Posted: 31st March 2014

The exotically named (and eccentric) Comte Henry Patrick Marie Russell-Killough (OC 1852), one of our more intriguing Old Clongownians, came from a long lineage associated with Killough Castle in Co Down and was known as the Baron of Ulster. Russell spent several years of his early adulthood travelling extensively around the world before returning to France and devoting the remainder of his life to the exploration of the Pyrenees. Russell was not only a climber of high mountains, but also a teller of tall tales and on one occasion claimed that, while he was in Siberia, the temperatures were so low that he was obliged to consume his brandy with a knife…

Henry’s father, Thomas John Russell, left Ireland for France when he was 22, fleeing the oppression of Catholics. Henry was born in Toulouse on St Valentine’s Day 1834 but his family retained their connection to Ireland, travelling frequently to and from their ancestral lands in south Down. By the time Henry was born, Killough Castle was in ruins but the family held on to their territory until the end of the 19th century, when they settled in Dublin. The young Henry was educated at Clongowes Wood College and later studied chemistry at Dublin University. His family often returned to the Pyrenees and he grew up bilingual.

Henry made regular trips to the west of Ireland, where he fell in love with the wild landscape and developed a love of mountain grandeur. Although a member of the Alpine Club he didn’t like the Alps, saying they inspired terror and the Pyrenees tenderness and spent his time and energies there instead. He is credited with 32 first ascents in the area, five of which were solo efforts, and climbed many other peaks but none so often as the Vignemale (above), near Lourdes, which he ascended no less than 33 times. Besotted with the mountain he had three grottos built near the top – one for dining, one for sleeping and the third in case a lady should come to call. Here he entertained friends to lavish dinner parties and frequently spent the night – insisting that his guests get up at dawn to see the sunrise and rewarding them with punch.

An indefatigable walker, Russell was called “le plus grand marcheur du monde” and – by a pun on his title – as Count Killowmetre. He eventually bought the land that included the peak and, on his death in 1909, bequeathed it to the local section of the French Alpine Club, which became the only such body in the world to own its own mountain.

Russell also helped to found the Club Alpin Francaise and initiated the building of mountain refuges in the area, including one near Cauterets (above), which bears his name. Russell, dubbed ‘the man who married a mountain’ by his biographer, Rosemary Bailey, is well remembered throughout the Pyrenees and is buried in Pau, close to the Vignemale, a mountain about which he once declared: “She will be my spouse.”

Mr Declan O’Keeffe, Head of Communications

Declan O’Keeffe is a mountaineer and historian, the editor of the Journal of the Irish Mountaineering and Exploration Historical Society and a former President of Mountaineering Ireland. He has recently completed a Masters in Irish History in UCD and is currently conducting research into aspects of the history of Irish mountaineering.

If you wish to learn more about the history of Irish Victorian Mountaineers, he will be addressing Celbridge Historical Society on Monday next, 7th April 2014 20:00 in Kildrought House, Main Street, Celbridge. We are reliably informed that places are quite limited and that – although admission is free – advance booking is essential. Email celbridgelocalhistory@gmail.com or call/text 087 2844279)

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