Charles Russell 1832-1900
A handsome bust in the foyer of our Town Hall commemorates one of Newry’s most famous sons, Charles Russell, the only ever Irish Catholic to become Lord Chief Justice of England.
Charles Russell was born on 10 November 1832 to Margaret (nee Mullan) and Arthur Russell of Ballybot in Newry’s west end. His was a very religious family: an uncle was president of Maynooth College; all four sisters became Mercy nuns and an only brother a Jesuit priest.
Charles was educated at St Malachy’s, Belfast and St Vincent’s, Castleknock, Dublin. He became an apprentice solicitor at Newry and Belfast (1848-54) before making a name for himself in the defence of Cushendall Catholics charged with assaulting Protestant missionaries.
Russell studied law at Trinity College Dublin and Lincoln‘s Inn, from where he was called to the English bar (the northern circuit in Ireland was Protestant dominated!). Russell worked as a barrister in Liverpool and the north of England where he impressed juries with his bluntness and his great physical presence.
After two unsuccessful attempts he was elected Liberal M.P. for Dundalk (1880) and later, on the abolition of his borough constituency, M.P. for Hackney (1885-94).
Russell had been a youthful admirer of John Mitchel and he remained a nationalist who believed in Irish self-government. But he also came to believe in the greatness of the British empire and the part that Irishmen played in ruling it.
Attorney-General for England under Gladstone (1886 and 1892) he showed his skills as advocate in the Bering Sea arbitration.
But his greatest triumph was when he showed that the letters published by The Times, implicating Parnell in condoning the murder of Chief Secretary Cavendish and his under-secretary Burke by assassins in Phoenix Park, had been forged by Richard Pigott (proved by Pigott’s inability to spell ‘hesitancy’).
In 1894 Gladstone made Russell Lord of Appeal and in 1895 Lord Chief Justice. He was unable to bestow the Chancellorship upon him because he was a Catholic.
As Lord Chief Justice, Russell of Killowen was able and efficient but was not long enough in office to make a lasting impact.
He died in London on 10 August 1900 fortified by the rites of the Catholic Church that he loved and in the company of his wife and numerous children.