Russell, Charles William (1812–80), priest and historian, was born 14 May 1812 at Killough, Co. Down, youngest son among five sons and four daughters of Charles Russell (d. 1828), a brewer and merchant descended from the Barons Russell of Killough and Ballystrew, and his second wife Anne (neé McEvoy), of a wealthy Drogheda catholic family. His brother Arthur was father of Charles Russell (qv), lord chief justice and Baron Russell of Killowen, of Katherine Russell (qv) (Mary Baptist Russell in religion) and of the Jesuit and editor, Matthew Russell (qv). Charles William Russell was educated in classics and English literature from the age of nine at Drogheda grammar school. At the age of twelve he went to school in Downpatrick, Co. Down. He entered Maynooth College (1826), becoming proficient in modern languages, held a Dunboyne postgraduate studentship (1832), and was appointed professor of humanities (1835–42). He was ordained on 13 June 1835.
Russell's first appearance in print, an essay on catholic versions of scripture, appeared (1836) in the Dublin Review, a catholic quarterly founded in 1836 by Daniel O'Connell (qv), Nicholas (later Cardinal) Wiseman, and Michael Quin (qv). Wiseman and Russell became in 1843 co-editors of the Review, which they saw as a vehicle for influencing well-informed British opinion on Irish affairs. Russell's essays in the Review on tractarianism were eagerly read at Oxford. Russell contributed articles on history and apologetics to the first fifty-two volumes of the Dublin Review as well as commissioning articles by his friends J. T. Gilbert (qv), John O'Hagan (qv), and others.
Tall, spare, and dignified, Russell exerted considerable influence on those around him. By March 1841 John Henry Newman (qv) had noticed his writings. They corresponded, became friends, and met for the first time at Oxford in 1843. Newman later said of Russell that he ‘had perhaps more to do with my conversion than anyone else’ (Apologia, 194). Newman's Loss and gain (1848) was dedicated to Russell, and his residency in Ireland cemented the friendship. Russell was appointed vicar apostolic of Ceylon (1842–5) by Pope Gregory XVI and spent a year in Rome before being allowed to give up the post to return to Ireland, preferring a life of study. He willingly accepted the newly established professorship of ecclesiastical history at Maynooth (1845–57). A skilled linguist, he translated, with the Rev. M. Kelly, Carl von Schmid's Tales (3 vols, 1846), which became very popular. In 1849 he helped establish the Irish Ecclesiological Society, set up to cultivate interest in ecclesiastical art.
In 1854 Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv) of Dublin opposed Russell's candidature for the Dromore coadjutorship on the grounds of his close connections with catholic whigs. On the death of Dr Laurence Renehan (qv), Russell was supported by the lay trustees for the post of president of Maynooth College (which he held from October 1857 to his death), though Cullen characterised him as a government man. Russell's friendships with J. H. Todd (qv), George Petrie (qv), and William Reeves (qv), as well as W. E. Gladstone, made Cullen suspicious of Russell, though he had defended Maynooth's interests during Peel's Maynooth act (1845) and the Harrowsby royal commission of inquiry into Maynooth (1853–4). In the end, Cullen supported Russell because the alternative candidate, Robert ffrench Whitehead, vice-president of Maynooth, was a protégé of Archbishop John MacHale (qv), Cullen's adversary. It was through his British government contacts that Russell obtained PRO publications from the stationery office for the library at Maynooth. From the tsar of Russia he received the St Petersburg edition of the Codex Sinaiticus.
While he was president of Maynooth, Russell maintained his literary activities. After his biographical essay on Vatican librarian and multilinguist Cardinal Mezzofanti in the Edinburgh Review (1854) was published as a Life (1858, 1863), he next wrote essays on palimpsests and papyri for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1859). His editorial role with the Dublin Review ended in 1863 owing to his college and research commitments, though he submitted articles until his death. He refused an offer to be coadjutor bishop of his native Down and Connor in 1866 on the death of Bishop Cornelius Denvir (qv), claiming that his undertaking to pay off family debts, incurred through business failures, restricted his suitability for the post.
Russell made significant contributions to Irish historical studies. He was author, with J. P. Prendergast (qv), of A report on the Carte manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (8 vols, 1871). The work had begun in 1865 and entailed over six weeks each summer sifting through some 80,000 early modern documents before selecting about 8,000 for transcription. The collection of royal letters, orders, petitions, proclamations, and grants of property was warmly welcomed by scholars of Irish history. During this period of work Russell was elected MRIA (1868) and wrote some 500 articles on religious and Irish history for Chambers’ Encyclopedia (1868). The Historical Manuscripts Commission was set up in April 1869 to investigate public and historical documents in private collections and to publish abstracts; Russell was appointed one of the first nine commissioners, and the only Irishman on the panel. Three months later Dr Charles Graves (qv), who knew Russell through the Irish Archaeological Society, joined the commission, while the society's secretary J. T. Gilbert became a commission inspector. Russell and Prendergast also edited the Calendar of state papers relating to Ireland, 1603–25 (5 vols, 1872–80). The preface to the first volume (1603–6) contains the editors’ essential guide to the state papers as well as a comprehensive survey of key Irish historical documents such as the Conway, Cottonian, Lansdowne, Harleian, Sloane, Carew, Carte, and TCD manuscripts. Russell presented the preface to the 1603–6 volume, printed separately, to Gladstone.
As president of Maynooth Russell campaigned long and vigorously for a college chapel; thanks to the bequest of Dean James O'Kane (d. 1874) building eventually got under way by the autumn of 1875. Russell was appointed (1877) one of the first trustees of the new National Library of Ireland in recognition of his commitment to Irish studies. Although he threw himself with his usual vigour into this work, shortly afterwards (16 May 1877) he fell from his horse in the main street of Maynooth and thereafter no longer took an active part in college affairs; William Walsh (qv) became vice-president and, on Russell's death, president.
Russell's last appointment was as one of the pope's domestic prelates (1879). In the winter of 1879–80 he suffered an attack of pneumonia and was attended by his sister Margaret and his niece, both Sisters of Mercy. He died 26 February 1880 at the residence of his friend John O'Hagan, 22 Upper Fitzwilliam St., Dublin, and was buried at Maynooth on 1 March. Thomas O'Hagan (qv), lord chancellor of Ireland and Russell's friend for over fifty years, praised his truthfulness, tolerance, and consideration for all of whom he spoke or with whom he acted. His devotion to Maynooth ‘was almost a passion’ (Ir. Times, 27 Feb. 1880). Maynooth's Russell Library is named in his honour.