Friday, 2 January 2009

Russell: the great Ulster Catholic Lord Chief Justice of England

Sir Charles Arthur Russell GCMG QC, later Baron Russell of Killowen, 1832-1900, was a famous barrister, judge and statesman who became Lord Chief Justice of England.

He was also an Ulster Roman Catholic.

In fact, he was the first Roman Catholic Lord Chief Justice of England since the Protestant Reformation.

He is yet another example of why it is unwise to generalise about relations between England and Ireland – as, alas, far too many unschooled and foolish people do, today more than ever.

The historical truth is always more interesting than the coarse prejudice of small-minded bigots such as exist in large numbers in both the Sinn Fein/IRA/Nationalist camp as much as the Orangeman/Ulster Protestant/Unionist camp.

A plague on bigots in either camp!

Let history, instead, tell us the truth and let us begin with the inspiring story of Charles Russell.

Russell was the elder son of Arthur Russell and Margaret Mullin, and was born in Newry, County Down. The family were not rich, their ancestors having suffered considerably for their Roman Catholic faith in the preceding two centuries.

Arthur Russell died in 1845, but Russell’s uncle, the celebrated Dr. Russell of Maynooth, came to the aid of the family.

Russell studied first at the diocesan seminary, St Malachy's College, Belfast, and later at Castleknock College, Dublin. He chose the law as his career and was articled to a firm of solicitors in Newry and later Belfast.

Admitted solicitor in 1854, he soon became the champion of Catholics who had resisted organized attempts at proselytizing by Protestants in Down and Antrim where he was so strikingly successful that he was urged to, and did, become a barrister in London being called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1859. He was equally successful there and became Queen’s Counsel in 1872 commanding considerable fees for his work in the mercantile suits on the Northern Circuit.

He gained a high reputation as an advocate exhibiting a great skill and dexterity in drawing the truth out of a witness and, at the same time, demonstrating a manifest honesty of purpose which won him the trust of judge and jury alike.

He was universally regarded as the first advocate of his age.

Although an Irish Nationalist, Russell later entered Parliament in 1880 as a Liberal but siding with the Irish Nationalists on many Irish, and all Catholic, questions. In 1885 he was elected MP for South Hackney, was appointed Attorney-General by Gladstone and knighted.

He was ever a political advocate for a devolved Parliament for Ireland under the Crown. This was the meaning of “Home Rule” not, as some ill-informed modern commentators falsely suppose, a republican separatist agenda. Home Rule advocates were loyal to the Crown and were no separatists, still less revolutionaries.

Russell famously became a leading advocate for Charles Stewart Parnell MP, the leader of the Irish Nationalists in the British House of Commons, at the Parnell Commission of 1888. This was set up to investigate claims made that a facsimile letter published in The Times newspaper and expressing some support for the Phoenix Park murderers who assassinated the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Under-Secretary, Mr Thomas Burke, was written by Parnell.

Charles Stewart Parnell MP, the parliamentary leader of the Irish Nationalists

Russell’s brilliant cross-examination of Richard Piggott exposed him as the forger of the letter and so secured a complete exoneration of Parnell and the complete embarrassment of The Times and those Unionists who had allowed themselves to be taken in by the forgery.

Russell was appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary (“Law Lord”) in 1894, being raised to the peerage under the title Baron Russell of Killowen, the latter being his native town in Co Down. In the same year he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic to attain that office for centuries.

He died in 1900, fortified by the Sacraments of Holy Church, of which he had always remained a full and faithful member, full of years and honours, duly and well merited.


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