George Russell and the new Ireland, 1905–30

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Nicholas Allen
(Four Courts Press, E45)
ISBN 18518269

George Russell (Æ) is an elusive figure. He is acknowledged as one of the great names of the Irish Literary Revival, but scholars have found it hard to recapture his contemporary impact. Russell is remembered primarily as the ‘saint’ who failed to develop artistically, who through his work for Sir Horace Plunkett’s cooperative movement and his editorial labours on the Irish Homestead (1905–22) and Irish Statesman (1922–30) sacrificed art to perfect life, while Yeats, the arrogant magician, chose the opposite path. Nicholas Allen comes closer than any previous critic to capturing Æ’s achievement, calling him a ‘master of the fleeting argument’ whose greatest work lay in his fugitive journalism.
The book’s focus is primarily on Æ’s post-1913 activities; it could, perhaps, have done with paying a little more attention to Æ’s response to Edwardian politics. (For example, Allen’s view of Æ’s political allegiances as shifting between right and left in pursuit of a central vision might be enhanced by looking for his views—if any—on Plunkett’s pre-war involvement with Tory ‘social imperialists’, who promoted cooperation in Britain as a means of defending private property while restraining laissez-faire.) Nevertheless, this contextual approach works marvellously well in practice. Works like The national being and The candle of vision, which seem platitudinous when taken in isolation, regain their significance as political interventions at particular points in the rapidly changing circumstances of revolutionary Ireland. Allen’s sensitivity to historical context extends to pointing out that while the original publication of Æ’s sonnet on Terence MacSwiney in 1920 represents an endorsement of the revolutionary movement, its re-publication in an unchanged text in 1925 implied that Æ’s own cultural and political vision of the Irish Free State, rather than the intransigent republicanism of Mary MacSwiney, was the true inheritor of MacSwiney’s idealism.
Allen sees Æ’s life as bound together by a search for cultural unity, inspired by the pseudo-scientific framework of theosophy which gave shape and meaning to the troubled adolescent Russell. Æ hoped that new social and scientific developments would overcome the social and intellectual fragmentation of the nineteenth century; he was keenly interested in new developments in physics, which promised a shift away from Newtonian mechanism. Allen shows Æ defending the Anglo-Irish tradition by reference to the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who claimed that civilisations rise and fall in a cyclical pattern, with revivals occurring when an exhausted race mingles with newcomers. (Did Æ perceive affinities with the theosophist belief in successive ‘root races’?) Allen points out that the self-conscious modernity of Irish Revival ruralism has been underestimated in retrospect. Revival artists drew on the nineteenth-century French equation of scenes of rural life with ‘modern’ naturalism as distinct from French conservatives’ preference for historical and religious painting. (The equivalent ‘other’ in an Irish context would be the classicists of Trinity College and the Tory journalists of the 1880s Evening Mail, who complained that the civilisation and property of Ireland were sacrificed to a ‘mud-hut franchise’.)
Allen moves away from the ‘Whiggish’ historiography where Revival authors defend light and liberty against undifferentiated barbarians. Allen conveys Æ’s achievement as enabler of intellect and nurse of talent, but notes its darker side. Russell’s pantheism accommodated glorification of revolt as manifestation of the Divine in 1913–21 and of authoritarianism as creating a unified ‘national being’ in 1922–30. Æ’s legitimate defence of the Anglo-Irish tradition against crude nativism was sometimes tinged with élitism and eugenicism. His incessant concern with keeping Ireland open to European modernity extended to some very undesirable European trends. Russell’s pre-war praise for the cooperative commonwealth of guild socialism, syndicalism and Kropotkinian anarchism mutated into guarded endorsement of the fascist corporate state; his sympathy for the strikers in the 1913–14 Dublin lockout was not extended to strikers who obstructed the Shannon scheme.
The Irish Statesman appears not as a detached product of ‘Anglo-Irish civilisation’ but as reflecting Russell’s belief that artists could literally become unacknowledged legislators by inspiring government and business élites, and that retrospectively presenting the artistic revival as inspiration for the revolution (which Allen shows as considerably simplifying Æ’s earlier political responses) underpinned claims for literati as guardians of the new Free State. (Allen reveals the considerable political skills displayed in Æ’s opposition to 1928 censorship legislation.) The cultural debates of the 1920s are no longer seen as a straightforward conflict between the Catholic Bulletin and the Irish Statesman. (This view reflected the self-promotion of the Bulletin’s moving spirit, Fr Timothy Corcoran, who incidentally denounced Cardinal Newman as un-Catholic.) Instead, Allen presents Æ as engaged with a variety of critical voices, from labour and republican journalists to the nationalist Cork highbrows of the short-lived Irish Tribune and the angry young modernists of Klaxon and To-Morrow. Allen’s own knowledge of these debates is impressive; the participants were often parochial but their criticisms were by no means insubstantial. The Æ of the 1920s unexpectedly resembles the later Yeats, with even more far-reaching aesthetic ambitions; Allen suggests that Æ muffled his poetic voice because he sought a unifying idiom to remake the nation in his own image.
Despite its merits, the book could have been improved by editorial work and minimal fact-checking. Several minor errors are distressing in a book that traces with such insight the webs of personal contacts and exchanges constituting the intellectual and political life of early twentieth-century Ireland. Æ is described (p.11) as attending Lurgan Model School from 1867 (the year of his birth). The William O’Brien who wrote for the Irish Tribune was not the trade unionist but the former Home Rule MP (p.198). Sir Nugent Everard was not simply a ‘retired soldier’ (p.80); he was a liberal Unionist, actively involved in Irish industrial development and repeatedly co-opted by nationalist-dominated Meath County Council. John J. Horgan was not a Unionist (p.192) but a Redmondite. Hugh Law TD, who befriended Æ and criticised censorship legislation in 1928, was not the son of the Hugh Law MP who sat on a parliamentary committee discussing theatre censorship in 1909–10 (p.213); they were the same person. Æ’s fascination with airplanes and flight was not an individual idiosyncracy but a widespread preoccupation of the interwar years.
In some places sensitivity to subtexts could have brought additional insights. Æ’s bitter comment on the Eucharistic Congress (p.235) implicitly compares the participants to the priests of Baal who opposed the prophet Elijah. Allen discusses at some length the characterisation of the labour leader Culain in Æ’s 1922 novel The interpreters (whose place in Russell’s political development Allen treats perceptively) without recognising Culain as Larkin.
Perhaps more can be said for Æ’s defences of the 1920s Free State government than Allen acknowledges. Can that government’s excesses be so easily condemned without reference to the misdeeds of the Republicans, as Allen suggests? Is the modern emphasis on ‘human capital’ so far from Æ’s belief in culture as driving force? Allen ends, nevertheless, by recognising Æ not only as a man of his time but as a participant in a continuing struggle for open debate and social engagement. All careers, and all books, have their limitations; like its subject, this vigorous, untidy book stimulates more debates than it resolves.
Patrick Maume


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