George William Russell 1867 - 1935
George William Russell, who wrote under the pseudonym AE, was born in William Street, Lurgan on 10 April 1867. He was an Irish nationalist, writer, editor, critic, poet, and painter. He was also a mystical writer, and at the centre of a group of followers of theosophy in Dublin, for many years.
His parents were Thomas Elias and Mary Anne (nee Armstrong) from Drumgor. Thomas was employed in the linen industry by Thomas Bell & Co. of Bellevue, Kilmore Road, Lurgan. The young George still not 4 years was enrolled at Lurgan Model School, and attended there for 7 years. During this time his parents moved house to the Gate Lodge at the entrance to Brownlow House, giving the young George freedom to ramble, play and dream in the demesne, for he was acutely sensitive to nature's beauty. Later he recalled that his first vision was at age 4, attributed to the daffodils around the lime trees in the demesne.
The family moved to Dublin in 1878 when he was eleven. He was educated at Rathmines School and the Metropolitan School of Art, where he began a lifelong friendship with William Butler Yeats. He started working as a draper's clerk, then worked many years for the Irish Agricultural Organization Society (IAOS), an agricultural co-operative movement founded by Horace Plunkett in 1894. The two came together in 1897 when the co-operative movement was eight years old. Plunkett needed an able organiser and W. B. Yeats suggested Russell, who became Assistant Secretary of the IAOS.
He travelled extensively throughout Ireland as a spokesman for the society, mainly responsible for developing the credit societies and establishing co-operative banks in the south and west of the country whose numbers rose to 234 by 1910. The pair made a good team, with each gaining much from the association with the other. As an officer of the IAOS he could not express political opinions freely, but he made no secret of the fact that he considered himself a Nationalist. During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out he wrote an open letter to the Irish Times criticizing the attitude of the employers, then spoke on it in England and helped bring the crisis to an end. He was an independent delegate to the 1917-18 Irish Convention in which he opposed John Redmond's compromise on Home Rule.
Russell was editor from 1905 to 1923 of the Irish Homestead, the journal of the IAOS, and infused it with the vitality that made it famous half the world over. His gifts as a writer and publicist gained him a wide influence in the cause of agricultural co-operation. He then became editor of the The Irish Statesman, which merged with the Irish Homestead, from 15 September 1923 until 12 April 1930. With the demise of this paper he was for the first time in his life out of a job, and concerns were raised that he could find himself in a state of poverty, as he had never earned very much money from his paintings or books. Unbeknownst to him meetings were held and collections organized and later that year at Plunkett House he was presented by Father T. Finlay with a cheque for £800. This enabled him to visit the United States the following year, where he was very well received all over the country and his books sold in large numbers.
He used the pseudonym "AE", or more properly, "Æ". This derived from an earlier Æ'on signifying the lifelong quest of man, subsequently shortened.
His first book of poems, Homeward: Songs by the Way (1894), established him in what was known as the Irish Literary Revival, where Æ met the young James Joyce in 1902 and introduced him to other Irish literary figures, including William Butler Yeats. He appears as a character in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Joyce's Ulysses, where he dismisses Stephen's theories on Shakespeare. His collected poems appeared in 1913, with a second edition in 1926.
His house at 17 Rathgar Avenue in Dublin became a meeting-place at the time for everyone interested in the economic and artistic future of Ireland. His interests were wide-ranging; he became a theosophist and wrote extensively on politics and economics, while continuing to paint and write poetry. Æ claimed to be a clairvoyant, able to view various kinds of spiritual beings, which he illustrated in paintings and drawings. The keynote of his work may be found in a motto from the Bhagavadgita prefixed to one of his earlier poems I am Beauty itself among beautiful things. He was noted for his exceptional kindness and generosity towards younger writers: Frank O'Connor called him " the man who was the father to three generations of Irish writers".
He moved to England after his wife's death in 1932 and died in Bournemouth on 17 July 1935. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. An Ulster History Blue plaque was unveiled at his birthplace in September 2007.
Excert from An Irish Face
Not her own sorrow only that hath place
Upon yon gentle face.
Too slight have been her childhood's years to gain
The imprint of such pain.
It hid behind her laughing hours, and wrought
Each curve in saddest thought
On brow and lips and eyes. With subtle art
It made that little heart
Through its young joyous beatings to prepare
A quiet shelter there,
Where the immortal sorrows might find a home.
And many there have come;
Bowed in a mournful mist of golden hair
Deirdre hath entered there.
And shrouded in a fall of pitying dew,
Weeping the friend he slew,
The Hound of Ulla lies, with those who shed
Tears for the Wild Geese fled.
And all the lovers on whom fate had warred
Cutting the silver cord
Enter, and softly breath by breath they mould
The young heart to the old,
The old protest, the old pity, whose power
Are gathering to the hour
When their knit silence shall be mightier far
Than leagued empires are.
And dreaming of the sorrow on this face
We grow of lordlier race,
Could shake the rooted rampart of the hills
To shield her from all ills,
And through a deep adoring pity won
Grow what we dream upon.