Charismatic United Irish leader

Ruán O’Donnell reviews Soul on fire, a life of Thomas Russell by James Quinn, Irish Academic Press £31 (45 euros) hbk

JAMES QUINN’S biography of Thomas Russell is a timely and authoritative addition to the new literature of the United Irishmen.

Russell has been the subject of several short biographies and pamphlets but none as extensively researched as Quinn’s comprehensive effort.

In many respects, perhaps, Quinn establishes the paradox of Russell’s emergence as a key United Irish ideologue. Neither his army background nor bohemian lifestyle was particularly unusual in a movement that accommodated both Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Roger O’Connor but Russell's deep interest in millenarianism was idiosyncratic.

In this respect Russell made a unique contribution, although it was not one which overshadowed his primary value as a charismatic, radical leader with military experience.

The minutiae of Russell’s life is fully gathered and analyzed by Quinn and is sufficiently fascinating to warrant a biography even if the subject had not gone on to become a founder member of the United Irishmen.

He left his native Cork for an infantry commission in India, collaborated with Samuel Neilson on the famous Northern Star and became librarian of the Linen Hall Library where the Belfast branch of the United Irishmen came into being.

Although imprisoned in September 1796 and behind bars for most of the succeeding six years, Russell’s incarceration preserved him from death on a 1798 battlefield or permanent exile in New South Wales.

Released from internment in 1802, he realigned with the conspirators who fomented the rising of 1803.

Russell’s role in that misunderstood venture has been consistently overstated, although his opinions were clearly taken very seriously by Robert Emmet, Philip Long and the other senior leaders. Russell had, after all, returned to Ireland in contravention of the Banishment Act which promised a death sentence for such temerity.

Quinn may not have done full justice to some of the mid-level activists who paved the way for Russell’s disappointing return to Ulster in July 1803 but the biography is, nonetheless, an excellent piece of work unlikely to be surpassed.

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