Remembering the legend of Russell

Remembering the legend of Russell

27 February 2013

THE life and times of Thomas Russell, the United Irishman who was hanged in Downpatrick over 200 years ago, will be celebrated during an evening of music and song in the Down Museum on Wednesday, March 13, as part of the town’s St. Patrick’s Festival.

The remains of Thomas Russell lie almost forgotten in the pretty little graveyard of Saint Margaret’s Parish Church in Downpatrick. Russell, army officer, magistrate, librarian and United Irish revolutionary walked to a makeshift scaffold outside the gates of Downpatrick gaol at 12 noon on October 21, 1803. He had been condemned to death the previous day on a charge of high treason.

Standing on the scaffold with the rope swinging from the crossbeam above his head, he spoke to the soldiers and the assembled crowd and these words were recorded: “I forgive my persecutors. I die in peace with all mankind, and I hope for mercy through the merits of my redeemer Jesus Christ.” He then turned to the other men of the law and the Sub Sheriff and said: “Gentlemen, may God almighty bless you all”.

Russell showed no emotion and appeared perfectly calm as the cap was pulled over his face, the swinging rope adjusted, and the planks knocked away. Death held no terror for him as it is evident from his writings that he was possessed of a deep faith in the promises of Christ and in a blessed resurrection.

On the morning of July 22, 1803, Thomas Russell had breakfast at an inn in Saintfield, hired a horse and set off for the townland of Annadorn. He addressed small groups of men in Annadorn and Loughinisland and announced 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. Unknown to Russell, his United Irish comrade in Dublin, Robert Emmet, had called off the rising. However, Russell’s ‘mission’ in Loughinisland and Annadorn had sealed his fate.

Russell was arrested in Dublin on September 9 and was imprisoned in Kilmainham. On October 12 he was taken without warning to Downpatrick under a strong military escort and served with his indictment of high treason. A troop of regular cavalry and 66 yeomanry were sent to Downpatrick to guard the trial. Russell was no ordinary prisoner and posed a threat to British rule in Ireland.

He was born into a loving Anglican family in Drumahane, County Cork, in 1767. His last wish, which was not granted, was to be buried beside his parents at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in Dublin where the Russell family moved to when his father was appointed Captain of the Invalids in 1780. His father was trained to the Anglican ministry but later joined the British army. Thomas followed in his father’s footsteps and at the age of 15 he served on the coast of Malabar as a young ensign. He returned to Ireland on half pay around 1787 and continued his studies. It is thought that he may have considered studying for the Anglican ministry himself.

He spent the summer of 1790 with Wolfe Tone and his family at Irishtown, near Dublin. Tone was also of the Anglican tradition and a trained barrister, but not practising. Their mutual interest in politics quickly ignited a strong and loyal friendship.

At the end of August 1790 Russell was appointed as an officer to the 64th regiment of foot stationed in Belfast. On arrival in Belfast he was soon warmly welcomed into a social circle that included the McCrackens, the McTiers, the Neilsons, the Simms and the McCabes. He was quickly acknowledged to be a man of culture and learning with an observant and inquiring mind.

It is said that he was admired and respected by men and women alike and he was a much valued guest at the social evenings of his friends. Martha McTier mentions having meetings of radically minded women and inviting Russell to address them. She comments, “I admire that man much and had I the power I do believe that he would be the first man that I would serve”.

Several young ladies in Belfast greatly mourned his execution. Mary Anne McCracken, the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, was thought to be in love with him, but there is no evidence on Russell’s part of anything more than brotherly regard. Mary Anne proved to be one of his most loyal and trusted friends. They shared an abhorrence of slavery and Mary recorded in later years that Russell would not eat sugar products in protest against the slave trade.

Mary Simms, a sister of United Irishmen Robert and William Simms was also thought to be very attracted to Russell. Apparently Mary fainted upon hearing of his death. Russell had commented on her beautiful singing voice in his journal.

My late husband, Nicholas, had a passionate love of history and it was he who introduced me to Thomas Russell. The last book that he read was Denis O’Carroll’s ‘The Man from God Knows Where’, called after that wonderful poem written by Florence Wilson in 1946. I still recall how much he enjoyed the book.

Down Museum is housed within the walls of the gaol where Thomas Russell spent his last days. Hence, I have decided to celebrate his life and times in music and songs during the Downpatrick festival week. Come along on Wednesday, March 13. Tickets are on sale at the museum (tel. 028 4461 5218) at £10 each, — £7.50 for Friends of the Down Museum. This includes a glass of wine or soft drink.

An appropriate selection of music and songs has been chosen for the evening with Danny McGreevy on uilleann pipes and whistles, Sarah McVeigh playing harp and Luke Bannon on violin. Danny has composed a lament for Thomas Russell to be performed on the night. Kevin Kearney, a fine singer from Strangford, will be singing some of the romantic songs of Robbie Burns and other traditional songs will be performed. The programme includes tunes collected from the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 and lively marches, jigs and more. Sheila Crea will be reading short pieces of narration between the musical sets.

There will be a display of Tory Island paintings by Patsy Dan Rodgers, the King of Tory Island, and also by his son-in-law, Daniel Cullen, at 7pm and during the interval. As a young man Patsy Dan was one of the leading campaigners against the Irish government’s plans to resettle the islanders on the Donegal mainland following storms in 1974 which had cut off the island for almost two months. His contribution to his island’s well-being has been recognised by his fellow islanders who bestowed on him the title of King of Tory in 1993.

The story of Thomas Russell’s life unveils a fascinating period in Irish history when change was taking place very rapidly.

Russell, along with Robert Emmet, attempted another rising to overthrow British rule in Ireland in 1803. He had been removed from the scene of the bloody rebellion of 1798 by his arrest in October 1796. He was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison, Dublin and then in March 1799 he was transferred to Fort George in Scotland. On the ship that carried him to Scotland there were 20 United Irishmen — ten Anglicans, six Presbyterians and four Catholics.

The fact that the rising of 1803 was a complete failure does not undermine his importance in Irish history and the pivotal role that he and Wolfe Tone played in the Society of the United Irishmen and raises the question — what drove such a talented young man to risk all in the pursuit of his political ideals?