By Ewan Morgan
‘Into our townlan’, on a night of snow,
Rode a man from God-knows- where;’
These opening lines of the poem, The man from God-knows-where, were written about Thomas Russell, almost a century after his death, by Florence Mary Wilson. It is the eternal tribute to the enigmatic general of the United Irish rebellion of 1803.
Born in County Cork in 1767, this former British soldier, gentleman of leisure, chief librarian, humanist and organiser, is the forgotten man of the United Irishmen. From as early as 1790, Russell was a close friend and confident of Theobald Wolfe Tone, and spent the summer with him and his wife Matilda. Tone wrote: “Russell and I were inseparable, and, as our discussions were mostly political and our sentiments agreed exactly, we extended our views, and fortified each other in the opinions, to the propagation and establishment of which we have ever since been devoted.” Russell had been impressed by the demands for franchise extension, and the removal of restrictions on Catholics and Dissenters. His knowledge of northern Presbyterians allowed him to notify Tone to the suspicions that were held there about the lack of responsibility of Catholics and their entitlement to full inclusion within the constitution. It has been suggested that he may have influenced Tone’s pamphlet An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland published in August 1791.
In the summer of 1795, accompanied by Tone, Neilson, Simms and Henry Joy McCracken, he spent two days on Cavehill overlooking Belfast. Those gathered pledged “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence”.
Russell then spent the next year crisscrossing Ulster promoting the United Irish cause, especially among, and between, the Presbyterians and Catholics. It was from the stories created at this time that the legend “The man from God-knows-where” was born. Throughout this period he became known from Rathfriland to Rathlin Island. So effective was he that by July 1796 Lord Downshire, the governor of County Down, was informed that the “emissaries of the United Irishmen are astir in every quarter”.
Having been arrested in September 1796 and imprisoned in Dublin and later Fort George near Inverness, Russell was absent during the Rebellion of 1798. This may well be the reason why his name does not come so easily to mind in the list of the United Irish martyrs.
However his indoctrination of the United Army of Ulster is well summed up in Wilson’s poem by these lines:
‘We, men of the North, had a word to say, An, we said it then, in our own dour way, An, we spoke as we thought was best.’
After six years of imprisonment Russell, on his release, moved to Paris via Amsterdam. Although unhappy with Bonapart’s vision of the Revolution, he was keen to support Robert Emmet and his new United Irish project. Russell returned to his beloved County Down in May 1803 and tried, once again, to re-establish contact with former comrades, but support was in short supply.
Having gone back, briefly, to Dublin he returned in July, with James Hope, to prepare for a Rebellion. However he quickly found that support was not forthcoming and with the compromising of the plans for the rising in Dublin the project was doomed. One man, a former ‘98 insurgent, informed Russell of the climate change in public opinion. He said nobody “but fools or madmen” would join him.
Having had to abandon the rising in Loughinisland, Russell, having travelled to Antrim, eventually came to the conclusion that the cause was lost.
Arrested in Dublin in September, Russell was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail.
Returned to County Down, he was brought to Downpatrick to stand trial on a charge of high treason. In October, having been found guilty, Russell delivered an address, claiming he had “committed no moral evil”. He called himself “a soldier of the Lord Jesus Christ” and said he would “depart from this, for a better world”.
Russell was hanged outside Downpatrick Jail. His last words were: “I forgive my persecutors; I die in peace with all mankind, and I hope for mercy through the merits of my Redeemer Jesus Christ.”
His body was buried in St. Margaret’s Church of Ireland Cemetery, situated close to the jail. Mary Ann McCracken, sister of Henry Joy, organised a granite slab to be placed on the grave. Its inscription reads “The Grave of Russell”. It marks the final resting place of one of the most influential of the United Irishmen.
Thomas Russell was executed 213 years ago, on 21 October 1803.
His death, and the hanging of two comrades shortly after, brought to a close the final chapter of the great project, began twelve years earlier, to replace the identity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter with the common name of Irishman and Irishwoman.
In this week of his death, we should reflect on the worthy ideals of such a great visionary, and his contemporaries, and maybe try and understand what they had to say.
As a tribute the best may be Florence Mary Wilson’s last two verses of the poem mentioned above:
By Downpatrick Gaol I was bound to fare
On a day I’ll remember, faith
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 standin, grim an tall,
Round a scaffold built fornent the wall,
An a man stepped out for death
I was brave an near to the edge o 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 swingin rope
While I said, “Please God” to his dyin hope
An “Amen” to his dyin prayer.
That the wrong would cease an the right prevail -
For the man that they hanged at Downpatrick Gaol
Was the man from God-knows-where