Born in Dromahane, County Cork to an Anglican family, Russell joins the British army in 1783 and serves in India. He returns to Ireland in 1786 and commences studies in science, philosophy and politics. In July 1790 he meets Theobald Wolfe Tone in the visitors’ gallery in the Irish House of Commons and they become firm friends.
In 1790 Russell resumes his military career as a junior officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot and is posted to Belfast. The French Revolution in 1789 is warmly greeted in Belfast as are its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With his keen mind and radical ideas, Russell soon becomes a confidante of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, Samuel Neilson and others who are to play a prominent role in the United Irish movement. With them he develops ideas of parliamentary reform, to include the bulk of the people, and Catholic emancipation.
Russell leaves the army in July 1791 and attends a convention of the Whig Club in Belfast to mark Bastille Day. The convention is addressed by William Drennan, who proposes a brotherhood promoting separation from England and co-operation with the increasingly radical Cisalpine Club in the pursuit of political and social reforms. However, Russell notes the lack of trust between Dissenters and Catholics which is due to fears that Catholic radicalism can be bought off by religious concessions. Informing Wolfe Tone of his observations, within weeks leads to Wolfe Tone’s publication of Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland to address these suspicions. The pamphlet is extremely well received and provides the impetus for the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast on October 18, 1791.
Pressure from Dublin Castle later forces the United Irish movement to become a clandestine organisation as the would-be revolutionaries seek to continue their slow progress towards challenging the occupying British.
In 1795 Russell, Andrew Henderson, Henry Joy McCracken and Samuel Neilson lead a band of United Irishmen to the top of Cavehill overlooking the town of Belfast where they swear an oath “never to desist in our effort until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence” prior to Wolfe Tone’s exile to the United States. The event is noted in Dublin Castle although there is no immediate move to disband or arrest the members of the United Irishmen.
In 1796, Russell publishes an ambitious and far-sighted document, Letter to the People of Ireland, which lays out his vision of social and economic reform for the Irish nation. In addition to his stance on religious freedom, he makes clear his anti-slavery views in the Northern Star on March 17, 1792.
Russell takes an active part in organising the Society of United Irishmen becoming the United Irish commander in County Down. However the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1793 leads to an ongoing campaign against the United Irishmen and in 1796 he is arrested and imprisoned as a “state prisoner” in Dublin. In March 1799 he and the other state prisoners are transferred to Fort George in Scotland, an extensive fortress some miles north of Inverness built in the wake of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46. He is released on condition of exile to Hamburg in June 1802 following a brief cessation in the war with France.
Not content to sit things out in Hamburg, Russell soon makes his way to Paris where he meets Robert Emmet who is planning another insurrection pending the French renewal of the war against England. He agrees to return to Ireland in March 1803 to organise the North in conjunction with James Hope. However he meets with little success as much of the north is subdued following the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and displays little appetite for a renewed outbreak. Finally, finding some support in the vicinity of Loughinisland, he prepares to take to the field on July 23, 1803, the date set by Emmett.
However the plan is badly thought out and quickly collapses, forcing Russell to flee to Dublin before a shot is fired in anger. He manages to hide for a number of weeks but Dublin is a hard place in which to hide in the days following the failure of Emmett’s rebellion as the shocked authorities have launched a massive campaign of raids and arrests in an effort to finally eradicate the United Irishmen.
Thomas Russell is promptly arrested and sent to Downpatrick Gaol where he is executed by hanging then beheaded on October 21, 1803.