, remembered that as a young officer in Belfast 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 . . .'




Thomas Russell

The County Gaol's most famous prisoner was the United Irishman Thomas Russell, executed here for his part in the abortive rebellion of 1803. For many County Down people, Russell is 'the man from God knows where', immortalised in the ballad of the same name by Bangor poet, Florence Mary Wilson, which generations of school children learnt! However the real Thomas Russell was an important figure in late eighteenth century Irish radical politics.

Thomas Russell was born into an Anglican family in Dromahane, County Cork in 1767. His father and brother were both officers in the army and Thomas joined the army at about the age of 15 and served for almost five years in India. 

In 1790, Russell met Theobald Wolfe Tone who was to have a great influence on his thinking. In 1791, Russell, Tone and other leading radicals formed the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast and Dublin. The aims of the Society were to extend political representation within Ireland and to work for greater union between the Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters of Ireland. In 1796 Russell, who had probably been appointed the United Irishmen's Adjutant General for County Down, was arrested for sedition and spent the next six years in prison in Dublin and Scotland.

After his release in 1802, he travelled to France where he was reunited with some of the remaining supporters of the United Irishmen, notably Robert Emmet. Together, Emmet and Russell planned the Rising of 1803. Russell was to lead the North, but he was unsuccessful in igniting a 1798 style turnout and the rebellion petered out. Tried in Downpatrick and found guilty of treason Russell was executed at the door of the County Gaol. He was buried in the graveyard of the Anglican parish Church of Downpatrick, St Margaret's, in a grave paid for by his great friend, Mary Ann McCracken.

2003 was the bi-centenary of the rebellion of 1803 and the trial and execution of Thomas Russell. To mark this year the museum organised a comprehensive programme of events and activities designed to illuminate Russell's life and times. This programme was attended by thousands of people and was widely praised for increasing understanding of one the most crucial periods in our history. The programme received an Irish Museum of the year award for "Best Access and Outreach Initiative"


Books and articles about Thomas Russell

Denis Carroll, The Man From God-Knows-Where (Dublin 1995).
Brendan Clifford, Thomas Russell and Belfast, (Belfast 1988).
S Mac Giolla Easpaig, Tomas Ruiseil, (Dublin 1957).
James Quinn, Soul on Fire: A Life of Thomas Russell (Dublin 2002).
Brian Turner, "Echoes From The Time" in Myrtle Hill, Brian Turner, Kenneth Dawson (eds), 1798: Rebellion in County Down (Newtownards 1998).
Brian Turner (ed), A Man Stepped Out For Death: Thomas Russell and County Down (Newtownards 2003).
CJ Woods (ed), Journals and Memoirs of Thomas Russell 1791-1795 (Dublin 1991).


Documents relating to Thomas Russell

The museum holds in its collection a series of documents relating to the trial of Russell. The documents are ten depositions taken by local magistrates Matthew Forde and David Gordon from various people who witnessed Russell's activities in and around the Loughinisland area in the summer of 1803, the official order to proceed with the trial of Russell and the list of the jurymen (with the verdict of the trial written at the end) who tried him.