Russell, Thomas (1767–1803), United Irishman, was born 21 November 1767 in Drommahane, Kilshannig, near Mallow, Co. Cork, youngest child among four sons and a daughter of John Russell (c.1720–1792) an army lieutenant, who fought at Dettingen (1743) and Fontenoy (1745), and who was appointed captain of invalids at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in the early 1770s. His mother (possibly called Margaret) (d. 1786) was an O'Kennedy from Co. Tipperary. Thomas was educated at home by his father and his sister Margaret (1752–1834). A devout anglican, well versed in scripture, he considered becoming a clergyman but in March 1783 he enlisted in the 52nd Regiment bound for India, in which his brother Ambrose (c.1756–1793) was a captain. He was commissioned ensign in the 100th Foot (9 July 1783), but afterwards transferred to the 52nd. He distinguished himself in action in the Mysore wars (1783–4) and returned to Ireland in early 1787. Staying at the Royal Hospital, he lived a leisurely life as a half-pay officer in Dublin for the next three years.
In July 1790 he met Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) in the public gallery of the house of commons in College Green; both men enjoyed political discussion and they soon became close friends. Russell had an engaging but rather intense and contradictory personality: at times he could be solemn and gloomy, but he could also be charming, witty, and excellent company. Tone grew to love him like a brother, and the desire to impress Russell was often one of his prime motivations. In September 1790 Russell was commissioned ensign with the 64th Regiment in Belfast. Tall, dark-haired, and strikingly handsome, he became a prominent and popular figure in fashionable Belfast society, forming close friendships with leading Belfast radicals such as Samuel Neilson (qv) and Mary Ann (qv) and Henry Joy McCracken (qv). He sold his commission in June 1791 (possibly to pay a debt for a friend) and was increasingly drawn into radical politics, even if his own outlook was more whiggish than radical at this stage. Closely involved in the founding of the United Irishmen, he corresponded with liberal catholics and drew Tone into the preparations, and was a founder member of the first United Irish society founded in Belfast in October 1791 and of a sister society founded in Dublin in November. Needing to earn a living (lack of money was a recurrent worry), on 22 December 1791 he accepted the post of seneschal to the manor court of Dungannon (which carried with it the position of JP for Co. Tyrone) from Lord Northland (Thomas Knox (qv)), with whose son John he had served in India. Russell soon became disillusioned with the anti-catholic prejudices of his fellow magistrates and the Knox family and resigned in October 1792. He then went to Belfast and was delegated by the United Irishmen to liaise with the Catholic Convention due to meet in Dublin that December. Over the next couple of months he and Tone were closely involved in negotiations with the Catholic Committee, but failed to persuade them to accept nothing less than full emancipation. In March 1793 Russell was appointed secretary of the Dublin United Irishmen and sat on its committee to draw up a plan of parliamentary reform. For the next few months he travelled regularly between Dublin and the north, becoming increasingly radical as the government became more repressive after the outbreak of war with France in February 1793. He wrote regularly for the radical Belfast newspaper, the Northern Star, most notably the satirical ‘Lion of Old England’ (1793) and the ‘Chinese journal’ (1795), both probably co-authored with William Sampson (qv).
In January 1794 he accepted the librarianship of the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge. It was a fairly undemanding position that paid £50 a year and allowed him to carry on his radical journalism and indulge an extensive range of interests that included philosophy, literature, economics, and science. He was an amateur geologist of some note and also made efforts to promote Irish music and the Irish language. An inveterate rambler, he was at his happiest tramping through the Mourne or Sperrin mountains, collecting geological and botanical samples and observing the beauties of nature.
By the winter of 1794–5, he had become a dedicated revolutionary and a key figure in founding new, more radical, United Irish clubs in Ulster. For the next two years he travelled unceasingly throughout the province, swearing in new members and building up the United Irishmen into a broad-based revolutionary movement. He and McCracken, sympathetic to the poor and free from anti-catholic prejudice, were particularly successful in recruiting catholic Defenders into the United Irishmen. On his travels Russell often came into contact with working people and was impressed by their generosity and political understanding. He strongly proclaimed the right of the poor to participate in politics, most notably in his A letter to the people of Ireland (1796), and believed that radical measures should be taken to alleviate inequalities between rich and poor. He was appalled by harsh conditions in textile mills and encouraged workers to form trade unions. Fervently opposed to the African slave trade, he denounced it repeatedly in his writings as one of the great evils of the age and refused to consume sugar or rum.
His radicalism was largely a product of his religious views. Although born a protestant, Russell had catholic antecedents on both sides of his family and valued all Christian faiths. He believed that injustice and poverty were caused by a corrupt and selfish elite that had abused its power to frustrate the divine plan of universal liberty and justice. Russell's personal behaviour, however, often sat oddly with his Christian ideals: he drank heavily and was sexually promiscuous, regularly visiting the brothels of Belfast. He was, however, afflicted by bouts of deep anguish and remorse in the wake of these debauches, and cursed himself as an abject sinner. He frequently contrasted his shame at his private behaviour with his pride in his political activism, which he often regarded as a form of atonement for his moral failings.
Russell was a member of a small Belfast-based directory that controlled the United Irishmen in Ulster, and in June 1796 he was appointed commander of United forces in Co. Down. His activities brought him to the attention of the government, and on 16 September 1796 he was arrested in Belfast on a charge of high treason. Taken immediately to Dublin, he was imprisoned in Newgate, and held without trial for the next six years – longer than any other United Irish prisoner. Because of his charisma and military experience, the government regarded Russell as the most dangerous of all the northern United leaders, and as tensions increased in 1797–8 they were determined to keep him incarcerated. In prison his health suffered and, always prone to bouts of melancholy, he grew deeply depressed. A regular reader of the Bible, he increasingly found sense and solace in millennialist prophecies that foretold of the coming of a new age. His political and religious views crystallised into a conviction that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand and it was his duty to prepare the way for the establishment of Christ's kingdom on earth. He believed that this could only be done by eliminating injustices such as the oppression of the poor, sectarian bigotry, and the slave trade. The world would then enjoy a thousand years of justice and harmony as scripture had foretold. During his long imprisonment Russell became more and more convinced that the United Irishmen's efforts to secure Irish independence marched in step with a divinely ordained plan to create a better world for all.
He chaffed at his inaction during the rebellion of 1798, and was deeply affected by the deaths of many close friends, particularly Tone and McCracken. From prison he attempted to reorganise the United Irishmen in the winter of 1798–9, but his efforts were discovered by the government and on 19 March 1799 he and several other leaders were packed off to Fort George, near Inverness, Scotland. He passed the time there in relative comfort and recovered his health. Released in June 1802, he went to Paris, where he became a leading figure among the city's United Irish émigrés and continued his efforts to bring about insurrection in Ireland. He strongly disliked the Bonapartist regime, regarding it as a tyranny that had subverted the ideals of the French revolution, and he preferred to attempt an insurrection in Ireland without Bonaparte's involvement.
In response to a summons from Robert Emmet (qv), Russell arrived in Dublin in early April 1803 to assist in his plans for insurrection, and spent some weeks at Emmet's headquarters in Butterfield Lane, Rathfarnham. Emmet gave him the rank of general and assigned him to raise Ulster. While Emmet prepared for rebellion in Dublin, Russell, assisted by James Hope (qv) and William Henry Hamilton (qv), went north in mid-July, believing that Ulster was ripe for rebellion. However, he had not set foot there for over six years and did not fully appreciate the decline in support for the United Irishmen after the crushing defeat of 1798. He rode throughout Antrim and Down in late July attempting to foment an uprising, but only a few scattered groups turned out, too few and too poorly armed to mount an effective insurrection. He then went into hiding in the hills near Belfast. By this time his judgement appears to have been impaired by his obsessive millennialism and, although baffled by the failure of the province to rise, he remained confident in ultimate victory. On hearing of Emmet's capture he travelled to Dublin, possibly to attempt a rescue, but with a reward of £1,500 on his head, his presence was reported to Major Sirr (qv) who arrested him at 28 Parliament St. on 9 September. Tried in Downpatrick on 20 October, he spoke eloquently from the dock of his religious convictions and his pride in his political activities. Convicted of high treason, he was hanged and beheaded at the county jail on 21 October 1803. He was buried in the local Church of Ireland graveyard, where a stone slab erected by his steadfast friend Mary Ann McCracken marks his grave. He never married. Some of his papers are held in TCD (MSS 868–9) and others in the NAI Rebellion papers (especially 620/15/6/3, 620/20/33 and 620/21/23).
Russell was the last United Irish leader to be executed and the only one whose career spanned the founding of the society in 1791 and its last stand in 1803. He was a pivotal figure within the movement, acting as a link between north and south, catholic and protestant, and rich and poor. He played a central role in steering the United Irishmen from reform to revolution and in building up a popular revolutionary organisation in Ulster in the mid 1790s. Strongly admired for his commitment and dedication, he exerted considerable influence on several leading United men, particularly Tone, McCracken, and Robert Emmet. His reputation has generally been greatest in Ulster, and his activities in the north are commemorated in the popular ballad by Florence Mary Wilson (qv), ‘The man from God-knows-where’ (1918).
His brother John Russell (1748?–1812?) was also involved in radical politics, mostly in London. After the break-up of his marriage he left Ireland for London in November 1792 to try to earn a living as a writer. He wrote some poetry and plays, but had little success and was constantly in debt. Tone, a close friend, nicknamed him ‘the Translator’ and described him as a man of ‘the most companionable talents I ever met . . . He had not the strength of character of my friend Tom, but for the charms of conversation he excelled him and all the world’ (Tone writings, ii, 288). He held various military commissions, notably as adjutant in the West London militia (from November 1794), and associated with radical politicians. Arrested in London after the 1803 insurrection, he was soon released as there was little hard evidence against him, but he does appear to have had some involvement in the conspiracy. He had a son James (1801?–1848), a captain in the 92nd Highlanders, and two daughters: Julia, and Mary Anne, who married William Henry Hamilton.