Thomas Russell

Thomas-Russell.jpgThe County Gaol's most famous prisoner was the United Irishman Thomas Russell, executed here for his part in the abortive rebellion of 1803. For many County Down people, Russell is 'the man from God knows where', immortalised in the ballad of the same name by Bangor poet, Florence Mary Wilson, which generations of school children learnt! However the real Thomas Russell was an important figure in late eighteenth century Irish radical politics.

Thomas Russell was born into an Anglican family in Dromahane, County Cork in 1767. His father and brother were both officers in the army and Thomas joined the army at about the age of 15 and served for almost five years in India. 

In 1790, Russell met Theobald Wolfe Tone who was to have a great influence on his thinking. In 1791, Russell, Tone and other leading radicals formed the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast and Dublin. The aims of the Society were to extend political representation within Ireland and to work for greater union between the Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters of Ireland. In 1796 Russell, who had probably been appointed the United Irishmen's Adjutant General for County Down, was arrested for sedition and spent the next six years in prison in Dublin and Scotland.

After his release in 1802, he travelled to France where he was reunited with some of the remaining supporters of the United Irishmen, notably Robert Emmet. Together, Emmet and Russell planned the Rising of 1803. Russell was to lead the North, but he was unsuccessful in igniting a 1798 style turnout and the rebellion petered out. Tried in Downpatrick and found guilty of treason Russell was executed at the door of the County Gaol. He was buried in the graveyard of the Anglican parish Church of Downpatrick, St Margaret's, in a grave paid for by his great friend, Mary Ann McCracken.

2003 was the bi-centenary of the rebellion of 1803 and the trial and execution of Thomas Russell. To mark this year the Museum organised a comprehensive programme of events and activities designed to illuminate Russell's life and times. This programme was attended by thousands of people and was widely praised for increasing understanding of one the most crucial periods in our history. The programme received an Irish Museum of the year award for "Best Access and Outreach Initiative". 

Books and articles about Thomas Russell

Denis Carroll, The Man From God-Knows-Where (Dublin 1995). 
Brendan Clifford, Thomas Russell and Belfast, (Belfast 1988). 
S Mac Giolla Easpaig, Tomas Ruiseil, (Dublin 1957). 
James Quinn, Soul on Fire: A Life of Thomas Russell (Dublin 2002). 
Brian Turner, "Echoes From The Time" in Myrtle Hill, Brian Turner, Kenneth Dawson (eds), 1798: Rebellion in County Down (Newtownards 1998). 
Brian Turner (ed), A Man Stepped Out For Death: Thomas Russell and County Down (Newtownards 2003). 
CJ Woods (ed), Journals and Memoirs of Thomas Russell 1791-1795 (Dublin 1991).

Documents relating to Thomas Russell

The Museum holds in its collection a series of documents relating to the trial of Russell. The documents are ten depositions taken by local magistrates Matthew Forde and David Gordon from various people who witnessed Russell's activities in and around the Loughinisland area in the summer of 1803, the official order to proceed with the trial of Russell and the list of the jurymen (with the verdict of the trial written at the end) who tried him.