Thomas Russell

United Irishman convicted and hanged for high treason

Thomas Russell was born at Betsborough, Co Cork, on November 21, 1767, son of an army lieutenant. Russell was intended for an ecclesiastical career in the Church of Ireland, but in 1783 went to India to join the army and fought at the battle of Cannanore. By 1787, he left India on half-pay.

In 1790, Russell met Wolfe Tone at the public gallery of the Irish parliament and a lifelong friendship began. At the end of the year, Russell was commissioned to Belfast as an ensign in the 64th infantry regiment. Being convivial, good looking, charismatic and charming, he fitted quickly into Belfast society. He was deeply religious and held strong millennialist beliefs. On the other hand, Russell was also of a restless nature, drank heavily, and was highly promiscuous.

Russell became a founder member of the First Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791, wrote for the Northern Star, and acted as secretary for the Dublin United Irishmen. He was the most socially radical of all United Irish leaders, an outspoken opponent of slavery and industrial exploitation.

Russell posted bail for a friend in order to secure his release from a debtor’s prison. When the friend defaulted, Russell had to sell his ensigncy in July 1791. Through the patronage of a friend, he was appointed seneschal of the manor court of Dungannon, and a justice of the peace for Co Tyrone. However, he resigned within twelve months, apparently disgusted by the sectarian animosities there. Russell’s financial situation worsened until he became librarian for the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge (now Linen Hall Library) in 1794.

Russell was arrested on September 16, 1796, and was detained without trial in Newgate Prison, Dublin, until March 1799. He was then sent to Fort George in the north of Scotland. The longest serving United Irish prisoner, Russell was released in June 1802 on condition that he went into exile. However, he returned to take the Ulster command in the 1803 rebellion. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of high treason.

Thomas Russell was hanged at Downpatrick on October 21, 1803. His body is buried there.

Further reading:
The Man from God Knows Where: Thomas Russell 1767-1803 (1995) by Denis Carroll.

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