George Russell (AE): litrary witness to history, a talk at the National Library of Ireland, 10 April 2017
Introduction: I want to thank Sandra Collins and her staff at this wonderful institution for the invitation to speak here this evening. I have been a regular reader at the National Library over the years and always enjoy coming here and using its iconic Reading Room. Over the decades representing Ireland around the world, I have routinely called on my knowledge of Irish history and literature as a means of profiling Ireland and promoting an understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from. I have spoken on those topics in various countries where I have served and it is a particular pleasure to address an Irish literary-historical topic here in our own National Library.
I have come here this evening out of a conviction that the 150th anniversary of the birth of George William Russell (AE), who was born in Lurgan on the 10th of April 1867, should not pass without proper attention being paid to it. This is because Russell was a significant figure in Ireland during the first third of the 20th century, as a cultural nationalist, an advocate of agricultural cooperation, an occasional political pamphleteer on national issues and a dedicated editor of two influential weekly publications, the Irish Homestead and the Irish Statesman. His reputation has suffered, I think, from being a contemporary of, and thus overshadowed by, W.B. Yeats, but there are very few writers who would not pale in comparison with that great master of the late-romantic lyric and 20th century elegy.
I have maintained an interest in George Russell's life and work for many years and this has been rekindled in recent years as the centenary of events in Irish history in which AE was involved encouraged me to dip back into the MA thesis I wrote on him at UCC in the 1970s. My interest in AE began in 1975 when I had just finished my BA and was looking for a possible topic for an MA thesis in Irish history. As I had studied History and English as an undergraduate, I began thinking about the overlap between the two subjects in late-19th and early-20th century Ireland, and naturally the life and work of WB Yeats came into focus.
When I started to explore Yeats's complex relationship with Ireland which runs through so many of his great poems, I soon came across the bearded figure of George Russell nestling in Yeats's literary shadow. Initially, I probably saw him as Joyce depicts him in Ulysses, as a writer of 'dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic' verse, qualities jokingly attributed to AE's vegetarianism producing poetic 'waves in the brain'.
AE’s mysticism: George Russell was first and foremost a mystic. Everything else in his life derived from this fundamental part of his character. In an early letter, written when he was just 19 years of age, he explained his visionary outlook. 'There are', he wrote, 'men who, by continual contemplation of spiritual things, have half withdrawn their souls from the earth into the hereafter.' Such people, and AE clearly saw himself as one of them, chance on what seem to their fellow men to be 'the highest truths.' Elsewhere, he wrote that 'only the imagination kindled at the inner shrine can realise the truth.'
As a member of the Theosophical Society, one of the new age religions of the late-19th century, he strove to draw 'the soul of humanity towards its Higher Self.' Thus AE's spiritual outlook was perhaps more exotic even than Yeats's but also, I would say, more genuine. AE's mysticism was a constant feature in his life. He believed that by communing with the natural world he could obtain a higher form of knowledge and awareness. This mystical outlook also shaped AE's poetry and ultimately his engagement with Ireland.
AE’s poetry: AE's poetry is of its time, late-romantic lyric poetry with a mystical flourish. Here is an early example of his verse.
When the breath of twilight blows to flame the misty skies,
All its vaporous sapphire, violet glow and silver gleam
With their magic flood me through the gateway of the eyes;
I am one with the twilight's dream.
Aye, and deep and deep and deeper let me drink and draw
From the olden fountain more than light or peace or dream,
Such primeval being as o'erflows the heart with awe,
Growing one with its silent stream.
AE saw the role of poetry as 'the revelation of great mysteries in unnoticed things' and he pursued those mysteries throughout his life as a poet, his preoccupations reflecting themselves in the titles of his collections, The Earth Breath, The Divine Vision and Voices of the Stones. This consistency of intention means that his voice does not change as Yeats's does and his later poems have the same air as his early writing. Here is an example from his later work.
Out of a timeless world
Shadows fall upon Time,
From a beauty older than earth
A ladder the soul may climb.
I climb by the phantom stair
To a whiteness older than Time.
The cultural nationalist: His early essays with their semi-mystical fervour for Ireland's ancient fires and their contemporary reawakening echo the kind of sentiments that run through his poetry. Like his friend Willie (they met at art school in Dublin in the mid-1880s), AE saw a clear connection between literature and nationality. In his essay 'Nationality and Cosmopolitanism in Literature' published in 1898, AE argued that a country's literature 'is forever creating a new soul among its people'. He argued that: 'To reveal Ireland in clear and beautiful light, to create the Ireland in the heart, is the province of national literature.' An individual nationality derives, in AE's view, from 'the profound conviction that its peculiar ideal is nobler than that which the cosmopolitan spirit suggests.'
With thoughts like these, AE was fully in tune with the Irish zeitgeist of the late 19th century. The mystic in him wrote that 'the Gods have returned to Erin and have centred themselves in the sacred mountains and blow the fires throughout the country'. He was in many ways a classic cultural nationalist, someone who detected a special spirit in Ireland's distant past, one that he believed retained its relevance amid the rampant materialism of the modern world. He was ambitious for Ireland and its potential. 'Out of Ireland', he predicted, 'will arise a light to transform many ages and peoples.' AE worked alongside Yeats in the Irish National Theatre Society and its successor the Abbey Theatre, but the two later fell out over the management of the theatre.
The agricultural co-operator: AE's life changed in 1897 when he was recommended to Horace Plunkett who was looking for banks' organisers for the fledgling cooperative movement. AE, who proved himself to have a strong practical streak alongside his airy mysticism, travelled around the west of Ireland promoting the virtues of agricultural cooperation to local communities. He was appalled by the conditions he encountered, which he considered 'a disgrace to humanity'. The economic distress he witnessed in what he called 'this wild country' left him in a melancholy mood, but it also inspired his fierce, lifelong commitment to agricultural cooperation as a means for redressing Ireland's economic ills. His travels also brought him to places where he felt the atmosphere 'so thick with faerys that you draw them in with every breath.' His belief in fairies, and his copious array of facial hair, led the combative editor of The Leader, D.P. Moran, to nickname AE 'the hairy fairy.'
My interest in George Russell deepened considerably when I came across his writings in the Irish Homestead which he edited between 1905 and 1923. It made me realise that here was a man who was not just a poet, painter and romantic nationalist, but someone who engaged with unique intensity and persistence in the public life of Ireland at a critical period in our country's development.
No other writer of literary merit could match AE's record. Yeats, for example, spent most of his life viewing Ireland from the outside, only basing himself in Ireland during the 1920s when took up his Senate seat. AE on the other hand rarely left Ireland until his last years, taking his holidays each year in Donegal. For 25 years, he was tied of his editorial chair in Merrion Square, churning out an astounding quantity of high-quality journalism on an astonishing range of topics, mainly of an economic and agricultural character.
My favourite example of AE's Irish Homestead journalism, and there many such unpoetic examples, is a column he wrote in 1919 on 'The Organisation of the Dressed Meat Trade'. It is impossible to imagine WB Yeats, who was a prolific contributor of occasional pieces to newspapers and journals, addressing such a humdrum topic. Yeats's poetic persona was always to the fore however incidental an easy he might be writing. It was not so with AE who immersed himself in the detail of some highly unprepossessing topics - Cooperative Purchase of Plants, Marketing of Fruit, Milk Drying, The Butter Situation etc,
When we look into his essay on dressed meat, what we find is an interesting piece of economic analysis from the perspective of a convinced advocate of agricultural cooperation. It is an argument against the export of live animals and in favour of slaughtering and meat processing in Ireland to the benefit of jobs and prosperity at home. In fact, this is precisely how the modern Irish food industry operates, where adding value in Ireland is the key to its success.
AE's essay also argued for national and democratic control over Irish industries and for resistance to the influence of what were then called trusts. Nor did he have much faith in Irish capitalists who, given a sufficiently tempting offer, would in his view 'fall to it like a salmon to the fly of the fisherman.'
Mundane subjects were not the sole focus of his journalism and he did address the big issues of the day, for example in an August 1915 editorial which combines a pessimism, understandable in the thick of World War 1, about 'a future full of menace' with his ultimate belief in 'spiritual forces and their final conquest of the world.' Many of his arguments in the Homestead preached the virtues of economic self-reliance. Although he was often at loggerheads with D.P. Moran, who believed Irish identity to be conditioned by Catholicism and the Irish language, their economic policy preferences actually had much in common,
AE during Ireland’s turbulent decade: AE came into his own as a public figure during the second and third decades of the 20th century, drawn into the political sphere as he was by the turbulent events of that period when Ireland experienced a political transformation. In 1912, he crossed swords with Rudyard Kipling, whose poem 'Ulster' with its advocacy of the unionist case in opposition to Home Rule drew from AE a stinging public rebuke and a heartfelt testimony of the tolerance he had encountered among his Catholic countrymen despite his own exotic religious preferences. Travelling in the west of Ireland as a cooperative organiser, he had come across many members of the Catholic clergy whom he had found to be congenial company. His attitudes towards the Catholic Church would change, become more hostile, as its influence began to be felt in the public sphere in the Ireland of the 1920s
In 1913, Russell took a considerable risk by publicly identifying with Dublin’s workers during that year’s Lock-Out. He spoke and wrote passionately in their defence and bravely took aim at some of the most influential elements in Irish society - Dublin's employers, the Catholic hierarchy and the Irish Parliamentary Party. He considered that the poverty of Dublin's workers was making 'industrial civilisation stir like a quaking bog' and warned the city's employers that 'democratic power' would ultimately wrest control of industry from them.
One effect of his support for Dublin's workers was the admiration he developed for James Connolly. AE saw potential overlaps between Connolly's urban socialism and his own ideals for rural Ireland. He referred to Connolly as
.. my man
Who cast the last torch on the pile
and sought to help Connolly's widow to emigrate to America in the period after her husband's execution in 1916
Russell believed that the roots of the Easter Rising lay in the grievances of Dublin's poor. He viewed the Rising as 'one of the most tragic episodes in Irish history' and, while admiring the willingness of the leaders to sacrifice themselves in pursuit of an ideal, he also worried about its destructive impact on Ireland's economic prospects which he had laboured to promote under the aegis of the cooperative movement. He continued to believe that cooperation could permit Irish people from different political traditions 'to meet and unite in an economic brotherhood.'
In the Rising's aftermath, he was an unrelenting in his pursuit of ways in which Ireland's divisions could be healed. That same year he published The National Being, his most extended piece of political writing in which he set out his blueprint for a cooperative commonwealth and the building of a distinctive Irish civilisation. Ireland, he argued, needed fewer men of action and more scholars, economists, and thinkers whose ideas could 'populate the desert depths of national consciousness.' He insisted on the need to spread national ideals 'in wide commonality over Ireland if we are to create a civilisation worthy of our hopes and our ages of struggle and sacrifice.' 1916 was probably not the best of times to be offering such a studied analysis of Ireland's economic and social needs and opportunities. On a recent visit to Wales, I discovered that AE's ideas were popular among early 20th century Welsh nationalists and that The National Being was translated into Welsh.
In the wake of the Rising, AE was perceptive in detecting the emergence of a new politics that derived its power not from a sense of grievance but from 'the growing self-consciousness of nationality.' His views became increasingly aligned with advanced nationalism, yet the pacifist in him fretted that recourse to violence could militate against the kind of orderly society to which he aspired.
In June 1916, he wrote to British Minister, Arthur Balfour, arguing that any settlement that excludes Ulster would fail to satisfy 'the Ireland that has created so many Imperial difficulties.' Perceptively, he warned Balfour that John Redmond could no longer gauge the mood of the new generation. AE proposed a scheme of self-government for Ireland coupled with a House of Lords equipped with veto powers in order to reassure Ulster unionists. Balfour was an unusual choice for AE to approach in that, although he undoubtedly knew Ireland well, his record meant that he was not held in high regard by Irish nationalists.
In July 1917, he accepted an invitation to join the Irish Convention, set up by the British Government in an effort to forge an agreed settlement. AE was included because of his capacity, in the absence Sinn Fein who boycotted the Convention, to reflect the views of those who wanted outright independence rather than the Home Rule settlement that was on offer. With characteristic optimism, AE strove to craft compromise proposals for an all-Ireland dominion with autonomy for Ulster and maintenance of the imperial connection. From his point of view, the key requirement was that taxation and trade policy should be controlled from Ireland. The proposals he championed commanded wide support, including from Archbishop William Walsh and his old 1913 adversary, business leader, William Martin Murphy, but could not bridge Ireland's deep nationalist/unionist divide.
In December 1917, he made an impassioned plea for national unity, believing that 'there is but one powerful Irish character - not Celtic or Norman-Saxon, but a new race.' Irish enmities were perpetuated, he thought, because 'we live by memory more than by hope.' Ireland's 'animosities, based on past history' had, he insisted, 'little justification', and he backed this argument up with his most ambitious public poem, 'To the memory of some I knew who are dead and who loved Ireland'. Its outstanding feature is its inclusiveness in that this work pays tribute not only to 1916 leaders, Pearse ('your dream not mine'), MacDonagh ('high words were equalled by high fate') and Connolly ('the hope lives on age after age, /Earth in its beauty might be won/For labour as a heritage'), but also to three others who died on the Western Front, Alan Anderson ('thought of some thing for Ireland done'), Tom Kettle ('of the generous heart') and Willie Redmond ('you too, had Ireland in your care'). His concluding stanza recalls 'the confluence of dreams'
That clashed together in our night
One river, born from many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.
AE’s poem, written initially as an elegy on the Easter Rising, was part of a deliberate effort to build bridges between different political traditions in Ireland. His net point was that 'there is moral equality where there is equal sacrifice'. He confessed that he wrote the poem in its finished form 'in the hope that the deeds of all may in the future be a matter of pride to the new nation.' I would say that this aspiration of AE's has broadly been realised in recent years with the willingness of nationalist Ireland to recognise the strand of our history that runs through the battlefields of the First World War.
A disenchanted AE resigned from the Convention in February 1918 when it became clear to him that an agreed settlement was no longer achievable. His resignation letter concluded with the unambiguous statement that 'a man must be either an Irishman or an Englishman in this matter. I am Irish.' Nonetheless, he continued to press the case for moderation and compromise, in pursuit of which he had a number of meetings with the Prime Minister, Lloyd George.
Editor of the Irish Statesman: The emergence of the Irish Free State filled him with a mix of excitement and foreboding on account of the bitter legacy left by the civil war. Rejecting an offer of a seat in the Irish Senate, Russell set out as editor of the Irish Statesman to foster an informed public opinion in Ireland. This was probably his most important contribution to Ireland's public life. For seven years, he produced what was arguably the highest-quality in 20th century Ireland.
In his first Statesman editorial, AE worried that the promise of independence might be stymied by the bitterness engendered by the civil war and insisted that, if Ireland was to succeed, 'we must recall to memory those ideals which made Ireland in pre-war days so intellectually interesting to ourselves and to other nations.' In fact, the paper he produced was notable for its willingness to subordinate the idealism of the past to the pragmatic needs of the newly independent state. His focus was on practical issues that could improve independent Ireland's social, economic and cultural fabric.
While generally supportive of the Cumann na nGaedhael Government, the Statesman gave space to both sides of independent Ireland's political divide and was willing to criticise the government, for example for its extended incarceration of republican prisoners and what he saw as its excessive reliance on public safety acts.
AE is a good example of the progressive disillusionment that set in after independence. He was sharply critical of those who had 'poisoned the soul of Ireland' and displayed a 'one dimensional mentality'. Throughout the 1920s, he hammered away at the need to transcend political divisions and to prioritise economic development.
The Statesman also allowed AE to indulge his flair for literary patronage. Over the years, he provided support and encouragement to James Joyce, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, Austin Clarke, Frank O'Connor, Seán O'Faoláin, Liam O'Flaherty and Patrick Kavanagh who remembered AE's kindness thus: 'I think he himself was a great work'. Kavanagh had not met Yeats but thought AE 'a much holier man', a man of 'virtue, goodness'. Only Seán O'Casey took a dislike to AE dismissing him as Dublin's 'glittering guy', 'the fairest and brightest humbug Dublin has.' But the acerbic O’Casey was alone in his scorn for even George Moore, who had a relish for literary putdowns, let AE off lightly.
The turning point in Russell's engagement with independent Ireland came with the imposition of literary censorship, which he resolutely opposed. It was in his eyes a sign of 'moral infantilism'. 'Moralists on the scent of evil' would, he thought, 'perpetrate any villainy in the name of God.' Censorship would give power to its exponents 'to interfere with the intellectual life of the country.'
In his later years, his disappointment with Ireland intensified and his views became less temperate than they had been during his journalistic prime. In 1932, he wrote several public letters in defence of the Irish Academy of Letters on whose setting up he worked closely with Yeats. The Academy was criticised by a number of Catholic clergyman and AE leapt to its defence, insisting that the Academy would have 'its own moral code'. He dismissed its critics with a statement of Yeats-like imperiousness to the effect that 'the judgement of the few who read and think .. is the only judgement that counts.' He departed for England in 1933 and died in Bournemouth in 1935, but not before he had enjoyed a late flowering in the United States where his ideas about rural civilisation gained some prominent adherents including future Agriculture Secretary and US Vice-President, Henry Wallace. On his last visit to the US in January 1935, AE had lunch at the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt
Conclusion: George Russell enriched Ireland's literary and intellectual life during those momentous decades of turbulence and transformation. A left-leaning AE never embraced the aristocratic, authoritarian nationalism of Yeats’s later years and nor did he subscribe to his friend's enchantment with the Anglo Irish tradition. His preference was for 'the wedding of Gaelic to world culture' without which 'Ireland would not be a nation but a parish.'
AE was, in the words of a 1979 Irish Times editorial 'a great but gentle dissenter.' In a poem entitled 'On behalf of some Irishmen not followers of tradition', he set out his own Irish credo:
We would no Irish sign efface,
But yet our lips would gladlier hail
The firstborn of the Coming Race
Than the last splendour of the Gael,
No blazoned banner we unfold -
One charge alone we give to youth,
Against the sceptred myth to hold
The golden heresy of truth.
There was a real need for AE's literary gifts and his sober arguments when modern Ireland was being pieced together in the decades before and after independence. A.E.I.O.U.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London. He has maintained a lifelong interest in the life and work of George Russell (AE) and contributed a biographical afterword to a new edition of AE’s Selected Poems, published by the Swan River Press in 2017.