One hundred years ago this week school teacher and Irish Volunteer, Thomas Russell, attended a Sinn Féin meeting in Carrigaholt when the gathering was raided by the police and military. The 21-year-old was stabbed in a bayonet charge and died three days later in Kilrush. At once he became a martyr like fellow teacher and Irish Volunteer Thomas Ashe had been six months previously. The story is now told in a book called ‘The Life and Death of Thomas Russell’ by Noel Murphy. He spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, about his grand-uncle’s life and death.
The death of Thomas Russell
“Le linn a bháis ar an dhún luirc,
Ó Chontae an Chláir go bán Chill Chúmhaile,
Ag fógairt ghairm go fairsing don dúthaigh,
Mór do mhaireann, gur leaghadh gan chúis é.”
MICHEÁL Russell was 57-years-old — a small farmer with a few acres of a holding and the milking of one cow; he received minimal schooling, could neither read nor write, but still had plenty of scholarship and was self-educated well beyond books and any classroom setting.
This found expression in his prolific output of work — be it be the folklore of the fields around him, or poetry and ballads about his own life experience and those around him.
That experience was west Kerry, whether it was growing up during the Land War, his reminiscences about the Easter Rising, or the fate of his eldest son, who had been sent forward to get the education that most of his generation never did.
Thomas Russell was a 21-year-old in 1918 — an Irish language enthusiast, a footballer, an Irish Volunteer and a teacher, who faithfully every week sent a portion of his wages earned in west Clare back home.
But, above everything else, he was the Volunteer who died for Ireland, or as they said around Carrigaholt, into Kilkee and onto Kilrush, he was the Volunteer who was murdered and martyred for Ireland.
“Domhach na Pailme do dheineadh mo bhuaireamh
Is na dhiaidh Dé Máirt seadh fuaireas tuairisc,
Mo mhúinteoir calma, ceannasach usual,
Le cuallacht Shasana do leagadh dá luadar.”
“That was one of the verses of the poem Micheál Russell wrote about his son,” says Noel Murphy, a grand nephew of the slain Irish Volunteer, author of ‘The Life and Death of Thomas Russell [Beatha agus Báis Thomás Ruiséal]’.
“I translated it into English,” he adds sifting through his personal archive in the Buttermarket Café in Kilrush, before producing the two-page tribute to his Irish Volunteer granduncle.
“T’was on Palm Sunday my world was shaken;
And the following Tuesday my heart was broken;
My brave, noble, honourable teacher;
By a Saxon force, snatched from this life.”
“Micheál Russell, or Micil Tomáisín Rúiséal as he was known, would have been a noted poet,” reveals Murphy. “He wrote a poem on the Night of Big Wind, he wrote one commemorating the 1798 Centenary and he also did one on the Rising.
“He was a Republican himself and would have taken an active part in the Land War in west Kerry in the 1880s,” he continues. “There’s an account of his father and another man at an attempted eviction in Ballyferriter with pitchforks trying to stop the RIC evicting two families.
“There was a book produced by folklore collector from the area Séan Ó Dubhda called ‘An Duanaire Duibhneach’ and Russell had the first 19 poems in it — one of them had 54 verses. His lament for his son was the last poem he ever wrote.
“It is said that he took to the bed after Thomas was killed — Ó Dubhda said he was ‘ag fáil bháis lá i ndiaidh lá’ [he was dying day after day]. He died of a broken heart. And the day he died was Palm Sunday in 1928 — it was on Palm Sunday ten years earlier that his son was stabbed. It was a double tragedy,” he adds.
A tragedy that started in Carrigaholt on the edge of the west Clare peninsula, before wending its way all back to the west Kerry peninsula.
“Young men, the flower of the country, are being arrested wholesale, degraded, insulted, imprisoned, shot or bayonetted,” wrote the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Michael Fogarty, “like poor Thomas Russell, of Carrigaholt, the killing of whom is, in all its circumstances, one of the most horrid and atrocious things I ever heard of. Were these things done in Belgium how the world would be made to ring with the cry of German atrocities.”
Statements like that helped make the martyr — in west Clare, wider Clare and beyond in Kerry that gave the young teacher a funeral worthy of the name, one that stretched over five days and involved thousands.
“Friends of the Irish, this is another death for Ireland; another martyr among Irishmen Thomas Russell,” said Conradh na Gaeilge [Gaelic League] organiser Fionán Mac Coluim. “He was another man like Thomas Ashe. A man who died for Ireland and her people. He is today lying here and I’d ask you to be true to Ireland. He is a loss to Ireland, to her his poor people; but it is a great comfort that he got a holy death and he is now amongst the martyrs of Ireland,” he added.
“That similarity with Ashe was very true,” says Murphy, “because they were both teachers, Irish language activists and footballers, were brought up in the same Gaeltacht area only nine miles from one another and within six months of each other they had died for Ireland.
“One hundred years on,” continues Murphy, “it’s a personal thing for me that he’s remembered. What sparked it for me was that I was in the graveyard in Cill Mhaolcheadair, six miles west of Dingle, and noticed that the 100th anniversary was coming up and I said I’d try and find something out about him.
“They didn’t know about him in Dingle Library — this is despite the fact that his name is on the Republican monument in the Mall in Dingle, his name is on one of the plaques in Ballyseedy, and his name is on a plaque in Carrigaholt, but still nobody knew about him. I felt that after 100 years he deserved that people would know about him.”
Noel Murphy’s ‘The Life and Death of Thomas Russell’ just does that.
CLARE was in a state of chassis in March 1918 — membership of the Irish Volunteers was growing, with the election of Eamonn de Valera as Sinn Féin MP for East Clare the previous July galvinising more and more people into action.
That meant drilling, not covertly anymore but deliberately out in the open, and when that led to wholesale arrests, it in turn led to the refusal of Volunteers to recognise the courts, while imprisoned Volunteers then sought to be treated political prisoners and went on hunger strike in an effort to achieve that status.
It all meant that when Clare was viewed through the prism of the ruling authorities — the RIC, the increasing British Military presence and local magistrates in the courts — it was a county at breaking point.
“The outbreak of lawlessness which has occurred in County Clare has rendered it necessary to send additional troops into the county to assist the police,” said the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief in Ireland, Sir Bryan Mahon on 2 March when declaring Martial Law in Clare.
“The county has been declared a special military area, with the meaning of the Realm Regulations 29B and all the powers hereby conferred on the Commandant will be enforced so long as it is necessary for the restoration of order,” he added.
Meanwhile, General Major Burnett, the new Competent Military Authority for Clare, issued an order enforcing ‘Special Measures’ for the preservation of law and order in the county, strictures that put “restrictions on entry into the county, movement within the county, prohibiting drilling, and wearing of uniform, all meetings, assemblies and processions and establishing censorship over written and printed material”.
This came just two days after the death of another Irish Volunteer, 23-year-old John Ryan from Newmarket-on-Fergus, who had been shot by the RIC when participating in a Cattle Drive in Castlefergus, five miles outside Ennis, on 24 February before succumbing to his injuries four days later.
The shootings at the Cattle Drive were the latest in a series of confrontations between the RIC and Volunteers. On the same day that Ryan was shot, two members of the RIC were “pounced upon by six disguised men from behind a gateway and order to put up their arms” one mile from Ennistymon. “They refused, a scuffle ensued, in which two constables were wounded with revolver bullets and their rifles were taken from them,” reported The Saturday Record.
Then the following day the manager of the Munster and Leinster Bank in Ennisytmon was held up at gunpoint by four masked men, who then made off with takings of £5,636. It was against this backdrop that the authorities resolved to bring Volunteers to heel, but
“Martial Law has not shaken the hand of Clare, which still holds a firm grasp of the Sinn Féin banner of Irish Independence,” said Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Michael Fogarty in a missive entitled ‘Sinn Féin Banner of Irish Independence’ that was released around the county just weeks after countywide restrictions had been put in place.
“Sinn Féin needs no vindication from me or anyone else,” he continued. “We had almost ceased to be Irish until Sinn Féin arose and struck the English rust from the soul of Ireland. Unfortunately that rust had eaten deep and spoiled many a good Irish heart,” he added defiantly.
Such defiance meant that members of the Irish Volunteers still gathered despite the imposition of Martial Law, as did Sinn Féin clubs around the county, the numbers of which continued to explode as the party’s machine stretched into the nooks and crannies of Clare.
One such club was in Carrigaholt — the most westerly unit of the party’s burgeoning Clare operation that had its monthly meeting on Sunday, 24 March. Those in attendance included secretary Timothy Haier, president Thomas Keane and vice-president John Blake, as well as local Irish Volunteers leader Eamonn Fennell.
In total there were about 45 people in the small hall, with members of the RIC and the military keeping a watching brief outside as Timothy Haier began proceedings by reading out the minutes of the last meeting.
Also on the agenda was the reading of an article from ‘New Ireland’, the Irish nationalist and republican newspaper published in Dublin, by anti-conscription activist, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix.
It was during this time that Capt William Glass appeared at the door — with his arrival precipitating the rapid break-up of the meeting, the dispersal of the Volunteers/Sinn Féin members and general mayhem.
Capt William Glass: “Who is in charge.”
Michael Keane: “I recognise no authority.”
Capt William Glass: “Would you care to give your word not to continue drilling or to discontinue drilling.”
Michael Keane: “I have my order. I will drill when and where I please.”
Capt William Glass: “I am afraid of have no option but to put you under arrest.”
Eamonn Fennell: “This is a Sinn Féin Club meeting.”
Capt William Glass: “You are not the judge of when the meeting must close. Either you or I must do it. This meeting must be dispersed.”
Eamonn Fennell: “In a minute or two… Have you much more.”
Timothy Haier: “Very little.”
Capt William Glass: “Be going boys this meeting is over… Sergeant, clear the room.”
Sergeant Frederick Duff: “Charge”.
At once six or seven soldiers from the Fife & Forfar Yeomanry entered the hall.
Private Tait: “Give the lads a chance. Don’t you see they are going out as fast as they can.”
Patrick O’Shea: “The soldiers entered with a rush, shouting, and when inside shouted, ‘Clear out you bastards.”
“The soldiers in the middle of the room were thrusting their bayonets in every direction,” revealed Thomas Keane Jnr at the inquest.
“The military came from Kilrush to Carrigaholt by motor launch during the night previous to the raid,” revealed Eamonn Fennell, “and hid at Burton’s Wood about a quarter of a mile from Carrigaholt. Their presence in the vicinity remained a secret from us until they appeared outside the reading room,” he added.
“William Glass became a famous Scottish artist afterwards,” reveals Noel Murphy 100 years on. “I believe their idea of going into that meeting was to put the fear of God into those attending. They were brought into the county for a specific reason — that was to put an end to all the illegal drilling and quell an uprising before it started.
“Glass went up to the door, he wouldn’t take Eamonn Fennell’s word for it that the meeting was nearly over and he was the man who turned around and ordered his men to clear the room. He stood by while five, six or seven soldiers went in with fixed bayonets, into that small room and that’s how it happened.”
The result was that a number of those in the hall were stabbed — among them Eamonn Fennell, John Blake, Michael Corbett, Patrick Keating and Thomas Russell.
“I had my name mentioned as the man who stabbed Russell,” admitted Private Hutton at the inquest. “In that rush of people I was unable to prevent the man being pressed onto the point of my bayonet. I immediately withdrew my bayonet and changed it from the on-guard position high point position, otherwise the bayonet, having struck into one man would have, from the pressure of the crowd have still further pressed that man onto the bayonet,” he added.
“Thomas Russell was at the meeting because he was a Volunteer, even though I don’t think he was a member of the Volunteers in Carrigaholt, but there’s probably a reason for that. He used to drill with them on a regular basis, but he wasn’t a member. That time teachers, if they were found to be a member of the Volunteers they would have bee precluded from taking up a position. When he was stabbed he got to his feet again and walked around the corner and sat on the window sill at Behan’s Hotel.”
“I can feel blood running down into my boots,” said Patrick Keating, while Timothy Haier told the inquest that he “saw Russell at the hotel and he was in complete agony — there was a pool of blood on the lounge”.
Soon afterwards Capt Glass appeared at the hotel.
Capt William Glass: “Was there a man wounded?”
Timothy Haier: “You can see him now — it is no use, you have done the harm… It was a shame to order the men into your room where there were old men and boys unarmed. Didn’t you know when you came to the door that they were unarmed? If we intended to do you any harm or offer any resistance could not the boys have taken you in and held you as hostage?
Capt William Glass: “Don’t get excited.”
Timothy Haier: “Why would we not get excited when four of our men were wounded.”
Worse than that, Thomas Russell was already dying. “I’m done for,” he told Dr John M Studdert, who on examination of the stricken Volunteer in Behan’s Hotel he found “a punctured wound in the fleshy portion of the right buttock about one inch in length”.
“When his condition didn’t improve,” reveals Noel Murphy, “and worsened overnight he was sent to Kilrush on Monday and died there Wednesday evening about 6.30pm.”
Dr Jerome Counihan: “He died of blood poisoning….There was a punctured wound on the right buttock about an inch wide.”
Michael O’Shea (solicitor): “Have you formed an opinion if this wound was caused by a thrust of a bayonet?
Dr Jerome Counihan: “I don’t think there was much force in it.”
Dr John Callanan: “If the wound was done deliberately the bayonet would have met the bone.”
Michael O’Shea: “Could the wound have been inflicted accidentally?
Dr Richard Moynihan: “In the manner described by the other doctors I do not think so. There must have been some considerable force used.”
“It was Dr Richard Moynihan’s evidence that swayed the jury,” says Noel Murphy. “The family and the local Volunteers had the foresight to have their own doctor present for the post mortem, otherwise it would have been a whitewash.
“The British Army defence was that when they went into the room the crowd panicked and that he was pushed back onto the bayonet. Dr Moynihan said it couldn’t have happened that way and that had a big impact on the jury.”
After four days of evidence that was spread over two weeks, the jury at the inquest chaired by the Coroner for west Clare Thomas Lillis JP retired to consider their verdict at 8.45pm on the night of 9 April — eighty minutes later they returned the following verdict:
“We find that Thomas Russell met his death by a deliberate bayonet thrust, received from one of the four following soldiers — Sergeant Duff, Privates Hutton, Tait and Kenny, in the Reading Room at Carrigaholt, on Sunday, 24th March.”
In tragedy, it was a victory for the Russell family and the Volunteers of west Clare.
A second victory, the first having come over a week earlier when the Volunteers in West Clare and Kerry had ensured that Thomas Russell was given a funeral worthy of a martyr.
Just like Thomas Ashe had been six months previously.
THOMAS Russell had come to Clare the previous November to take up his first employment after graduating as a teacher in De La Salle College in Waterford — with jobs harder to come by in Kerry he jumped at the chance of work for Conradh na Gaeilge as an Irish teacher.
At the time, interest in the language revival had taken hold in west Clare, with Sinn Féin activist and writer Brian O’Higgins, who had been billeted in the GPO during the Easter Rising, having been appointed secretary of the Cólaiste Ó Comhraidhe in Carrigaholt that year.
Russell stayed in Molly Behan’s Hotel, while another west Kerry teacher in the locality was Jackie Murphy, later father of the famous Kerry footballers Sean and Seamus Murphy, who was working in the ‘Breac-Gaeltacht’ of Corbally just outside Kilkee.
It was Murphy, who formally identified Russell after he died in St Joseph’s Hospital on 27 March, just as it was he who put the wheels in motion to ensure that his friend and fellow footballer with the Baile na nGall team in West Kerry would be brought back home for burial.
“Russell’s death put Carrigaholt in the limelight throughout the country,” noted Eamonn Fennell in his statement to the Bureau of Military History nearly 40 years after the event — publicity that was a huge help to the fundraising campaign that was set up on both sides of the Shannon Estuary.
“There were two committees, one in Clare and one in Kerry,” reveals Noel Murphy. The one in Clare had three members — Fr A Moloney, Fr Clancy and Brian O’Higgins — and they collected roughly £250. Between the committee in Kerry and in Clare they raised £400. There were three purposes of the memorial — to erect a suitable memorial over the grave, to provide education for his two younger brothers and to provide comfort for the parents.”
The biggest comfort, of course, would be that a home burial in the family plot in Cill Mhaolcheadair Graveyard in the grounds of a 12th century church. “With Clare under Martial Law at the time,” says Murphy, “that would have been hard to do, because one of the conditions of Martial Law was that you needed a permit to get in or out of the county.
“I doubt very much in the officials would have given a permit to transport Tomás’s remains out of the county. They would have had a fair idea what the occasion was going to be used for. I don’t believe they asked for permission.
“I believe that the body was smuggled out of Clare. It was Sinn Féin and Conradh na Gaeilge that organised Tomás’s funeral and they would have known, probably on the Monday that he wasn’t going to survive. It gave them time to get their act together.
“They went across by rowing boat from Cappa Pier in Kilrush. One of the people on the boat was Jackie Murphy from Baile na nGall — he went to school with Tomás, went to college with him, played football with him and came up to Clare teaching with him.”
Now Jackie Murphy was going home with Thomas Russell.
“When they got ashore in Tarbert there was a large crowd waiting for them,” reveals Murphy. “Then they went as far as Listowel and the coffin was in the church for six or seven hours. The police report show that his remains were paraded through the town by 130 Volunteers under the command of James Siochrú. The following day he was put in a hearse and brought to Tralee — at about 11 o’clock Good Friday night they got to Tralee and there was a massive crowd waiting for them,” he adds.
“An immense number had assembled outside the town in a drenching downpour to meet the remains,” reported the Kerry News. “The grief at the sad news was widespread and cast a gloom over the district. At St John’s Church the remains were received by Rev Fr Lynch and laid in the mortuary chapel. The coffin was covered with beautiful wreaths and with the Sinn Féin colours,” the report added.
The following day the remains were put on the evening train from Tralee to Dingle, reaching the town at 5 o’clock on Easter Saturday evening, where Volunteers were again out in force. “Baile na nGall and Dingle Volunteers lined up and the remains were conveyed amidst a large cortege of representatives of all sections in Dingle to the church and placed before the High Altar,” reported the Kerry News.
“The funeral took place on Sunday. Immediately after last mass the Volunteers, over a 1,000 lined into processional order. Annascaul, Lispole, Dingle, Ventry, Baile na nGall, Ballyferritter, Cuas, leading place being given to the Volunteers of his native district Baile na nGall. The whole procession having been drawn up close to the parish church a start was made about 3 o’clock and reached the family burial ground about 5 o’clock,” the report added.
“There was a hearse available to bring the body back to the graveyard,” says Noel Murphy, “but they didn’t put him into the hearse — they shouldered him all the way from the Church back to Cill Mhaolcheadair graveyard, nearly six miles of a journey.
“The story we grew up with was that there were so many of them to shoulder his coffin that after the first six, when they had their 100 yards done, the next six took their turn and the others went back to the end of the line for their turn again but never got a chance because there were so many Volunteers,” he adds.
“The crowd representing the whole countryside contrasted well with the historic surroundings,” noted the Kerry News. “A story is told that a book was aded from this burial ground in a procession to Brandon Mountain,” it added.
Those represented from Clare included Cumann na mBan, Kilkee; Cumann na mBan, Kilrush; Kilrush Volunteers; Fianna Éireann, Kilkee; Máire Ní Bheacháin, Carrigaholt; Misses Ellie and Lizzie McMahon, Kilrush and Dr Richard Moynihan, Kilrush.
“The coffin was covered with a large Republican flag and the grave got great care and looked much like a bed of flowers before his comrades recited the last prayer in Irish and breathed a sigh of sorrow mingled with pride before they left his last resting place with the setting sun on this memorable Sunday evening on a memorable spot,” said Fionán Mac Coluim in his graveside oration.
This weekend, exactly 100 years on, the crowds will gather at the same spot.
“B’aoibhinn amhrac ar shocraid iongantach,
Ó Cill Rois abhaile go Dingean Uí Chúise,
Do bhí bóthar fada go fairsing leo dúnta,
Dá thabhairt ar an gCill, na teampaill dúthais.”