Russell, Thomas (1767-1803) (DNB00)

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RUSSELL, THOMAS (1767–1803), United Irishman, was born at Betsborough, in the parish of Kilshanick, co. Cork, on 21 Nov. 1767. His father, John Russell, entered the army, was present at the battle of Dettingen in 1743, commanded a company in the infantry at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, and in 1761–2 served in Portugal in the foreign auxiliary force. Returning to Ireland, he was appointed to a situation in the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. He died, at a very advanced age, in December 1792, and is described by Wolfe Tone as a gentleman of charming manners and conversation. A portrait of him is prefixed to Madden's ‘United Irishmen,’ 3rd ser. vol. ii.

Like his father, Russell was originally intended for the church, and consequently received a fairly good education in classics and mathematics, but like him, too, he became a soldier, and in 1782 accompanied his eldest brother, Captain Ambrose Russell (1756–1798), of the 52nd regiment, as a volunteer to India. He was commended for his conduct in the field by Sir John Burgoyne and given a commission in his brother's regiment, but afterwards transferred to one newly raised. The regiment was one of those subsequently reduced, and so after five years' service Russell quitted India, disgusted, it is said, with the rapacity and cruelty of English officials. Returning to Ireland, he resumed his project of entering the church, but again relinquished it on receiving a commission in the 64th regiment. In 1789, while listening to a debate in the House of Commons, he made the acquaintance of Theobald Wolfe Tone [q. v.] The acquaintance thus formed speedily ripened into friendship. ‘P.P.,’ or ‘parish priest,’ as Tone called him in playful allusion to his sedate and clerical demeanour, figures largely in the earlier pages of Tone's ‘Journal.’ In 1791 Russell's regiment was quartered at Belfast, and in this way he became acquainted with the leading men of liberal politics in the town, notably with Samuel Neilson [q. v.] and Henry Joy McCracken [q. v.] Accordingly, when Tone visited Belfast in October, the nucleus of the United Irish Society was already in existence, and only required organising. About this time Russell was forced to sell his commission, having gone bail for an American swindler named Digges. Through the friendly interest of Colonel Knox, he was on 21 Dec. appointed seneschal of the manor court of Dungannon and a J.P. for co. Tyrone. But, finding it, as he said, impossible ‘to 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 inquiring into the crimes with which a prisoner was accused,’ he resigned his post on 15 Oct. 1792. Possessing no means of livelihood, he was bent on seeking his fortune in France, but was restrained by the kindness of his Belfast friends, and in the meantime devoted himself actively to the extension of the principles of the United Irish Society. In February 1794 he was appointed librarian to the Belfast Library at a salary of 30l., shortly afterwards raised to 50l. a year. When Tone quitted Ireland in May 1795, Russell was made privy to, and approved of, his design of seeking to bring about a separation from England with the aid of France, though, like the Belfast party generally, he seems to have thought that more was to be expected from a national rising. On the reconstitution of the society on a purely revolutionary basis, he took the oath of secrecy from James Agnew Farrell of Maghermon, near Larne, and, with Neilson and M'Cracken, was regarded as responsible for the northern party. He appears to have been a frequent contributor to the ‘Northern Star.’ In the summer of 1796 he published ‘A Letter to the People of Ireland on the present Situation of the Country,’ in advocacy of the catholic claims, of which two editions were speedily exhausted.

Since his return to Belfast in 1792 he had been under government surveillance, and, in order to withdraw him from the danger that menaced him, an offer was made him in 1794 of an ensigncy in a militia regiment, with the prospect of speedy promotion to the rank of lieutenant. The offer was declined, and on 16 Sept. 1796 he was arrested at Belfast with Neilson and other prominent United Irishmen. He remained in close confinement in Newgate at Dublin till 19 March 1799, when, in consequence of the compact of 29 July 1798, whereby he and his fellow political prisoners consented to banishment in order to prevent further executions, he was transported to Fort George in Scotland. Liberated after the peace of Amiens, he landed at Cuxhaven in Holland on 4 July 1802. He proceeded to Paris, and, meeting shortly afterwards with Robert Emmet [q. v.], he entered into his plans with enthusiasm. He managed to return disguised to Ireland in April 1803, and for several weeks lay concealed in Dublin, seldom going abroad, except at night. The task of raising Ulster was assigned him by Emmet, together with the title of general, and at the beginning of May he paid a hurried visit to the north, accompanied by James Hope (1764–1846) [q. v.] But despite the secrecy with which the visit was managed, a rumour of impending trouble spread abroad, and when he went to Belfast a second time in July he found his enemies on the alert, and his old friends utterly indifferent to his project and desirous only of being left alone. A proclamation issued by him on 24 July as ‘Member of the Provisional Government and General-in-chief of the Northern District’ failed to elicit any response from ‘the Men of Ireland’ to whom it was addressed. Still, even after the news of Emmet's failure reached him, he did not despair of ultimate success. ‘I hope,’ he wrote to Mary m'Cracken, ‘your spirits are not depressed by a temporary damp in consequence of the recent failure … of ultimate success I am still certain.’ But his ardour was unavailing. Ultimately he sought shelter at Dublin, in the house of a gunsmith of the name of Muley, in Parliament Street. Rewards to the amount of 1,500l. were offered for his apprehension. He was tracked by a spy named Emerson and arrested by Major Sirr on 9 Sept., and removed to Kilmainham. An unsuccessful attempt was made by Miss m'Cracken to bribe his gaoler, and on 12 Oct. he was sent down for trial to Downpatrick. His life was already forfeited under the provisions of the Act of Banishment (38 Geo. III, c. 78), but it was determined to proceed against him on a charge of high treason. He was tried at Downpatrick by special commission before Baron George on 20 Oct., and, being found guilty, was sentenced to be executed the following day. Of the jury that tried him, six, he remarked, had at one time or another taken the United Irish oath. In a speech of singular modesty and firmness, through which there ran a strain of religious fanaticism, he declared himself perfectly satisfied with the part he had played in trying to regenerate his country. His Greek testament, his sole earthly possession, he gave to Mr. Forde, the clergyman who attended him on the scaffold. He was buried in Downpatrick parish churchyard, and over his grave was laid a stone slab with the inscription, ‘The grave of Russell.’

His sister, to whom he was devotedly attached, was left by his death entirely destitute; but found a friend and protector in Mary m'Cracken, who placed her in an asylum for aged females at Drumcondra, where she died in September 1834, aged 82. Russell was over six feet high, and proportionately broad. To a somewhat sallow complexion, an abundance of black hair and dark-brown eyes, he added a voice of singular depth and sweetness. The dominant idea of his life was that the laws of God were outraged in Ireland, and that revolution was a sacred duty and a political right. There is a poor portrait of him, corrected from a sketch in the ‘Hibernian Magazine’ of 1803, in Madden's ‘United Irishmen,’ 3rd ser. vol. ii. The only good portrait, a miniature, belonged, according to Madden, at one time to Major Sirr.

[A short notice of Russell's life, for which the materials were furnished by Miss m'Cracken, was published in the Ulster Magazine of January 1830; and another by Samuel McSkimmin, the historian of Carrickfergus, in Frazer's Magazine of November 1836; the former very incomplete, the latter unsympathetic and inaccurate. Both have been superseded by the Life in Madden's United Irishmen, 3rd ser. vol. ii. A few additional particulars will be found in Miss m'Cleery's Life of Mary Ann M'Cracken in Young's Historical Notices of Old Belfast, 1896; Russell's correspondence is in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.]

R. D.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.240
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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473 ii 35 Russell, Thomas (1767-1808): for ‘the clerk of the parish’ read ‘parish priest’