Thomas Russell, United Irishman

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Russell, Thomas, a distinguished United Irishman, was born at Betsborough in the County of Cork, 21st November 1767. He was intended for the Church, but in 1782 went to India as a volunteer, with his brother Ambrose. After five years' service he returned (according to one account disgusted at the outrages perpetrated on the natives of India), and was appointed captain in the 64th Regiment. In 1789 an acquaintance with Wolfe Tone ripened into a close intimacy. He entered warmly into all Tone's plans regarding Ireland — his sobriety of demeanour and deep religious earnestness contrasting strangely with his friend's mercurial temperament and heterodoxy in religion.

Tone was devotedly attached to him; "P.P." or "Clerk of the Parish," the playful name by which he knew Russell, occurs upon almost every page of his Journal. About 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." In 1794 he was appointed librarian of the Belfast Library, on a very small salary. Russell wrote for the Northern Star, Several pieces on negro slavery show that his liberal principles were not confined to any race or country. He published a pamphlet on the Catholic claims in 1796.

When the plans of the revolutionary party took shape, he was appointed to the command of the United Irishmen in the County of Down. Several of his letters found their way into the hands of the Government, and on the 16th September 1796 he was arrested, and was kept in confinement until 1802 — first at Newgate, Dublin, and afterwards at Fort George, Scotland. This long incarceration in no way abated his ardour in what he believed to be the cause of Ireland. In June 1802, with other state prisoners, he was liberated, and landed on the Continent. In August he met Robert Emmet in Paris, and threw himself with zeal into his plans. With difficulty he contrived to reach Ireland in disguise. To him Emmet assigned the task of rousing Ulster. He met with little encouragement, yet even after receiving the news of Emmet's failure and arrest, he wrote to his friend Miss McCracken: "I hope your spirits are not depressed by a temporary damp, in consequence of the recent failure; .. of ultimate success I am still certain."

He returned to Dublin, and took lodgings at the house of a gunmaker in Parliament-street, where, on 9th September 1803 he was arrested by Major Sirr: he was shortly afterwards sent to Downpatrick for trial. Ineffectual efforts were made by Miss McCracken to bribe the jailers and procure his release. He was found guilty of high treason at Downpatrick on 19th October 1803, and was executed next day. His last letters to his friends were full of a spirit of lofty devotion and self-sacrifice; and his only request before sentence was that he might be given a few days to complete a treatise he was writing on the book of Revelation, which he believed would be of some good to the world. His body was interred in Downpatrick churchyard, under a slab bearing the inscription, "The grave of Russell." He is described as tall, with dark hair and complexion; his voice was deep and melodious; his presence showed a singular combination of sweetness and strength. His sister, to whom he was devotedly attached, was cared for by Miss McCracken, and survived until 1821. [For further mention of Miss McCracken, see MCCRACKEN, HENRY JOY]

Sources

330. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Third Series: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 3 vols. Dublin, 1846.

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