Russell, Thomas O'Neill (Tomás Ó Néill Ruiséal) (1828–1908), author and founder member of the Gaelic League, was born in May 1828 at Lissanode, Moate, Co. Westmeath, son of Joseph Russell (1762–1837), a quaker farmer, and his wife, Sarah Broadman (1791–1873). He was educated at the national school and then assisted his father with the management of the extensive farm. About 1850 he left to work for a quaker firm in Dublin, subsequently (as W. & R. Jacob's biscuit factory) one of the country's most successful businesses. From 1854 Russell was a contributor to the nationalist paper The Irishman, in which he first urged what was to be the great aim of his life, the revival of the Irish language. In 1867, under suspicion of involvement in the Fenian rising, he left for America. There he worked as a commercial traveller, apparently visiting every state in the union. He remained almost thirty years, but made lengthy visits home, maintaining a house in Dublin, and continuing his activities on behalf of the Irish revival through reviews in the Irish and American press and through lectures. On St Patrick's day 1877 he was in Dublin to form, together with George Sigerson (qv), the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, which aimed at the low-cost publication of Irish texts; that June he met the 18-year-old Douglas Hyde (qv), who joined the society the following year. The society gave way to the Gaelic Union in 1880, and on 31 July 1893 the movement had its strongest impetus with the formation of the Gaelic League for the preservation of the spoken language. Russell, who had returned to Ireland two days previously, was on the council, as was Eoin MacNeill (qv), with Hyde elected president, though the latter credited the former two with having done all the groundwork. Four years later Russell was a founder member of Feis Ceoil.
His adherence to classical literary Gaelic was rigorous to the point of being elitist and pedantic. He held up as a model the Irish of the seventeenth-century writer Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating (qv)); and condemned the current caint na ndaoine with its anglicisms, corruptions, and neologisms as a further insidious instance of foreign contamination. The League favoured the vernacular, the speech of the people rather than the language of literature, and Russell had few sympathisers; his translation of An Bóramha Laighean (‘The Leinster tribute’) (1901) was criticised as antiquarian. His dogmatism earned him a mention in James Joyce's (qv) Ulysses: ‘O'Neill Russell? O, yes, he must speak the grand old tongue.’
If Russell's Irish was austere, elitist, and classical, his written English was frankly sentimental and populist. He produced two best-selling novels, The struggles of Dick Massey (1860) and True heart's trials: a tale of Ireland and America (1872). The former ran to numerous editions, first appearing under the pen-name ‘Reginald Tierney’; it is a famine story starring a young protestant, and the dialogue is spelt to reflect the characters' dialect. His blank verse dramas The last Irish high king (1904) and Red Hugh (1905) attracted neither popular nor critical success.
He died on 15 June 1908 at 49 Synge St., Dublin, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. He married (date unknown) Laura Ganner, a Scandinavian with whom he conversed in French; they had one son.
Russell was a striking figure, of splendid physique, fiery enthusiasm, and forcible tongue. Hyde said his brusqueness and pedantry alienated people, but Tim Healy (qv) called him ‘the most extraordinary compound . . . the only real Irishman I have ever met in my life’ (Healy, Letters and leaders, i, 61–2).