An Irishman's Diary


A welcome like this awaits you in Northern Ireland. In Holywood recently, courtesy of the Kingdoms of Down tourist board, Brendan Ó Cathaoir was lost and late (as usual) for an appointment.

Stopped at traffic lights, I jumped out and sought help from the motorist in front. Instead of complicated directions, he led the way most obligingly to my destination.

The North is awakening to the importance of tourism in our post-industrial age. To succeed, however, it needs an influx of Southern holidaymakers. As a practical gesture of reconciliation, go north. You will return to explore further its excellent value, natural wonders and - as we emerge from the nightmare of the past - its history.

Looking across Belfast Lough towards Cave Hill one recalled Wolfe Tone and his great friend Thomas Russell, who was executed in 1803.

To mention a few of north Down's attractions, the aquarium in Portaferry is wonderful. A full day is required to see everything in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra. The Irish Linen Museum in Lisburn is another educational experience.

The Saint Patrick Centre, Downpatrick, adjoins the burial place of our patron saint in Down Cathedral. The information-age interpretative centre does not neglect to use Patrick's own words to shed light on the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

Moira countryside fair reminds one that parts of Ulster are British. Stolid folk walk the muddy fairground in sensible wellies. Cross-channel field societies set out their stalls. This rabbit lover balked at a ferret protection league.

Mount Stewart house and gardens, situated on the shores of Strangford Lough, are perhaps the most beautiful in Ireland. It was once the seat of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, architect of the Act of Union; and of whom Shelley wrote: "I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh."

His father, the first Marquis of Londonderry, was alarmed by the growth of a rebellious spirit in north Down and the Ards during the 1790s. He ordered 40 Bibles for delivery to Mount Stewart and summoned his tenantry to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown. Anticipating a low turn-out, he addressed the congregation after service in Greyabbey Non-Subscribing Presbyterian meeting house. No one was persuaded to take the oath. Realising the implications of United Irish egalitarianism, the landlords recruited a yeomanry.

James Porter was among an estimated 30 Presbyterian ministers implicated in the 1798 insurrection. He was hanged outside his own meeting house and buried in Greyabbey churchyard. In the shadow of the venerable Cistercian ruins, another rebel grave was identified. Alexander Byers fell at the battle of Ballynahinch. After the battle his mother went to the site, found her son's body and brought it on a cart to Greyabbey for burial.

This is the bicentenary of the death of Thomas Russell, commemorated in Florence Wilson's ballad as The Man from God knows Where. Born near Mallow, Co Cork, in 1767, soldiering was in his blood and at the age of 15 he sailed with his brother's regiment to India.

On returning to Dublin as a British officer on half pay, he met Tone in the public gallery of the Irish House of Commons. As James Quinn observed in his biography of Russell, Soul on Fire, the two men took an instant liking to each other. Although a devout Christian, the handsome Russell had a fondness for wine and women; Tone referred to him with affectionate irony as "P.P."

Stationed in Belfast, Russell became friendly with Samuel Neilson, Henry Joy McCracken and other radicals. Obliged to sell his commission, having gone bail for a swindler, he was appointed librarian of the Linen Hall Library. After helping to found the Belfast United Irishmen in October 1791, he participated in forming a sister society in Dublin the following month.

He was a key figure later in transforming the United Irishmen into a republican secret society. At Art's Fort on Cave Hill, before Tone went into exile in 1795, Russell was among the group which vowed "never to desist in our efforts until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence".

He lived in straitened circumstances for most of his life and had a genuine empathy with the poor.

He criticised the hard, dangerous work in the new cotton mills, and the uncaring attitude of government and aristocracy. During a session as magistrate in Dungannon, he had sided with linen weavers in their dispute with employers. (Our guide in Lisburn museum informed me that his grandmother had lost two fingers as a young weaver.)

As the cycle of disaffection and repression grew increasingly violent, Russell was interned in Scotland. Released in 1802 after six years' imprisonment, he was determined to take up the fight again. In Paris he met Robert Emmet, who sent him to organise Ulster for his projected rising.

But the crushing defeat of 1798 had subdued the populace. Russell rode through Antrim and Down urging the people to rise.

The response he met was summed up by a farmer in Clough, who said "they would be hanged like dogs" if they took up arms again.

On learning of Emmet's arrest, Russell came south to attempt a rescue but was betrayed.

The unionist administration decided to make an example of him to encourage Ulster in its new-found loyalty. A wretch named Patrick Lynch swore away the life of the noble Russell in Downpatrick. He was hanged next day, October 21st, 1803, and buried in the local Church of Ireland graveyard.

The gravestones of Russell, Porter and Byers record nothing about the manner of their deaths. The Dissenters went into denial of their radical tradition.

The time is opportune for them to reappropriate their republican roots.

But the IRA must first end its threat of force. Unification through coercion would be superficial, engendering no growth of consciousness.