The now permanent release online with free access of some 11,000 lives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) will be a huge bonus to historical research. And yet there will be many people at county level who will not feature but deserve to have their work recorded in dictionaries of county biography. Offaly History began this process in its publication Offaly Heritage 9 (2016) but more so in the recent issue of Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) where the following ‘Brief Lives’ were recorded by way of:
Short biographies of revolutionary figures in Offaly, 1912–23
P.J. Bermingham (1872–1975), 2–3.
Eamonn Bulfin of Derrinlough, 26–7
Father Thomas Burbage (1879–1966), 42–5
Revd Philip Callary (1849–1925), 73–4
Cumann na mBan in Offaly, 80–81
Thomas Dunne (1884–1968), 90–91
James Perry Goodbody (1853–1923), 134–5
Catherine Mahon (1869–1948), 157–8
Patrick McCartan (1878–1963), 179–80
Seán McGuinness (1899–1978), 189–90
T. M. Russell (1868–1932), 205–6
These short essays of less than 1,000 words each were contributed by independent scholars – Brian Pey, Michael Byrne, Margaret White, Ciara Molloy and Lisa Shortall.
It is to the final life in that recent collection we focus on here. It was that of T.M. Russell, a man with huge potential, which remained unrealised when the opportunity came for a revolutionary change in local government in June 1920. This was following on from the election of the first Sinn Féin controlled county council and the implementation of self-reliance and breaking with the Dublin Castle based Local Government Board.
T. M. Russell was the major intellectual force in the Sinn Féin movement in County Offaly from late in 1916 until his sudden departure from the county in the autumn of 1920. The rise of Sinn Féin in the county in 1917 as a political movement and Russell’s part in it deserve to be closely studied.
The amount of work done by T.M Russell, the president of North Offaly Sinn Féin, to build up the Sinn Féin movement in Offaly in 19717-18 was Stakhanovite in its intensity. At the time of the general election in 1918 Sinn Féin according to the RIC’s County Inspector had thirty-six branches in the county and 3,005 members. This was largely due to the organisational work of Russell helped, of course, by the impetus given by the April 1918 by-election for the North King’s County seat vacant by reason of the death of E. J. Graham. Patrick McCartan took that seat without a contest.
Russell told the first AGM of Tullamore Sinn Féin in February 1918 that through its efforts the Gaelic Athletic Association had been re-united and put on a good financial basis (a reference to divisions in the Tullamore club). The same remarks applied to the Tullamore Pipers Band. The members of Tullamore Sinn Féin had helped in the four contested by-elections in 1917–18 and assisted in organising several aeridheacht including the big one in Tullamore on 29 July 1917 which de Valera attended fresh from his victory in Clare. A county convention had been held during the year at which divisional executives were formed for North and South Offaly Parliamentary Divisions. In addition the Standing Committee, lately formed, had taken over the working of the Gaelic League and Russell mentioned that the Irish Volunteers had been organised from the Tullamore branch as well as from others throughout the country. There were others more qualified to speak but it had met with great success. Sinn Féin, Russell said, had made its influence felt in the public boards not only in the immediate vicinity but throughout the entire county. Finally, Russell, as president of North Offaly had personally attended at the formation of the thirty-one Sinn Féin clubs in the county and he had written no less than 1,200 letters. Offaly, with thirty-one clubs held third place in Leinster and sixteenth in Ireland (1,250 clubs). The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP organisation), such as it was, could not even begin to match it. Russell was one of the few intellectuals in local politics and his loss to the county in late 1920 because of his move to Dublin was immense.
Russell might have come on a sealed train from Limerick, his native county, such was his impact on North Offaly politics over the four years, 1916-20. He was not long in Tullamore when he came to the notice of the police as ‘having harangued the members of the Farmers Association on the wrongs of farmers, and particularly their wrongs in connection with the price of barley’. In early 1917 he and the Tullamore councillor P.F. Adams got involved in the Handy-Charleville land dispute at Croghan Hill and in February Russell was co-opted to the county council. Inexplicably Adams had vacated his council seat to facilitate the co-option of Russell. It was not well received in Tullamore and only grudgingly accepted. After six months of observation of Russell the RIC County Inspector’s estimate of Russell was that he was a professional agitator, an able Sinn Féiner, but someone who ‘has made a good many enemies in the county’. This was probably because of his high intellect and single-mindedness in the promotion of Sinn Féin. He was a recent ‘blow-in’ or as the inspector put it ‘a stranger and adventurer’ and a man with ‘no ostensible occupation’ since he gave up the I.A.O.S. (his role with the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society).
Russell was first imprisoned over the illegal ploughing of land on 12 March 1917 and was again arrested in 1918 as part of the so-called German plot. Papers were found in his house at Ballyduff at the time of the arrest, but in fact the contents of some of them such as the Sinn Féin AGM for the Tullamore branch had already appeared in the local press. Nonetheless, he was held in Birmingham prison from May to October 1918 and only released from prison in October to visit his dying child. By October 1918 his three boys were ill with ‘flu. The epidemic was raging and one of them died shortly after the father’s release. The funeral march was a pathetic scene with the child’s coffin borne on the shoulders of the local Volunteers from Ballyduff House on Clara Road to Tullamore Railway Station for burial in Glasnevin.
Russell was elected to the county council in June 1920, receiving the second highest vote after Clara’s Sean Robbins. It was soon after that his landlord, Mrs Molloy, wanted her house at Ballyduff back and in September 1920 the Russell family left Tullamore saying that it was impossible to get another house. Whether it was the slighting of Fr Callary, the parish priest, in regard to his pre-June 1920 chairmanship of the county infirmary, a rent increase, or the need to have the house for a Molloy family member we may never know. Russell was active in pushing out Callary from the chairmanship of his pet project the county infirmary and having the hospital closed as part of Sinn Féin policy in 1921.
Perhaps Mrs Russell wanted to be finished with the town after the loss of her son and her husband through years of intense work and imprisonment. Based on his performance over the four years his loss to the county was very great. Russell joined the Irish National Assurance Co. in 1920, became an insurance inspector and director in 1922, and died at the age of 63 on 18 April 1932 at Sandycove, Co. Dublin. He did make a brief return visit to Tullamore in 1928, but it was all a long way from the heady days of February 1918 when he met Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne MacBride at Tullamore railway station. That must have been the first visit of Master Sean MacBride to Tullamore. They had come as guests to see Russell’s play ‘An island behind and island’. What would they say now in the Brexit era?
Much talent was lost to Ireland and to Offaly in the post 1920 period and the ‘brief lives’ project, for now focusing on the Revolutionary Period, will help us to dig down and better understand the motivations and actions of the leaders of that time. The challenge will be to expand the project over time to include sportsmen, scientists and all who have made a singular contribution while applying the same standards as that with the DIB.
We always welcome contributions. Offaly Heritage 11 is available to purchase online from Offaly History and we deliver free in the 5k zone. We are now working on Offaly Heritage 12 for issue in November 2021.
PRO County Inspector’s reports for King’s County, 1910-21, CO 904/ Reel 68 Box 107, POS 8547, Sept. to Dec. 1918; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 2 Feb. 1918; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 19 Oct. and 26 Oct. 1918, 2 Oct and 9 Oct. 1920; Ir. Independent, 27 Sept. 1920; 20 Apr. 1932.