George Russell—a literary witness to Irish history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Volume 25

On the 150th anniversary of the birth of the poet, painter, mystic and advocate of agricultural cooperation.

By Daniel Mulhall

George Russell (AE), who was born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, on 10 April 1867, was a man of many parts, but it is his value as a witness to Irish history that has always drawn me to him. Russell’s record as an observer of Ireland in the period between the 1890s and the 1930s is unmatched by any other writer of literary merit. Whereas Russell’s lifelong friend W.B. Yeats spent much of his life watching his native land from outside, until the last years of his life AE only rarely left Ireland.

Russell and Yeats
When Yeats first met him at Art College in Dublin, Russell was an unworldly figure, preoccupied with the mystical visions about which he wrote and painted. He enthused about ‘the awakening of the ancient fires’ in modern Ireland and wrote that ‘the gods have returned to Erin and have centred themselves in the sacred mountains and blow the fires throughout the country’.

Yeats changed AE’s life in 1897 by recommending him to Horace Plunkett, who was seeking organisers for the fledgling cooperative movement. AE, who proved himself to have a strong practical streak alongside his airy mysticism, took to his bicycle and travelled around rural Ireland promoting the virtues of agricultural cooperation.

The Irish Homestead
In 1905 he was appointed editor of the movement’s weekly journal, The Irish Homestead, and so began a quarter of a century of weekly journalism, which came to an end in 1930 when the Homestead’s successor, The Irish Statesman, went out of business. During that eventful quarter of a century AE became an accomplished journalist, an energetic editor and a political commentator of some consequence.

In The Irish Homestead Russell addressed a wide range of subjects, from Celtic mythology to animal husbandry. He undertook a sustained effort to analyse Ireland’s condition and set out an ambitious vision for its economic and social evolution, based on the principles of cooperation. He worked with Yeats and Lady Gregory in founding the Abbey Theatre in 1904, but he fell out with Yeats over the management of the new theatre. While Yeats drifted towards a haughty, aristocratic brand of nationalism, AE’s more democratic instincts took him in a different direction. During the 1913 Lockout he was sympathetic to the plight of Dublin’s workers and spoke out vigorously on their behalf. He believed that urban poverty was making ‘industrial civilisation stir like a quaking bog’, and warned Dublin’s employers that ‘democratic power’ would ultimately wrest control of industry from them.

1916

Above: W.B. Yeats—changed AE’s life in 1897 by recommending him to Horace Plunkett, who was seeking organisers for the fledgling cooperative movement. (NGI)

Russell came into his own as a political commentator in the years following the Easter Rising. Like most others, the Rising took him by surprise. Since 1913 he had grown close to James Connolly and considered the causes of the Rising to be essentially economic. His ideas about the creation of a cooperative commonwealth were set out at length in his most elaborate piece of political writing, The national being, which was published just months after the 1916 Rising, by which time his measured analysis of Ireland’s prospects was no longer in tune with the Zeitgeist. He fretted that the ‘revolutionary spirit’ unleashed in Ireland might not be backed by the ‘intellectual and moral qualities’ required to bring about genuine political change.

Events in Ireland drew AE more and more into the political arena and he sought to conjure up compromise solutions to Ireland’s deepening divisions. In June 1916 he wrote to British cabinet minister Arthur Balfour, proposing what he called ‘colonial self-government’ for the whole of Ireland but with a House of Lords vested with veto powers in order to reassure Ulster unionists. In December 1917 he published a passionate appeal against the division of Ireland. With characteristic even-handedness, he argued that neither nationalist nor unionist could claim moral superiority ‘for the dead champions of their causes’. While he rejected ‘extreme methods’, he detected the emergence in Ireland of ‘a disinterested nationalism’ based on ‘the growing self-consciousness of nationality’ rather than on economic grievance.

Above: Portrait of AE (George W. Russell) (1867–1935), Poet, 1903, by John Butler Yeats. (NGI)

His most notable public poem, ‘To the memory of some I knew who are dead and who loved Ireland’, cannot stand comparison with Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’, but it is remarkable in its inclusiveness. It pays tribute to 1916 leaders Pearse, MacDonagh, Markievicz and Connolly (‘my man’, as he calls him), and to three others who died on the Western Front, Alan Anderson, Tom Kettle and Willie Redmond. 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.

Such inclusiveness may be the norm today but that was not the case a century ago, and AE’s poem was part of a deliberate bid to build bridges between different political traditions in Ireland.

Irish Convention
In 1917 Russell was appointed to the Irish Convention, set up in an effort to reconcile nationalism and unionism, because of his ability to reflect the thinking of Sinn Féin, which had refused to participate in the Convention. He threw himself into the work of the Convention, and made a series of detailed proposals reflecting what he termed ‘ecumenical Irish nationalism’, which he argued would combine the economic craft of the Ulster unionists with the cultural vibrancy of the rest of Ireland. AE’s ideas garnered considerable support within the Convention, but he resigned his position when he lost faith in its capacity to produce consensual solutions.

Above: A Spirit or Sidhe in a Landscape by AE, part of a series of murals painted for a room in Plunkett House, 84 Merrion Square, Dublin. (NGI)

Disillusionment after independence
While he was relieved when the War of Independence came to an end, the ‘abstract plane’ on which the Anglo-Irish Treaty was debated caused him great concern. Nevertheless, when he set out as editor of The Irish Statesman in 1923, AE was full of hope for Ireland’s future, even though he acknowledged the risk that the promise of independence might be difficult to fulfil in the aftermath of a bitter civil war.

‘It is only too often true in the life of nations as well as of individuals that the dream or hope which precedes action is nobler than the realisation. If we are not to fail to realise our best aspirations we must recall to memory those ideals which made Ireland in pre-war days so intellectually interesting to ourselves and to other nations.’

And so it turned out. AE is a good example of the progressive disillusionment that set in after independence. As the new state was taking root, AE produced a high-quality journal that broadly, but not uncritically, supported the Cumann na nGaedheal government. He made room in its pages for contributions from both sides of the Irish political divide. He was sharply critical of the republican movement, which he accused of having a ‘one-dimensional mentality’, and called for a ‘non-military Republicanism’ devoted to the achievement of economic, social and cultural goals.

Censorship

Above: AE in the late 1920s. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The introduction of literary censorship, which he dismissed as ‘moral infantilism’, shook AE’s faith in the new state’s prospects. It would, he thought, endanger the intellectual life of the country. In the early 1930s, he combined with Yeats to establish the Irish Academy of Letters and was active in its defence against those who saw its members as immoral and irreligious. A disillusioned AE left Ireland in 1933 and spent time in England and the United States, where he befriended Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary (1933–40) and future vice-president (1941–5). He died in Bournemouth in July 1935.

George Russell’s journey through life brought him into intensive contact with the public life of Ireland during three transformative decades. He made a number of important contributions to the Ireland of his time, as a cultural nationalist and as an intelligent advocate of moderate politics with an emphasis on its socio-economic dimension. Perhaps his most important role was as editor of The Irish Statesman, when he strove to steer the new state in a direction consistent with his ideals and the practical wisdom he had accumulated from his involvement in the Irish literary revival, the cooperative movement and the Irish Convention. It was no small thing for a country emerging from civil war to have a literary figure as dedicated as AE keeping watch.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington.

FURTHER READING
AE, The national being (Dublin, 1916).
N. Allen, George Russell (AE) and the New Ireland (Dublin, 2003).
D. Mulhall, ‘George Russell, D.P. Moran and Tom Kettle’, in E. Biagini & D. Mulhall (eds), The shaping of modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin, 2016).
H. Somerville, That myriad-minded man: a biography of George William Russell, AE, 1867–1935 (Gerrards Cross, 1975).

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