On the Bicentennial of the Hanging of Thomas Russell

A large crowd gathered at Downpatrick, co. Down, Ireland, for the hanging of Thomas Russell on the morning of 21 October 1803 two hundred years ago. A makeshift scaffold of planks over a couple of barrels and a cross beam above them to attach the rope served the purpose. Axe, knife, sawdust, and a block lay nearby, for the traitor’s death included the severing of the head, following the hanging. He was the quintessential United Irishman, from its foundation in 1791 to its last stand in 1803. He possessed powers of extraordinary mobility: between Belfast and Dublin: between Protestant and Catholic: between urban proletarians and country peasants: between town and country: between England and Ireland: between bourgeois and plebeian. “Few, few have I known like him,” said his friend, Martha McTier.

As he stepped out onto the scaffold, according to his nephew, he said, “Is this the place?” They are the words of a man whose life has been passed imagining some other place than the one he’s at, and this sense of uncertain geographical coordinates is conveyed in the ballad about him, “The Man from God Knows Where.” They are they words of a sworn revolutionary (in May 1795 he swore on Cave Hill oath with Tone, Neilson, McCracken “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence”) and a religious millenarian (at the end he begged for three days to finish his studies of Revelation, which were not granted).

He probably swore the Dublin oath, too, of the United Irish: “I shall do whatever lies in my power to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights, and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions, without which every reform must be partial, not national, inadequate to the wants, delusive to the wishes and insufficient for the freedom and happiness of this country,” so striking if its phrases are taken politically, to die for. A communion of rights, for instance.

The revolutionist believes history is on the side of the revolution. Millenarianism helps. Russell read Isaac Newton’s Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel and the apocalypse of St John (1733). He corresponded with Francis Dobbs, Irish MP, who opposed the Act of Union as anti-scriptural because the army of the messiah is described in Revelations as “harping on harps” and “clothed in fine linen.” Armageddon he construed as Hebrew for Armagh. Thus the Apocalypse anticipated the Irish Republic. Amid the Rebellion papers of the National Archives of Ireland are two millenarian prophecies which appear to have Russell’s signature on them. One is written in Irish with English translation; the other foretells eight eras of Ireland–defeat, conquest, resistance, loss by sea, loss by land, “But last of all, the Erins win the day.” It foretold crop failures, factory destruction, &c., &c. “Gog and Magog who will make war against the inhabitants of the earth.”

Such scholarship contrasts with the economic determinism favored by the ruling class when gog and magog were feudalism and capitalism, but listen to Russell on Jesus in the social war: “When I read those daily accounts in the papers which advertise the cruelties committed by and upon this wretched race of people I feel all that is Irish within me melt with compassion. When will this social war cease? How my heart beats Jesus wept–O! were He to revisit this earth, where would He be found? Would it be at the Episcopal tables or with stall-fed theologians? He would be found in the cottier’s cabin His hand would pour balm on the mangled body of the expiring husband; and His eyes would spread the consolation of heaven upon the wretchedness of the Irish peasantry.” The intention of William Wickham, Secretary of State for Ireland, was “to make the leaders contemptible and to represent them to the people as traitors to the cause and sacrificing the lower orders by their own falsehood.” In response, the United Irish politicized the gallows. By late September Robert Emmet and sixteen of his followers had been hanged for treason. In Russell’s address to the court which sentenced him to hang, he referred to Emmet, the “youthful hero, a martyr in the cause of liberty, who had just died for his country. To his death I look back, even in this state, with rapture.” Wolfe Tone cut his own throat rather than submit to hanging by an authority he did not recognize. 7 June 1798 Coigly peeled an orange on the Guildford gallows while waiting for the executioner to get on with his work. (The terrorist Orange order was formed three years earlier.)

“Is this the place?” Some were ready to say he was demented, like William Sampson (the government turned Russell’s “once gentle heart to desperate madness”) or William Drennan (“long imprisonment and perpetual recurrence to the same ideas makes enthusiasm turn into a partial insanity”) but they did not participate in the attempt. Besides, in that year the forces of repression were so prevailing that any opposition seemed insane. This was Coleridge’s view.

Of course it was the place! These are the granite stones which composed Downpatrick jail. He would know whence they were quarried. The jail was part of a prison building program. The gray architecture of the Protestant Ascendancy–those blocks of granite at the Customs House, Four Courts, the court on Henrietta Street – convey the impression of permanence, power, stability. What doubts about location could be expressed in the face of such monuments? He was a geologist, tapping with his hammer, for fossils, the Giant’s Causeway.

True, he had been moved from Newgate jail in Dublin but that was on 12 October when he was transferred to Downpatrick where 600 yeomanry and a troop of cavalry stood guard. He was to be tried in the north and to die in the north, the place where he had plotted, and hiked, and drunk, conspired, whored, sinned, redeemed himself with the United Irish. Was this the place, indeed!

Was he distracted by his Greek and Hebrew studies as a scholar can be? “He pointed out a mistranslation in Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews [9:26] objecting to the ‘end of the world’ and showing from the Greek testament it should be to the ‘end of the age.'” Little words, like “world” and “age” upon which the salvation of his soul might depend, or the metaphysics of science be made, or the course of human history known. Did revolution depend on space or time?

It is true that he had been to a great many places. “I have traveled much and seen various parts of the world,”–India, Africa, Scotland, England, Germany, Holland, France were places he had actually been, and south America and north American Indians were places he studied in imagination–“and I think the Irish 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.” In this sentence the virtue of Ireland comes after a multicontinental experience. We call this ‘the Casement effect,’ named after the consular official for the English Foreign Office, Roger Casement, actually an Ulster man who did not recognize the colonized state of his native land until he served the Empire in Congo and Amazonas. Then he joined the Irish armed struggle.

Thomas Russell was one of the great walkers of the decade. He was a roving emissary, covering immense distances, spreading the gospel of republicanism by peregrination of propaganda–newspapers, pamphlets broadsheets, handbills. He relied on the hospitality of the road. He met story tellers. In Antrim we see him poking about with his hammer exploring geological formations; working with disaffected militia; stock-piling arms. Walking had its risks. Later, in 1803, while crossing Westminster bridge he was recognized by John Beresford, an Orangeman. He hurried to his brother’s, cut his hair, and left that night for Liverpool.

Generally, however, for Russell, like Engels later, walking immersed him in the life of the people. It deepened his contribution to cultural nationalism which flourished at the Belfast Library and in his studies of Irish language. He promoted the collection of ballads from Irish speaking areas. He wrote a poem “The fatal battle of Aughrim” published in 1797 about the defeat of the Gael (see also James Joyce, “The Dead” and Ford’s film). Even from prison he sent Edward Bunting (the collector of ancient Irish music) songs he heard in prison. In 1795 the Belfast United Irish published Paddy’s Resource containing Russell’s composition, “Man is Free by Nature.” Let’s listen to him singing in the glens,

Why vainly do we waste our time Repeating our oppressions Come haste to arms, for now’s the time To punish past transgressions They say that kings can do no wrong Their murderous deeds deny it And since from us their power has sprung We have a right to try it.

The Rights of Man, Tom Paine’s manifesto defending the revolutionary republic of France, appeared in Dublin in March 1791, and in eight months it sold 40,000, twice the sales in England. Russell sang out:

The starving wretch who steals for bread
But seldom meets compassion
Then shall a crown preserve the head
Of one that robs a nation.

Beggars in Dublin had become numerous, insistent. Flogging was frequent in the House of Industry. Multitudes of children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital, and multitudes died. Women who were committed for petty offences had their heads shaved. “The laws do not afford their protection to the lower orders,” Russell wrote, and then sang:

Such partial laws we all despise
See Gallia’s bright example
The glorious scene before our eyes
Let’s every tyrant trample.

Proud lordlings now we must translate
From senate, see and pensions
Virtue alone must teach the state
In spite of kings’ intentions.
These despots long have trod us down
And judges are their engines
Such wretches–minions of the crown Demand a people’s vengeance.

The despots are trodden, the tyrants are trampled. Was Russell thinking again of his army years in India where thousands of yoked bullocks hauled cannon and the hundreds of elephants could extinguish life under foot?

The golden age will yet revive
Each man will be a brother
In harmony we all shall live
And share the earth together

In September 1796 he published his great pamphlet, A Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country, the fruit of his years tramping the countryside. He writes that the earth was given to all for our subsistence not for the oligarchical few. He was certainly ready to challenge privatization of land. He pays a beautiful tribute to the hospitality and rundale of the Irish peasantry, and then concludes,

In virtue’s school enlightened youth
Will love his fellow creature
And further ages prove the truth

He was arrested 16 September 1796 and his restless spirit held in Newgate prison for two and a half years.

Russell was born in Mallow, co. Cork, in 1767. His father was an Anglican from Kilkenny and a veteran of wars against France, his mother was a Catholic from Tipperary. The arrest notice described Russell as a “tall, handsome man, about 5 ft. 11in. high, dark complexion, aquiline nose, large black eyes, with heavy eyebrows full-chested, walks generally fast and has a military appearance speaks fluently, with a clear distinct voice, and has a good address.” He followed his brother into the army, and was commissioned an ensign in the 52th regiment of foot, July 1783. His regiment was sent to relieve Mangalore on the Malabar coast, a royal port that was seized, raped and plundered, then lost to Tipu Sultan who punished the town’s Christian population with imprisonment. The Second Mysore war was conducted against this Moslem modernizer who was the last stand-out in southern India against British rule (admired later by Nehru). When he was killed at the Battle of Seringapatnam in 1799 ending the Third Mysore War, it was in parallel to the defeat of the Irish the year before, leaving 30,000 dead.

In 1797 a Jacobin club was established in Seringapatnam, a tree of liberty was planted, and liberté, égalité, and fraternité declared for the first time on Indian soil. By this time Russell was imprisoned in Dublin, then on March 1799 he was transferred with the other state prisoners to Fort George in the Highlands of Scotland. He wrote his brother of the war, “Which embraces every quarter of the globe [and] the fate of the human race. [It] is not a contest for relative power or riches, whatever momentary hues it may assume, but is a contest between the two principles of despotism and liberty and can only terminate in the extinction of one or the other.”

Imperialists conquer under the guise of liberation, and thus it was with Russell. One of Tipu’s allies, the Bibi of Cannanore, imprisoned two hundred shipwrecked sepoys in the English service. The 52nd seized Cannanore in three days fighting. Russell would have heard of the Massacre of Anantpur when “four hundred women” were raped, bayoneted, and drowned, and the Sack of Bednur in which the army by failing to give a moiety violated the East India Company’s “plunder and booty” regulation. Many of his comrades became prisoners of war undergoing circumcision and conversion to Islam before being enrolled in the European chela companies of Tipu. In this context prison narratives began to be published in England, and the demonization of Tipu into the archetype of the Oriental despot commenced.

What was it like for the Irish teenager? He doesn’t say much, in fact, he was tongu-tied: “when in India I could not find either words or ideas to write a letter home to my father and was in great distress at my want of capacity.” Another soldier of the time does say something. Bristow, the son of a Norwich blacksmith, arrived in India at the age of fourteen. A year later he was imprisoned, and stripped by a species of soldier called the lootie-wallah, the guy who takes the loot. For the next ten years he suffered as a circumcised Mohammedan under Tipu Sultan’s rule in Mysore. Bristow of the Bengal Artillery tells us of poor O’Bryan, “compelled to perform the office of common coolie and to carry dirt in the streets of Seringapatnam.”

Three years later at the age of nineteen Russell resigned his commission, quit. “Remember the Mangalore gibbets!” still in his ears. Not only did he learn about the political uses of imprisonment, he also saw first-hand how British propaganda instilled bigotry between Moslem, Christian, and Hindu. He recalled walking from “the camp at Cannanore down to Tillicherry, 15 miles in that burning climate and for what? To get a wench!” It is remorse that is conveyed, as well as a repressed memory (“want of capacity”) that suggests violence. Some words come later in his life, but then they will be displaced to Ireland.

Bristow is grateful to the Hindus who had compassion for him after escaping. “[They] are a very quiet, inoffensive, and humane race of men, many of whom do not even know the name of their ruler, or have the least idea of the despotism they live under, being too remote from the immediate object of tyranny, and too much attached to peace and indolence, to be inquisitive about who receives the revenues of the country, or who dissipates them; conceiving the whole duty of their lives comprised in tilling their grounds, paying their taxes, and adoring their cows.” What else had Russell seen in his walks?

The voyage out to India required stop for wood and water along the African coast. Russell quoted the French botanist, Michel Adanson’s, description of Goree in Senegal, “Which way so ever I turned my eyes on this pleasant spot I behold a perfect image of human nature the ease and indolence of the negroes reclined under the shade of their spreading foliage; the simplicity of their dress and manners, the whole revived in my mind the idea of our first parents, and I seemed to contemplate the world in its primitive state; they are generally speaking very good-natured, sociable and obliging, honest in their dealings, friendly to strangers, of a mild disposition, conversible, affable, easy to overcome with reason.”

The anti-slavery petitions of spring 1792 preceded the fateful ‘spot in time’ which divided the struggle for the abolition of slavery from the working-class struggle for the reform of Parliament. After that time they went their separate ways, the slave story and the working class story. Russell, however, saw them neither separately nor racially. Among the songs he sang in the cabins of Antrim, Armagh, Down were “The Negro’s Lament,” “The Captive Negro, (tune, ‘Farewell Killeavy’), and “The Dying Negro” (tune, ‘Laughaber’). He wrote, “how much selfishness and ostentation must we suspect in the boasts of the English, that their laws are thus free, and declarative of the natural rights of mankind, while the same laws hold thousands of our fellow creatures in a bondage worse than that of Pharaoh There is perhaps no part of the earth where beasts of burden are so much oppressed as the negroes are in the sugar plantations. They are sixteen hours in the service of cruel masters; and the shouts of their drivers, and the cracks of the whip on their naked bodies, which cuts out small pieces of flesh at almost every stroke are heard all day in the fields.”

He had high degree of class consciousness. “Those gentlemen who have all the wealth and power of the country in their hands, I strongly and earnestly exhort, to pay attention to the poor–by the poor I mean the labouring class of the community I advise them, for their good, to look to their grievances. It is possible that they may not hold their power long.” He praised combinations of workmen. He inveighed against the unwholesome conditions of the factories or cotton mills. “Poverty is a sort of crime,” “property must be alter’d in some measure,” he wrote. “I believe that the swinish multitude are born only to labour and be governed” he mocked Edmund Burke in The Lion of Old England or Democracy Confounded (1793). Under questioning in Kilmainham jail he challenged the view that the poor were devoid of politics. “It is not true that they require the instigation of leaders–they are as ardent as any leaders. The miscarriage of different attempts does not extinguish either the principle or the intention–it serves only to make them more cautious.”

Russell was released from prison after the Peace of Amiens was concluded in June 1802. His revolutionary ardor was not weakened. He wrote a Dublin friend, “Who indeed, that entertained our opinions could live to insult the memory of the heroes who fell for Ireland, by trampling on their unhonoured graves? Who that knew the colossal power was shaken from its summit to its base, by the gallant peasantry of a few counties, ill-armed, and ill-led, could ever cease to promote a general and effectual movement? Who could walk the streets of your city and see the great houses where free legislators of a great and good people should now be sitting, abandoned by its mock parliament, and converted into a temple of mammon, and not wish the earth to gape and swallow him up, to save him from witnessing such unparalleled infamy and disgrace?”

The old Irish Parliament building had become the new Bank. Russell took ship to Hamburg, then Amsterdam, and Paris. Bonaparte who re-introduced slavery in the Caribbean and authoritarian government in France, he regarded as a traitor. He met the Jacobin general Humbert who was planning an expedition to the West Indies, and the creation of a federal republic of the Caribbean islands. When a French force sailed in November 1802 it contained no significant Irish participation. It was not to be the place.

The key to Emmet’s plan was the capture of Dublin. Russell arrived in Dublin in April 1803. He repaired to Dublin as soon as he learned that Emmet was arrested, to rescue him. With £1,500 on his head, it was dangerous. He was taken only a stone’s throw from the Castle. Looking back on it James Hope thought that the rebellion of ’98 failed because the United Irish failed to engage sufficiently with the problems of the poor which alone would motivate the rank-and-file. James Hope, the Ulster weaver, suggested a sweeping reform of the system of land-holding. Thomas Russell helped transform the United Irishmen into a revolutionary, clandestine organization, with multifaceted links among the artisans, carmen, workers, cottiers, and peasantry. James Connolly praised the ‘proletarian character’ of Emmet’s revolt and said it was the first real effort of the Irish working class to secure ‘political and social emancipation.” To this we would add that Russell’s internationalism was essential to that emancipation. Hence the peculiar question, “is this the place?”

The rising in the north met draconian response, arrest, transportation, and five hangings. A Downpatrick shoemaker, James Corry, was to act as a junior officer. He led fourteen men with pitchforks on a hill at Ballyvange, just outside Downpatrick, but the signal fire was never lit to march on Downpatrick. They were not to be prevailed upon “to catch cannon balls on the points of pikes and pitchforks.” Disenchantment with France, Bonaparte’s concordat with the Pope, the destruction of Irish parliament, the provision of a secure market for the linen industry as a result of the Union. Six of the members of the jury that convicted him had once been members of the United Irish.

His presence as a wandering stranger is evoked in Florence Wilson’s well-known ballad about Russell called “The Man from God Knows Where.” The hospitality of the townland characteristic of ‘below’ can be compared to the values noted by Bristow among the Hindus or observed by Adanson in Senegal.

Into our townlan’ on a night of snow Rode a man from God knows where; None of us bade him stay or go, Nor deemed him friend, nor damned him foe, But we stabled his big roan mare; For in our townlan’ we’re decent folk, And if he didn’t speak, why none of us spoke, And we sat till the fire burned low.

The coach taking him from Dublin to Downpatrick passed through the remains of five thousand years of human habitation: the standing stones, ringforts, and passage tombs of prehistoric Ireland and its Bronze Age people. “I acted for the good of the country and of the world,” he had told the court and continued, “In ancient times we read of great empires having their rise and their fall, and yet do the old governments proceed as if they were immortal.” The Lecale peninsula, co. Down, is an ecological unit whose creeks and many natural harbors form a welcoming landfall in the northwest of Irish sea. The dominant settlement pattern, the clachans of open-field farming by groups of related families holding and working land in common, survived into the 20th century.

The United Irishmen provide such florid, beautiful, noble examples of gallows eloquence which can be so distant from our own experience that when we catch them with such simple expression as Emmet saying to the hangman “not yet!” or Russell asking “is this the place?” we hear the economy of language of Beckett’s tramps not the grandiloquence of republican rhetoric from the Age of Enlightenment. “If you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable,” wrote Beckett. What place was he thinking of? The no-place of utopia? Was it as simple as stepping into the sunlight from the dungeon to the last place on earth?

Seven years earlier to the day Russell suffered (exactly 207 years ago), fifteen hundred people dug Sam Neilson’s potatoes in seven minutes; three thousand dug the potatoes of Rev. Cleverty. “Numbers of the fair sex assisted on these occasions, unwilling that the men should exceed them in promoting union, or in assisting the oppressed.” Three thousand dug up two acres near Banbridge and sowed and trenched the field with wheat. Several hundred meanwhile built a barn, timbered and thatched it. “On Tuesday the potatoes of David Lang, of Drumbo, now in Down jail, on a serious charge, was dug by about 1000 people, in the space of ten minutes and a half, after which they carried in his hay on their backs; and when all were done, a wooden bowl was placed in the middle of the field, each person contributed his mite for his support in jail, to a large amount, which was immediately sent to him.” These were called “hasty diggings” and were organized by the United Irishmen. That was the place where subsistence solidarity was exercised, with its alternative values to those of Bank, palanquin, and scaffold.

The Insurrection Bill was passed against the collective “raising of potatoes and shearing of corn.” A whiskey hawker with two casks of spirits could find no market among them.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com



F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Matthew Stout (eds.), Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape (Cork University Press: Cork, Ireland, 1997)

James Bristow, Narrative of the Sufferings of James Bristow of the Bengal Artillery (London, 1794)

Denis Carroll, The Man from God Knows Where: Thomas Russell, 1767-1803 (Tartan: Dublin, 1995)

James Connolly, Labor in Irish History (1910 and frequently republished)

Irfan Habib (ed.), Confronting Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali & Tipu Sultan. Indian History Congress: Commemorating Srigangapatnam 1799. (Tulika: New Delhi,1999)

Dáire Keogh (ed.), A Patriot Priest: The Life of Father James Coigly, 1761-1798 (Cork University Press: Cork, 1998)

James Quinn, Soul on Fire: A Life of Thomas Russell (Irish Academic Press: Dublin, 2002)

Kevin Whelan, The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of irish identity 1760-1830 (Cork University Press: Cork, 1996)


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com