For We Ride Different Ways
We know him from Florence Wilson’s ballad.
Into our townlan’ on a night of snow
Rode a man from God knows where.
We know him from the words he spoke as he faced the hangman – confused, perhaps, after stepping from his prison cell into daylight.
“Is this the place?”
We know him from Mary Ann McCracken’s somewhat breathless description: “A model of manly beauty, he was one of those favoured individuals whom one cannot pass in the street without … staring in the face, and turning round to look at the receding figure.”
But there is more to Thomas Russell than a condemned man standing on a scaffold one October morning. Or a final resting place in Downpatrick, marked by a simple slab – ‘The Grave of Russell,’ it reads. Or a patriot immortalised as a hard-riding stranger who chances upon a group of United Irishmen plotting in a County Down inn – neither side knowing they follow the same cause.
But at screek o’ day through the gable pane
I watched him spur in the peltin’ rain
And I juked from his rovin’ eye.
Thomas Russell was a revolutionary. But he was many other men besides.
He was a former officer in the British army. He was well-travelled (India, Africa, Europe), his international perspective focusing his attention closer to home, on his own colonised people and their need for leadership.
He had religious conviction: Wolfe Tone nicknamed him PP, short for the parish priest. In the period preceding his execution, he read a Greek bible, and asked for a few days’ grace to finish the Book of Revelations. The boon was withheld.
He was a librarian who promoted the collection of Irish language songs. He was a bard, whose poem, The Fatal Battle of Aughrim, recounts the rout of the Gael in the Williamite wars – a defeat he hoped to overturn.
He was a contributor to Henry Joy McCracken’s ‘Northern Star’ newspaper. He was a pamphleteer: in his address, ‘A Letter To The People Of Ireland On The Present Situation Of The Country,’ he insisted the earth’s riches were given to benefit all men, not just a select few.
He was a restless spirit who spent years in captivity. He was a practical idealist. “Poverty is a sort of crime,” he wrote.
He moved easily between north and south, between Ascendancy and peasant, this son of an Anglican father and a Catholic mother, working for “a communion of rights” between Irishmen of all creeds and classes.
All these facets, and others, contribute to the complicated man of straightforward principles who was Thomas Russell. Wolfe Tone admitted: “I think the better of myself for being the object of the esteem of such a man as Russell.”
Towards the end of his short life, in 1803, he took on yet another role: as general and commander of the Northern forces in Robert Emmet’s ill-fated revolt. That rebellion sent this roving man – celebrated in verse galloping through hail and rain to rouse the Ulster counties – on his final journey to the gallows.
“Governments proceed as if they were immortal,” he told the court which convicted him of high treason. Those words predicted a time when the regime would be toppled. Those words resonate today. More than two centuries later, governments continue to operate as if invested with immortality, and as if no-one will ever scrutinise their record; even governments composed of our own people, as Russell would have wished.
Let us pause today to remember Thomas Russell: our man from God knows where, who drew breath first in Dromahane near Mallow in Co Cork, in November 1767.
His last breath was exhaled at the age of 35, in front of Downpatrick’s granite jail, where he was hanged, then decapitated – a traitor’s death for the friend of Tone, Emmet and McCracken.
Russell was among the last of the United Irishmen to die, captured in Dublin and transferred to the place where he had conspired, for trial and inevitable execution. It was intended as a warning to the population.
The rebuke underwent its own revolution, however, transformed into inspiration.
He smiled in under his slouchy hat
Says he: “There’s a bit of a joke in that,
For we ride different ways.”
But the men in that ballad were all riding the same way, though they didn’t yet realise it. As for us, in which direction do we go, in Ireland today? And would Thomas Russell recognise the landmarks we steer by?