Thomas Russell Memorial Lecture 2011
The Annual Thomas Russell Memorial Lecture was held on Saturday 26th November 2011 in Downpatrick Cemetery. A large crowd attended the event which was chaired by Des O'Hagan. Des was a founder member of the Thomas Russell society, and is a longstanding member of the Downpatrick branch of the Workers' Party

Comrades and Friends,

It is an honour for me to be here today to speak at the grave of United Irishman, Thomas Russell. In what follows I hope to sketch out something about Russell’s life and in conclusion speak about how this radical republican has many things to tell us today.

Thomas Russell was a man of his time – a time of enlightenment, industry, science and revolution. His journals and other writings are marked by his wide-ranging interests and also record his abiding love of the Irish countryside and, above all, his sociability. Thomas Russell learned as much from people as he did from books and tracts. And he talked to everyone regardless of rank or religion.

Russell was a contradictory mixture of rational thinker and religious zealot. A more emotionally painful contradiction was that between his passion for drink, swearing and women and his religious piety, which regarded giving in to such passions as sinful. Russell’s attempts at self-improvement rarely won out. Wolfe Tone records how on October15th 1791, “[Thomas] Digges came in to supper. I had been lecturing P. P. [Russell] on the state of his nerves, and the necessity of early hours; to which he agreed, and, as the first fruits of my advice and his reformation, sat up with Digges until three o'clock in the morning”.  In one of many other attempts to change his dissolute ways, Russell wrote from prison on his thirtieth birthday in 1797, “I will endeavour to obtain compleat mastery over my passionate temper … and… to obtain all information that will enable me… [to] engage in some work of utility.”

What of Russell’s working life? Whatever else he was, Thomas Russell could not be called a careerist. His work as magistrate only brought him up against the injustices of the justice system and as a soldier in Belfast he seemed more interested in the nightlife of the city than its defence. While his work  as librarian suited his political views, his main “work of utility”, I would argue, was that of revolutionary, about which I will say more in a minute. 

As with his vices, his writing also reflected his “passionate temper”. As noted, Russell was steeped in the enlightenment thinking of his time and his journals and letters show a mind that wandered freely from passion to passion, from  literature to pure science to the applied science and business plans that were taking shape with the new machinery of what would later be termed the industrial revolution, and to the politics of slavery and freedom. In another context, Russell might have become a clergyman as was his father’s original intention and lived the life of a Parson Naturalist. But he grew up in Ireland in a time of revolutions and slave revolts and the quiet life of the gentleman scientist was not to be Russell’s fate.

From prison at first in grim and filthy Newgate, Dublin and later in the more amenable Fort George in Scotland, Russell carried on a correspondence on scientific matters with his friend and walking companion John Templeton from Belfast. As an example of his many scientific interests, in one letter alone of September 1797 Russell wrote to Templeton first of the possibility of devising an experiment which could show if infectious diseases might be carried in the air, as well as of “facts in support of my opinions on mineralogy”, and finally he wondered whether “the comet now observed” might have an influence “not in the natural but in the moral and political world.” “I hope if  it does” he wrote “that it is of benign aspect; if what I read of it be true it  has something of a revolutionary appearance as it has a very short tail, or, in other words it is a croppy”, referring to the short hair sported by many United Irishmen.

Russell, a man who exalted in walking the highways and byways of Ireland, would spend six of his 36 years interned in prison without charge. When he was released from prison in June 1802 and exiled to Europe he could have given up on the United Irish enterprise. But that was not in his nature.  In 1803 he returned incognito to Ireland in an effort to reignite revolution in the North. But by that time the revolutionary comet of the 1790s had all but burned out.

Could the attempted revolution of 1803 ever have taken off?  Surely William Drennan was going too far when in 1802 upon hearing of Russell’s continued adherence to insurrection, he wrote that “long imprisonment and perpetual recurrence to the same ideas make enthusiasm turn into a partial insanity”.  It was always going to be a difficult business but it’s worth remembering that the planned rebellion in Ireland was intended to coincide with another in England on the part of Colonel Despard’s United Englishmen and a French invasion of Ireland in August 1803. It was also hoped that Napoleon would send a larger invasion force to topple England.  The French never came and Despard was arrested in 1802 and hanged in February 1803. But, it is also worth noting as an example of how un-revolutionary the North had become after 1798 that after the failed revolt of 1803 some inhabitants of Russell’s once-beloved city of Belfast put up a 500 reward for his capture and that 5 members of the jury that convicted him in Downpatrick were former United Irishmen.

Russell is remembered by most visitors to the Downpatrick Museum as the “Man from God Knows Where”, from Florence Wilson’s wonderfully evocative poem of that name. In my opinion, he should be equally known for the radical social content of his thinking. Russell’s abhorrence of slavery was such that anti-slavery campaigner, Mary Ann McCracken, remembered that as a young officer in Belfast Russell had, “abstained from the use of slave labour produce until slavery in the West Indies was abolished, and at the dinner parties to which he was so often invited and when confectionery was so much used he would not take anything with sugar in it”.  Along with Jemmy Hope, Russell represented the social radicalism implicit in republicanism. According to Russell’s most recent biographer, James Quinn, Russell, “sympathised strongly with the poor and believed that more than just political reform was needed to better their lives. These views were intensified on his rambles through the countryside. Given his own poverty, he often shared the homes and food of the poor and he developed an enduring respect for them.” Russell wrote that the Poor Laws of England ensured that “poverty is a sort of crime”. Russell believed that poverty was a crime against the poor.

As Quinn notes, in Russell’s view the wealth of a country should not be judged by the prosperity of its merchants and landowners. For Russell a country can be termed prosperous only “if the majority can procure a comfortable subsistence with little labour and have something to share with those who are in want”. By Russell’s standards is Ireland anywhere near prosperity in 2011? The answer must be no.

Russell writes that “the avarice of the land proprietors keeps the people in a state of beggary and consequent discontent … I suppose it will be vain to expect any remedy for this, as the common objection will be made that land is private property. …The way lands are held makes the people slaves to the landlord. They are too poor to emigrate, and have no way left but to submit or starve.” Replace “landlords” with “bankers” or “property developers” and we are in the Ireland of 2011, north and south.

In a journal entry of 1791 Russell asks if the wealthy should not be made to take care of those children, “who must in all states where great inequality of wealth exists be left destitute.” This very week a lobby group spokesperson said: “Children are under attack again. Budget proposals show that the new Government may abandon election promises to protect current levels of child benefit and continue to slash supports for families. Since 2009 a working family with two children under five has lost €2,624 a year, at a time when bills are going up and incomes are going down. Now they may face further cuts of €240.”

Only time prevents me from providing more examples which show that Russell’s radical social criticism is suited to our country in its current woeful crises. Throughout the world, great inequality of wealth exists as much now as it did then, perhaps even more. We come to honour Russell because he was a great man of his time. We at this graveside must also honour him because he is also a man for our time. His thoughts are not dead words on the page and his acts not forgotten. Whatever else has changed, his radicalism is ours.

This lecture was delivered by Justin O' Hagan, Belfast.

Peace, Work, Democracy, and Class Politics