Monday, 29 September 2014



Thomas Russell, of County Cork, bosom friend and devoted comrade of Tone and Emmet, organised County Down for the United Irishmen in 1795. One night, in 1996, he entered an inn or tavern in County Down, either Killyleagh or Loughinisland, where a number of local men were gathered. They were United Irishmen, but Russell didn't know it, and they didn't know him or why he was there. One of them, long years after, tells of that night, and tells where and under what circumstances he saw Russell again. The Warwick mentioned in the poem was a young Republican Presbyterian Minister who was hanged at Newtownards. Thomas Russell was hanged on 21st October, 1803.

Florence Wilson's ballad imaginatively recalls the outline features of Thomas Russell's activity in 1795 and 1803.

The opening verses depict Russell's work in Co Down during winter of 1795 when reconstruction of the United Irish movement was under way. F. J. Bigger, in his Four Shots From County Down, assumes that Andy Lemon's tavern was the Buck's Head at Loughinisland. It should be noted that in 1803 the proprietor was James Fitzpatrick, who gave evidence at Russell's trial of Russell's attempts to raise Down in Emmett's Rebellion.

Later verses depict 'the time of the Hurry' when in 1798 people "quet from mindin' the farms" to fight under McCracken and Munro. 'Young Warwick' is the Reverend Archibald Warwick of Kircubbin who was executed along with the Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey. Both were Presbyterian clergymen.

As the ballad moves to a close it re-echoes the supposition that French help was under way in 1803 -'Boney had promised help to a man in Dublin town'. A hint of the debacle in July-August 1803 is given in the lines:

"but no French ships sailed into Cloughey Bay

and we heard the black news on a harvest day

that the cause was lost again."

The dramatic final verses connect Russell's last words to the impression he made on his listeners during his visit to their townland on that 'night of snow' in winter 1795.

The Man From God Knows Where

Into our townlan' on a night of snow

rode a man from God knows where;

None of us bade him stay or go,

nor deemed him friend, nor damned him foe,

but we stabled his big roan mare;

for in our townlan' we're decent folk,

and if he didn't speak, why none of us spoke,

and we sat till the fire burned low.

We're a civil sort in our wee place

so we made the circle wide

round Andy Lemon's cheerful blaze,

and wished the man his length of days

and a good end to his ride.

He smiled in under his slouchy hat,

says he: 'There's a bit of a joke in that,

for we ride different ways.'

The whiles we smoked we watched him stare

from his seat fornenst the glow.

I nudged Joe Moore: 'You wouldn't dare

to ask him who he's for meeting there,

and how far he has got to go?'

And Joe wouldn't dare, nor Wully Scott,

And he took no drink - neither cold nor hot,

this man from God knows where.

It was closing time, and late forbye,

when us ones braved the air.

I never saw worse (may I live or die)

than the sleet that night, an' I says, says I:

'You'll find he's for stopping there.'

But at screek o'day, through the gable pane

I watched him spur in the peltin' rain,

an' I juked from his rovin' eye.

Two winters more, then the Trouble year,

when the best that a man could feel

was the pike that he kept in hidin's near,

till the blood o' hate an' the blood o' fear

would be redder nor rust on the steel.

Us ones quet from mindin' the farms

Let them take what we gave wi' the weight o' our arms

from Saintfield to Kilkeel.

In the time o' the Hurry, we had no lead

we all of us fought with the rest

an' if e'er a one shook like a tremblin' reed,

none of us gave neither hint nor heed,

nor ever even'd we'd guessed.

We men of the North had a word to say,

an'we said it then, in our own dour way,

an' we spoke as we thought was best.

All Ulster over, the weemin cried

for the stan'in' crops on the lan'.

Many's the sweetheart and many's the bride

would liefer ha' gone to where he died,

and ha' mourned her lone by her man.

But us ones weathered the thick of it

and we used to dander along and sit

in Andy's, side by side.

What with discourse goin' to and fro,

the night would be wearin' thin,

yet never so late when we rose to go

but someone would say: 'do ye min' thon' snow,

an 'the man who came wanderin'in?'

and we be to fall to the talk again,

if by any chance he was one o' them

The man who went like the win'.

Well 'twas gettin' on past the heat o' the year

when I rode to Newtown fair;

I sold as I could (the dealers were near

only three pounds eight for the Innish steer,

an' nothin' at all for the mare!)

I met M'Kee in the throng o' the street,

says he: 'The grass has grown under our feet

since they hanged young Warwick here.',

And he told me that Boney had promised help

to a man in Dublin town.

Says he: 'If you've laid the pike on the shelf,

you'd better go home hot-fut by yourself,

an' once more take it down.'

So by Comber road I trotted the grey

and never cut corn until Killyleagh

stood plain on the risin' groun'.

For a wheen o' days we sat waitin' the word

to rise and go at it like men,

but no French ships sailed into Cloughey Bay

and we heard the black news on a harvest day

that the cause was lost again;

and Joey and me, and Wully Boy Scott,

we agreed to ourselves we'd as lief as not

ha' been found in the thick o' the slain.

By Downpatrick goal I was bound to fare

on a day I'll remember, feth;

for when I came to the prison square

the people were waitin' in hundreds there

an' you wouldn't hear stir nor breath!

For the sodgers were standing, grim an' tall,

round a scaffold built there foment the wall,

an' a man stepped out for death!

I was brave an' near to the edge of the throng,

yet I knowed the face again,

an' I knowed the set, an' I knowed the walk

an' the sound of his strange up-country talk,

for he spoke out right an' plain.

Then he bowed his head to the swinging rope,

whiles I said 'Please God' to his dying hope

and 'Amen' to his dying prayer

that the wrong would cease and the right prevail,

for the man that they hanged at Downpatrick gaol

was the Man from God knows where!

Language of the Irish Heart

Thomas Russell was one of the few leaders of the United Irishmen who tried to learn Irish.

Born in Co. Cork in 1767 and brought up in Dublin, Russell joined the army aged 15 and served in India. He first came to Belfast as a soldier, returning later as a penniless activist.

Handsome and charming, Russell was popular with Belfast radicals, and became close to the McCracken family. Dr James MacDonnell put him up in his house, and also recommended him for the post of librarian to the Belfast Society for Promoting knowledge, which later became the Linen Hall Library.

Established in 1788, the Society collected a wide range of books, including manuscripts in Irish.
Russell became librarian in February 1794, and soon found premises for the library in Ann Street.
Here he took Irish lessons from Patrick Lynch (Pádraig Ó Loinsigh), a well-known scholar and teacher. Lynch had grown up speaking Irish in Loughinisland, Co.Down, where his family ran a school.

Lynch taught Irish at the Belfast Academy, a school founded by the town’s business community, and also taught privately. In April 1795 the Northern Star, paper of the United Irishmen, publicised his services thus: “This language recommends itself to us, by the advantages it affords to the Students of Irish and Eastern Antiquities, especially to those who wish to acquire the knowledge of Druidical Theology and Worship, as sketched by Caesar and Tacitus.

It is particularly interesting, to all who wish for the improvement and Union of this neglected and divided Kingdom. By our understanding and speaking it, we could more easily and effectually communicate out sentiments and instructions to all our Countrymen; and thus mutually improve and conciliate each others affection.

“The Merchant and Artist would reap great benefit from the knowledge of it. They would then be qualified for carrying on Trade and Manufacturers, in every part of their native country.

“Such knowledge, we understand, could be easily acquired in three of four Months by the assistance of Mr. Lynch.”

In September 1795 Russell and Lynch produced the first and only issue of a bi-lingual magazine titled Bolg an tSolair, meaning “miscellany” (literally “provision bag”). This was a chunky pocket-sized book printed by the Northern Star.

Russell may have written the preface, while Lynch must have provided the teaching material. The preface says that foreigners would think it unnecessary to recommend their own language to Irishmen, but “seeing that the Gaelic has been not only banished from the court, the college and the bar, but that many tongues and pens have been employed to cry it down, and to persuade the ignorant that it was harsh and barbarous jargon, and that their ancestors, from whom they derived it, were an ignorant, uncultivated people - it becomes then necessary, to say something in reply.”

The virtues of Irish are then extolled, including “the harmony of its cadence”, its fitness for expressing “the feelings of the heart”, its rich vocabulary and its antiquity.

Despite all the difficulties imposed on it, “even to this day, the Irish is spoken by a great majority of the inhabitants of the kingdom.”

But literacy was declining, with serious implications: “At present, there are but few who can read, and fewer that can write the Irish characters; and it appears,that in a short time, there will be none found who will understand an Irish manuscript, so as to be able to transcribe or translate it.

“It is chiefly with a view to prevent in some way measure the total neglect, and to diffuse the beauties of this ancient and once-admired language, that the following compilation is offered to the public.”

The Irish vocabulary ranged from nature to government, reflecting the turbulent times with words such as power (cumhacht), persecution (guerleanmhuin), gallows (croich), sons of Irishmen (clann na ngaoidhiol), dissention (eas-aontas), misery (amghar), native county (duthchas), equality (codromacht), liberty (saoirseacht), conspiracy (comh-run), and rebellion (athchogadh).

Useful phrases range from “Do you speak Irish?” (An labhrann tu gaoileag?) to “she is drunk” (ta si air misge) - her Lynch was following Muiris Ó Gormáins phrasebook.

Two dialogues feature a farmer and a merchant haggling over the price of sheep. A priest arrives and mediates. He asks the farmer about the merchant:

Priest: Car ab asdon duine uasal?
(where is the gentleman from?)

Farmer: Breathnaigim gur ab as Bealfairsde dho.
(I judge he is from Belfast.)

Priest: As Bealfairsdel nach raibh se labhairt gaollig riot a nois fein.
(From Belfast! was not he speaking Irish to you just now.)

Farmer: Labhran se gaoidhlig go hiomchuibhuidh
(he speaks Irish tolerably well.)

Priest: Is comhartha sin gur gaedhiol e.
(That is a sign he is an Irishman.)

Courtesy of the Irish Post

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