Remembering Thomas Russell
Thomas Russell was born in Dromahane, County Cork on November 21st 1767. His father, John Russell, was a junior officer in the British army.
In the early 1780s 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.
Along with his brother Ambrose, Thomas joined the British army in 1783 and served in India.
Russell returned to Ireland around 1786 on half pay and continued his studies in science, philosophy, and politics. 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 in Irish Revolutionary history, Tone & Russell became very good friends.
In 1790 Russell resumed his military career as a junior officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot and was posted to Belfast.
The French revolution of 1789 had caused much excitement in the city. Russell became acquainted with radical figures such as Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, Samuel Neilson and others who were to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement.
Russell was part of the founding of the United Irishmen in 1791 and contributed to the society's newspaper the Northern Star, by 1792 Russell was the commander of the United Irishmen in County Down.
In 1796 Russell was arrested and imprisoned as a "state prisoner" (i.e. held without trial) in Dublin missing out in participation in the 1798 rising as a result. of his imprisonment.
In March 1799 he, and the other state prisoners were transferred to Fort George in Scotland, an extensive fortress some miles north of Inverness built in the wake of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46. He was released on condition of exile to Hamburg in June 1802 following a brief cessation in Britain's war with France.
Russell soon made his way to Paris where he met Robert Emmet who was planning another insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against Britain. Russell agreed to return to Ireland in March 1803 to organise in Ulster in conjunction with the veteran of the battle of Antrim, James Hope.
However, the plan was badly thought out and quickly collapsed forcing Russell to flee to Dublin before a shot was fired in anger. Russell managed to hide for a number of weeks but Dublin was a bad place to hide in the days following the failure of Emmett's rebellion as the shocked authorities had launched a massive campaign of raids and arrests in an effort to finally eradicate the United Irishmen.
Russell was promptly arrested and sent to Downpatrick Gaol where he was executed by hanging then beheaded on October 21st 1803.
Thomas Russell, 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!