Thomas Russell (rebel)

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Thomas Paliser Russell
Born21 November 1767
Died21 October 1803
Cause of deathExecuted for High Treason
Nationality Kingdom of Ireland, Irish
OccupationSoldier, Librarian, Revolutionary
Notable work
Letter to the People of Ireland (1796)
MovementGreen harp flag of Ireland.svg Society of United Irishmen

Thomas Paliser Russell (21 November 1767 – 21 October 1803) was founding member, and leading organiser, of the United Irishmen marked by his radical-democratic and millenarian convictions. He was executed for his part in Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803.


Born in Dromahane, County Cork to an Anglican family with a military tradition, at the age of fifteen Russell sailed with his brother’s regiment to India. In July 1783 he was commissioned ensign in an infantry regiment and saw action in the Second Anglo-Mysore War. At Cannanore he distinguished himself by carrying his wounded commanding officer from the battlefield.[1] His services made him "favourably known" to Sir John Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis. He was, however, disgusted by what he regarded as "the unjust and rapacious conduct pursued by the authorities in the case of two native women", and returned disaffected to Ireland in 1786.[2] After briefly studying for the church ministry, he spent the next four years as a half-pay officer in Dublin pursuing studies of science, philosophy and politics.

In July 1790 in the visitors' gallery in the Irish House of Commons he met Theobald Wolfe Tone. He found Tone equally critical of the proceedings in the chamber below where the patriot leader Henry Grattan was unable to capitalise on his triumph in securing Ireland's legislative independence from England ( the "Revolution of 1782"") to effect meaningful reform. Writing his Autobiography six years later in Paris, Tone was to describe the encounter with Russell as "one of the most fortunate in my life".[3]

Russell in Belfast[edit]

At the end of August 1790 Russell was appointed as an officer to the 64th regiment of foot stationed in Belfast. As an officer of the garrison, Russell he was received into the society of the town's newly emerging professional and business class. Largely Presbyterian, they were resentful of the privileges and monopolies of the Anglican Ascendancy and sympathetic to what they perceived as the democratic ideals of the American, and now French, revolutions.

With his keen mind and his own radical bent, Russell became a confidante of William Drennan, Samuel McTier, Samuel Neilson and later of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, and others who were to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement.

It is said that Russell admired and respected men and women alike. Both Drennan's sister Martha McTier and McCracken's sister Mary Ann McCracken took him into their confidence. Mary Ann, who regarded Russell a "a model of manly beauty" with a grace "which nothing but superiority of intellect can give",[2] shared with him her enthusiasm for the female-emancipatory ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft.[4] McTier had Russell address meetings of other radically-minded women and declared: “I admire that man much and had I the power I do believe that he would be the first man that I would serve”.[1]

In October 1791, and in the presence of Tone invited to Belfast as the proponent of political union with disenfranchised Catholics, Russell attended the inaugural meeting of the Society of United Irishmen. The resolutions, which Russell had called upon Tone write, demanded an "equal representation of all the people" in the Dublin Parliament.[5]

After several months, and to avoid debt, Russell accepted the offer of Viscount Northland of Tyrone, the father of an old army friend, to become seneschal (a kind of stipendiary magistrate) to the Northlands’ manor court at Dungannon. But Russell was appalled by the anti-Catholicism of his fellow magistrates and possibly also of the Northland family, and he resigned in October 1792. His experience in Dungannon contributed significantly to his developing radicalism, and he never again served in any official position, or sought the patronage of his aristocratic friends.[1]

With Drennan's assistance, in 1793 Russell was to take a position more congenial to his friends: librarian at the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (the later Linen Hall Library).

United Irish revolutionary[edit]

Caricature of Thomas Russell circa 1795

Britain's entry into the war against revolutionary France at the beginning of 1793 and the increased domestic repression that followed, caused the United Irishmen increasingly to despair of reform. At the same time, the possibility of French intervention and assistance encouraged thought of insurrection. By mid-1793 Russell had shed his sympathies for the parliamentary patriots or Irish Whigs. In a letter to Belfast's United Irish paper the Northern Star he denounced Henry Grattan's parliamentary opposition as "insignificant" and accused him of "declaiming, and grinning, and chattering at the abuses of that ministry, which but for him would not now exist".[1]

In June 1795, as a member of the Society's increasingly conspiratorial Northern Executive, Russell met with McCracken. Neilson, Robert Simms and, en route to exile in the United States, with Tone. At McArt's fort atop Cave Hill overlooking Belfast they swore the celebrated oath "never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence'".[6]

Russell travelled widely throughout Ulster, recruiting and organising for the United Irishmen. In September 1795 an informer reported that "Capt. Russell of Belfast has been appointed to the command of all the societies in the province of Ulster"; while some time later, one of the government’s most reliable agents informed the Castle that the United Irishmen were ready to rise and that "Russell…now conducts all their plans". His role as a United Irish recruiter was commemorated in the well-known ballad "The man from God-knows-where".[1]

Social radical[edit]

In 1796, Russell published a Letter to the People of Ireland--the fullest exposition of his democratic and increasingly millenarian outlook. He castigated the aristocracy for stalling progress towards reform in the 1780s, their moral corruption, their unworthiness to govern, and their useless, parasitic existence and insisted that all men have not only the right, but the duty, to concern themselves with government and politics. Only if legislation seeks to serve "the whole family of mankind", rather than just self-interested minorities, can there be some hope that it will reflect the natural justice ordained by God.[1]

Russell looked to a simpler, purer form of government in which the will of a benevolent deity could operate untrammelled by greed and corruption and man could realise those rights accorded him by nature. These, he believed, required radical changes to distribution and prerogatives of property. He decried the cruelties of mill work and the poverty induced by the exactions and indifference of the aristocracy and the government.

As an acting magistrate in Dungannon Russell had taken the side of local linen weavers in their disputes with their employers. While some radicals took a hostile view of tradesmen’s combinations, seeing them as an obstacle to the self-regulating harmony of the market, Russell looked upon them with approval. Clashing with Samuel Nielson in the Northern Star,[7] he recommended combination--unions--not for only tradesmen but also for labourers and cottiers.[1]

Less controversially for Belfast, Russell had made clear his uncompromising opposition to slavery. Yet, presaging difficulty that Daniel O'Connell's campaigning abolitionism was to create for some of his followers, a Northern Star editorial (17 March 1792) agreed with Russell in principle but directed attention to the liberation of three million "slaves" in Ireland. The veteran anti-slavery campaigner, Henry Joy McCracken's sister Mary Ann, 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".[8]

State prisoner[edit]

Russell's uncompromising radicalism earned him the respect of the more extreme democrats in Belfast, and was in line with Tone's growing conviction that "if the men of property will not support us, they must fall; we can support ourselves by the aid of that numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property".[9] With his close friend Henry Joy McCracken, Russell was a key figure in forming the alliance between the northern United Irishmen and the greatest body, existing, of "men of no property", the Defenders. A vigilante response to Peep O'Day raids upon Catholic homes in the mid 1780s, by the early 1790s the Defenders (drawing, like the United Irishmen, on the lodge structure of the Masons) were a secret oath-bound fraternity ranging across Ulster and the Irish midlands.[10]

Such activities increasingly alarmed the authorities and on 16 September 1796 they finally struck. A large military force descended on Belfast, sealed off the town, and arrested several leading United men, including Russell. Charged with high treason, Russell was held in Newgate prison where, in the spring and summer of 1798, he was forced to sit out the ill-fated insurrection. He was considerably more reluctant than most of his colleagues to come to terms with the government, attempting from prison to instigate further armed resistance. In March 1799 he was detained for a further three years, with other state prisoners, at Fort George in Scotland.

His letters an reveal that as he brooded on the state of the world he increasingly found sense and solace in biblical prophecy. The combined effect of the continuation of the war in Europe, its spread to the Middle East, and the bloody summer of 1798 in Ireland, seems to have only intensified his belief that the world was then engaged in the time of troubles which St John had foretold would precede the coming of Christ’s kingdom. His duty to prepare the way by raising his hand against the war-mongering British monarchy.[1]

While confined to Fort George, Russell, Samuel Neilson, and the lawyer William Dowdall remained in contact with Robert Emmet, William Putnam McCabe and other young militants. They were to determined reconstruct the Society on a strict military basis, with its members chosen personally by its officers meeting as the executive directory. The immediate aim of the directory was, in conjunction with simultaneous risings in Ireland and England to again solicit a French invasion.[11]

At the end of June 1802, during what was to prove a brief cessation in the war with France, Russell was released on condition of exile to Hamburg.

1803 Rising and execution[edit]

Memorial plaque, Down County Museum, Downpatrick, County Down, August 2009

Not content to sit things out in Hamburg, Russell soon made his way to Paris where he met Robert Emmet who, with the roving McCabe (Paris, Hamburg, London, Scotland, Ireland) were advancing the plans for insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against England. Russell, although having himself little confidence in the French,[12]agreed to return to Ireland in March 1803 to organise the North in conjunction with the veteran of the Battle of Antrim, James Hope.[12] However he met with little success as much of the north was subdued following the suppression of the 1798 rebellion and displayed no appetite for a renewed outbreak.[13]

Rebuffed by United Irish remnant in north Down, Russell attempted to raise the standard in Defender country.[14] On the morning of July 22, 1803, Thomas Russell addressed small groups of men in Annadorn and Loughinisland. He told them that there was to be a general insurrection throughout Ireland and that blows would be struck simultaneously at Dublin, Belfast and Downpatrick. He entreated them to join him but to no avail. One man said that they would be hanged like dogs. Baffled by their refusal to join him and with no sign of the signal fire, he left Loughinisland the following morning.[13][15] Unknown to Russell, Emmet had been unable to secure the help of Michael Dwyer's Wicklow rebels;[16] and supporters in Kildare had dispersed due the lack of promised firearms. In Dublin after a brief street battle on he evening of the 23rd, in which he had recoiled from the sight of a dragoon being pulled from his horse and piked to death, Emmett called the rising off.  

Russell managed to hide for a number of weeks but Dublin was caught in the authorities' dragnet on 9 September. He was sent under heavy escort to Downpatrick Gaol. There, convicted of high treason, on 12 October he was hung and beheaded. His remains were buried in the graveyard of the parish church, Down Cathedral, a grave paid for by his friend Mary Ann McCracken.

In remarks to the court before sentencing, Russell expressed surprise "to see gentlemen on the jury (looking at the grand jury box) who had often expressed and advocated political opinions similar to those on which he acted, and for which he had forfeited his life, for the sentiments publicly delivered by them, had assisted to influence his conduct". He afterwards told an officer that six of the jury (probably referring to persons on both grand and petty juries) had been United Irishmen.[17]

In 1796 efforts to raise a yeomanry corps in Belfast had to be abandoned because of lack of support. On 5 April 1803, in response to rumours of Russell's mission, the town’s citizens proclaimed their readiness to repel the attacks of foreign or domestic enemies, and two new corps were raised. Of the three lieutenants appointed two were all former United Irishmen: Robert Getty and Gilbert McIlveen.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Quinn, James (Spring 2002). "Thomas Russell, United Irishman". 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives. 10 (1). Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  2. ^ a b Madden, Richard Robert (1846). The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times. Volume 1. Dublin: J. Madden & Company. pp. 145–146.
  3. ^ Joy, Henry (1817). Historical Collections Relating to the Town of Belfast. Belfast: G. Berwick. p. 34.
  4. ^ McNeill, Mary (1960). The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770–1866. Dublin: Allen Figgis & Co. pp. 110, 141–144.
  5. ^ Altholz, Josef L. (2000). Selected Documents in Irish History. New York: M E Sharpe. p. 70. ISBN 0415127769.
  6. ^ William Theobald Wolfe Tone, ed. (1826). Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, vol. 1. Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton. p. 127.
  7. ^ Gray, John (1998). The San Culottes of Belfast: The United Irishmen and the Men of No Property. Belfast: Belfast Trades Union Council and the United Irishmen Commemorative Society. pp. 13–18.
  8. ^ McNeil (1967), 293
  9. ^ William Theobald Wolfe Tone, ed. (1826). Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, vol. 2. Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton. p. 45. ISBN 9781108081948.
  10. ^ Curtin, Nancy (1985). "The Transformation of the Society of United Irishmen into a mass-based revolutionary organisation, 1794-6". Irish Historical Studies. xxiv (96): 467–477.
  11. ^ Elliott, Marianne (May 1977). "The 'Despard Plot' Reconsidered". Past & Present. 75 (1): 46–61. doi:10.1093/past/75.1.46.
  12. ^ a b Madden, Richard Robert (1846). The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times. Volume 1. J. Madden & Company. pp. 211–213.
  13. ^ a b c ""The dog that didn't bark": the North and 1803". History Ireland. 22 February 2013. Retrieved 7 March 2021.
  14. ^ Commentary by Kenneth Robinson in: Birch, Thomas Ledlie (2005). A Letter from an Irish Emigrant (1799) (Originally published in Philadelphia ed.). Belfast: Athol Books. ISBN 0850341108. p. 114
  15. ^ "Remembering the legend of Russell". Down Recorder. Down Recorder. 23 February 2013. Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  16. ^ "Robert Emmet". Ricorso. 2010. Retrieved 6 October 2010.
  17. ^ James D. Rose Cleland, (one of the Petty Jury) to Mary Ann McCracken, 18 November 1843, Letters of Mary-Ann McCracken, Trinity College Dublin, TCD873/627