Wednesday, 14 November 2012


The following is an extract taken from the text "Speeches From the Dock Part 1/Protests of Irish Patriotism" first published in 1868.

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THOMAS RUSSELL.


When Emmet was dead, and the plan to which he devoted his fortune, his talents, and his life, had sunk in failure, the cause of Irish independence appeared finally lost, and the cry, more than once repeated in after times, that "now, indeed, the last bolt of Irish disaffection has been sped, and that there would never again be an Irish rebellion," rung loudly from the exulting enemies of Ireland. The hearts of the people seemed broken by the weight of the misfortunes and calamities that overwhelmed them. The hopes which had brightened their stormy path, and enabled them to endure the oppression to which they were subjected by expectations of a glorious change, flickered no longer amidst the darkness. The efforts of the insurgents were everywhere drowned in blood; the hideous memories of '98 were brought up anew; full of bitter thoughts, exasperated, humiliated, and despondent, the people brooded over their wretched fate, and sullenly submitted to the reign of terror which was inaugurated amongst them. Little had the Irish patriots to look forward to in that dark hour of suffering and disappointment. A nightmare of blood and violence weighed down the spirits of the people; a stupor appeared to have fallen on the nation; and though time might be trusted to arouse them from the trance, they had suffered another loss, not so easily repaired, in the death and dispersion of their leaders. Where now should they find the Moses to lead them from the land of captivity? Tone, Fitzgerald, Emmet, Bond, M'Cracken, the Sheareses—all were dead. M'Nevin, Neilson, and O'Connor were in exile. Heavily and relentlessly the arm of vengeance had fallen on them one by one; but the list was not even then completed. There was yet another victim to fall before the altar of liberty, and the sacrifice which commenced with Orr did not conclude until Thomas Russell had perished on the gallows of Downpatrick.

The importance of the part which Thomas Russell fills in the history of the United Irishmen, the worth of his character, the purity and nobility of his sentiments, and the spirit of uncompromising patriotism displayed in his last address, would render unpardonable the omission of his name from such a work as this. "I mean to make my trial," said Russell, "and the last of my life, if it is to close now, as serviceable to the cause of liberty as I can," and he kept his word. To-day, we try in some slight way to requite that fidelity which endured unto death, by rescuing Thomas Russell's name from oblivion, and recalling his services and virtues to the recollection of his countrymen.

He was born at Betsborough, Dunnahane, in the parish of Kilshanick, county Cork, on the 21st November, 1767. His father was an officer in the British army, who had fought against the Irish Brigade in the memorable battle of Fontenoy, and who died in a high situation in the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. Thomas, the youngest of his three sons, was educated for the Protestant Church; but his inclinations sought a different field of action, and at the age of fifteen he left for India as a volunteer, where he served with his brother, Ambrose, whose gallantry in battle called down commendation from the English king. Thomas Russell quitted India after five years' service, and his return is ascribed to the disgust and indignation which filled him on witnessing the extortions, the cruelties, the usurpations, and brutalities, which were carried out and sanctioned by the government under which he served. He left Ireland burdened with few fixed political principles and little knowledge of the world; he returned a full grown man, imbued with the opinions which he never afterwards abandoned. He was then, we are told, a model of manly beauty, one of those favoured individuals whom we cannot pass in the street without being guilty of the rudeness of staring in the face while passing, and turning round to look at the receding figure. Though more than six feet high, his majestic stature was scarcely observed, owing to the exquisite symmetry of his form. Martial in his gait and demeanour, his appearance was not altogether that of a soldier. His dark and steady eye, compressed lip, and some what haughty bearing, were occasionally strongly indicative of the camp; but in general the classic contour of his finely formed head, the expression of sweetness that characterised his smile, and the benevolence that beamed in his fine countenance, seemed to mark him out as one that was destined to be the ornament, grace, and blessing of private life. His manners were those of the finished gentleman, combined with that native grace which nothing but superiority of intellect can give; he was naturally reserved and retiring in disposition, and his private life was distinguished by eminent purity and an unostentatious devotion to the precepts of religion.

Such was Thomas Russell when he made the acquaintance of Theobald Wolfe Tone in Dublin. There is no doubt that the views and opinions of Tone made a profound impression on young Russell; it is equally certain, on the other hand, that Tone learned to love and esteem his new friend, whose sentiments were so much in accordance with his own. Throughout Tone's journal we find constant references to Thomas Russell, whom he always places with Thomas Addis Emmet at the head of his list of friends. Early in 1791 Russell proceeded to Belfast to join the 64th Regiment, in which he had obtained a commission; before leaving Dublin he appears to have become a member of the Society of United Irishmen, and in Belfast he soon won the friendship and shared the councils of the patriotic men who were labouring for Ireland in that city.

While in Belfast, Russell fell into pecuniary embarrassments. His generous and confiding nature induced him to go bail for a false friend, and he found himself one morning obliged to meet a claim for £200, which he had no means of discharging except by the sale of his commission. Russell sold out and retired to Dungannon, where he lived for some time on the residue of the money thus obtained, and during this period he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the county of Tyrone. After a short experience of "Justices' justice" in the North, he retired from the bench through motives alike creditable to his head and heart. "I cannot reconcile it to my conscience," he exclaimed one day, "to sit on a bench where the practice exists of inquiring what religion a person is before investigating the charge against him." Russell returned, after taking this step, to Belfast, where he was appointed to a situation in the public library of the town, and where he became a regular contributor to the organ of the Ulster patriots, the Northern Star.

In 1796 he was appointed by the United Irishmen to the supreme military command in the county Down, a post for which his military experience not less than his personal influence fitted him, but his political career was soon afterwards interrupted by his arrest on the 26th of September, 1796. Russell was removed to Dublin, and lodged in Newgate Prison; his arrest filled the great heart of Tone, who was then toiling for his country in France, with sorrow and dismay. "It is impossible," he says in his journal, "to conceive the effect this misfortune has on my mind. If we are not in Ireland in time to extricate him he is lost, for the government will move heaven and earth to ensure his condemnation. Good God!" he adds, "if Russell and Neilson fall, where shall I find two others to replace them?" During the eventful months that intervened between the date of his arrest and the 19th of March, 1799, poor Russell remained chafing his imprisoned soul, filled with patriotic passion and emotion, in his prison cell in Kilmainham. On the latter date, when the majority of his associates were dead, and their followers scattered and disheartened, he was transferred to Fort George in Scotland, where he spent three years more in captivity. The government had no specific charge against him, but they feared his influence and distrusted his intentions, and they determined to keep him a prisoner while a chance remained of his exerting his power against them. No better illustration of Russell's character and principles could be afforded than that supplied in the following extract from one of the letters written by him during his incarceration in Fort George:—"To the people of Ireland," he writes, addressing an Irish friend and sympathiser, "I am responsible for my actions; amidst the uncertainties of life this may be my valedictory letter; what has occasioned the failure of the cause is useless to speculate on—Providence orders all things for the best. I am sure the people will never abandon the cause; I am equally sure it will succeed. I trust men will see," he adds, referring to the infidel views then unhappily prevalent, "that the only true basis of liberty is morality, and the only stable basis of morality is religion."

In 1802 the government, failing to establish any distinct charge against Russell, set him at liberty, and he at once repaired to Paris, where he met Robert Emmet, who was then preparing to renew the effort of Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone. Time had not changed, nor suffering damped, the patriotic impulses of Thomas Russell; he entered heartily into the plans of young Emmet, and when the latter left for Ireland in November, 1802, to prosecute his hazardous enterprise, it was with the full understanding that Russell would stand by his side in the post of danger, and with him perish or succeed. In accordance with this arrangement, Russell followed Robert Emmet to Dublin, where he arrived so skilfully disguised that even his own family failed to recognise him. Emmet's plans for the outbreak in Dublin were matured when Russell, with a trusty companion, was despatched northwards to summon the Ulster men to action. Buoyant in spirit, and filled with high expectation, he entered on his mission, but he returned to Dublin a week later prostrate in spirit and with a broken heart. One of his first acts on arriving in Belfast was to issue a proclamation, in which, as "General-in-Chief of the Northern District," he summoned the people of Ulster to action.

The North, however, refused to act. It was the old, old story. Belfast resolved on waiting "to see what the South would do," and the South waited for Belfast. Disgusted and disappointed, Russell quitted the Northern capital and proceeded to Antrim, where at least he thought he might expect to find cordial co-operation; but fresh disappointments awaited him, and with a load of misery at his heart, such as he had never felt before, Russell returned to Dublin, where he lived in seclusion, until arrested by Major Sirr and his myrmidons on the 9th of September, 1803. A reward of £1,500 had been offered for his apprehension. We learn on good authority that the ruffianly town-major, on arresting him, seized the unfortunate patriot rudely by the neck-cloth, whereupon, Russell, a far more powerful man than his assailant, flung him aside, and drawing a pistol, exclaimed—"I will not be treated with indignity." Sirr parleyed for a while; a file of soldiers was meanwhile summoned to his aid, and Russell was borne off in irons a prisoner to the Castle. While undergoing this second captivity a bold attempt was made by his friends to effect his liberation by bribing one of the gaolers; the plot, however, broke down, and Russell never breathed the air of freedom again. While awaiting his trial—that trial which he knew could have but one termination, the death of a felon—Russell addressed a letter to one of his friends outside, in which the following noble passage, the fittest epitaph to be engraved on his tombstone, occurs:—"I mean to make my trial," he writes, "and the last of my life, if it is to close now, as serviceable to the cause of liberty as I can. I trust my countrymen will ever adhere to it: I know it will soon prosper. When the country is free," he adds—that it would be free he never learned to doubt—"I beg they may lay my remains with my father in a private manner, and pay the few debts I owe. I have only to beg of my countrymen to remember that the cause of liberty is the cause of virtue, which I trust they will never abandon. May God bless and prosper them, and when power comes into their hands I entreat them to use it with moderation. May God and the Saviour bless them all."

Russell was taken to Downpatrick, escorted by a strong force of cavalry, where he was lodged in the governor's rooms, preparatory to being tried in that town by a Special Commission. While in prison in Downpatrick he addressed a letter to Miss M'Cracken, a sister of Henry Joy M'Cracken, one of the insurgent leaders of 1798, in which he speaks as follows: "Humanly speaking, I expect to be found guilty and immediately executed. As this may be my last letter, I shall only say that I did my best for my country and for mankind. I have no wish to die, but far from regretting its loss in such a cause, had I a thousand lives I would willingly risk or lose them in it. Be assured, liberty will in the midst of those storms be established, and God will wipe the tears from all eyes."

The sad anticipations expressed by Russell were but too fully borne out. There was short shrift in those days for Irishmen accused of treason, and the verdict of guilty, which he looked forward to with so much resignation, was delivered before the last rays of the sun which rose on the morning of the trial had faded in the gloaming. It was sworn that he had attended treasonable meetings and distributed green uniforms; that he asked those who attended them, "if they did not desire to get rid of the Sassanaghs;" that he spoke of 30,000 stands of arms from France, but said if France should fail them, "forks, spades, shovels, and pickaxes" would serve that purpose. It was useless to struggle against such testimony, palpably false and distorted as it was in some parts, and Russell decided on cutting short the proceedings. "I shall not trouble my lawyers," he said, "to make any statement in my case. There are but three possible modes of defence—firstly, by calling witnesses to prove the innocence of my conduct; secondly, by calling them to impeach the credit of opposite witnesses, or by proving an alibi. As I can resort to none of those modes of defence without involving others, I consider myself precluded from any." Previous to the Judge's charge, the prisoner asked—"If it was not permitted to persons in his situation to say a few words, as he wished to give his valedictory advice to his countrymen in as concise a manner as possible, being well convinced how speedy the transition was from that vestibule of the grave to the scaffold." He was told in reply, "that he would have an opportunity of expressing himself," and when the time did come, Russell advanced to the front of the dock, and spoke in a clear, firm tone of voice, as follows:—

"Before I address myself to this audience, I return my sincere thanks to my learned counsel for the exertions they have made, in which they displayed so much talent. I return my thanks to the gentlemen on the part of the crown, for the accommodation and indulgence I have received during my confinement. I return my thanks to the gentlemen of the jury, for the patient investigation they have afforded my case; and I return my thanks to the court, for the attention and politeness they have shown me during my trial. As to my political sentiments, I shall, in as brief a manner as possible (for I do not wish to engross the time of the court), say a few words. I look back to the last thirteen years of my life, the period with which I have interfered with the transactions of Ireland, with entire satisfaction; though for my share in them I am now about to die—the gentlemen of the jury having, by their verdict, put the seal of truth on the evidence against me. Whether, at this time, and the country being situated as it is, it be safe to inflict the punishment of death upon me for the offence I am charged with, I leave to the gentlemen who conduct the prosecution. My death, perhaps, may be useful in deterring others from following my example. It may serve, on the other hand, as a memorial to others, and on trying occasions it may inspire them with courage. I can now say, as far as my judgment enabled me, I acted for the good of my country and of the world. It may be presumptuous for me to deliver my opinions here as a statesman, but as the government have singled me out as a leader, and given me the appellation of 'General,' I am in some degree entitled to do so. To me it is plain that all things are verging towards a change, when all shall be of one opinion. In ancient times, we read of great empires having their rise and their fall, and yet do the old governments proceed as if all were immutable. From the time I could observe and reflect, I perceived that there were two kinds of laws—the laws of the State and the laws of God—frequently clashing with each other; by the latter kind, I have always endeavoured to regulate my conduct; but that laws of the former kind do exist in Ireland I believe no one who hears me can deny. That such laws have existed in former times many and various examples clearly evince. The Saviour of the world suffered by the Roman laws—by the same laws His Apostles were put to the torture, and deprived of their lives in His cause. By my conduct I do not consider that I have incurred any moral guilt. I have committed no moral evil. I do not want the many and bright examples of those gone before me; but did I want this encouragement, the recent example of a youthful hero—a martyr in the cause of liberty—who has just died for his country, would inspire me. I have descended into the vale of manhood. I have learned to estimate the reality and delusions of this world; he was surrounded by everything which could endear this world to him—in the bloom of youth, with fond attachments, and with all the fascinating charms of health and innocence; to his death I look back even in this moment with rapture. I have travelled much, and seen various parts of the world, and I think the Irish are the most virtuous nation on the face of the earth—they are a good and brave people, and had I a thousand lives I would yield them in their service. If it be the will of God that I suffer for that with which I stand charged, I am perfectly resigned to His holy will and dispensation. I do not wish to trespass much more on the time of those that hear me, and did I do so an indisposition which has seized on me since I came into court would prevent my purpose. Before I depart from this for a better world I wish to address myself to the landed aristocracy of this country. The word 'aristocracy' I do not mean to use as an insulting epithet, but in the common sense of the expression.

 "Perhaps, as my voice may now be considered as a voice crying from the grave, what I now say may have some weight. I see around me many, who during the last years of my life have disseminated principles for which I am now to die. Those gentlemen, who have all the wealth and the power of the country in their hands, I strongly advise, and earnestly exhort, to pay attention to the poor—by the poor I mean the labouring class of the community, their tenantry and dependents. I advise them for their good to look into their grievances, to sympathize in their distress, and to spread comfort and happiness around their dwellings. It might be that they may not hold their power long, but at all events to attend to the wants and distresses of the poor is their truest interest. If they hold their power, they will thus have friends around them; if they lose it, their fall will be gentle, and I am sure unless they act thus they can never be happy. I shall now appeal to the right honourable gentleman in whose hands the lives of the other prisoners are, and entreat that he will rest satisfied with my death, and let that atone for those errors into which I may have been supposed to have deluded others. I trust the gentleman will restore them to their families and friends. If he shall do so, I can assure him that the breeze which conveys to him the prayers and blessings of their wives and children will be more grateful than that which may be tainted with the stench of putrid corpses, or carrying with it the cries of the widow and the orphan. Standing as I do in the presence of God and of man, I entreat him to let my life atone for the faults of all, and that my blood alone may flow.

 "If I am then to die, I have therefore two requests to make. The first is, that as I have been engaged in a work possibly of some advantage to the world, I may be indulged with three days for its completion; secondly, that as there are those ties which even death cannot sever, and as there are those who may have some regard for what will remain of me after death, I request that my remains, disfigured as they will be, may be delivered after the execution of the sentence to those dear friends, that they may be conveyed to the ground where my parents are laid, and where those faithful few may have a consecrated spot over which they may be permitted to grieve. I have now to declare, when about to pass into the presence of Almighty God, that I feel no enmity in my mind to any being, none to those who have borne testimony against me, and none to the jury who have pronounced the verdict of my death."

The last request of Russell was refused, and he was executed twelve hours after the conclusion of the trial. At noon, on the 21st of October, 1803, he was borne pinioned to the place of execution. Eleven regiments of soldiers were concentrated in the town to overawe the people and defeat any attempt at rescue; yet even with this force at their back, the authorities were far from feeling secure. The interval between the trial and execution was so short that no preparation could be made for the erection of a scaffold, except the placing of some barrels under the gateway of the main entrance to the prison, with planks placed upon them as a platform, and others sloping up from the ground, by which it was ascended. On the ground hard by, were placed a sack of sawdust, an axe, a block, and a knife. After ascending the scaffold, Russell gazed forward through the archway—towards the people, whose white faces could be seen glistening outside, and again expressed his forgiveness of his persecutors. His manner, we are told, was perfectly calm, and he died without a struggle.

A purer soul, a more blameless spirit, than Thomas Russell, never sunk on the battle-field of freedom. Fixed in principles, and resolute in danger, he was nevertheless gentle, courteous, unobstrusive, and humane; with all the modesty and unaffectedness of childhood, he united the zeal of a martyr and the courage of a hero. To the cause of his country he devoted all his energies and all his will; and when he failed to render it prosperous in life, he illumined it by his devotion and steadfastness in death. The noble speech given above, and the passages from his letters which we have quoted, are sufficient in themselves to show how chivalrous was the spirit, how noble the motives of Thomas Russell. The predictions which he uttered with so much confidence have not indeed been fulfilled, and the success which he looked forward to so hopefully has never been won. But his advice, so often repeated in his letters, is still adhered to; his countrymen have not yet learned to abandon the cause in which he suffered, and they still cherish the conviction which he so touchingly expressed—"that liberty will, in the midst of these storms be established, and that God will yet wipe off the tears of the Irish nation."

Russell rests in the churchyard of the Protestant church of Downpatrick. A plain slab marks the spot where he is laid, and there is on it this single line—

"THE GRAVE OF RUSSELL."


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    This is my personal blog and all herein is merely personal opinion expressed solely on my own behalf from my viewpoint as an Irish Socialist Republican.



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