The Life of AE. George William Russell|
By Jim Conway
Often referred to as Ireland's North Star, or Ireland's great Sage.
Which was factual, as (AE) George William Russell was entirely devoted to the Irish nation and its people, he was once (and rightfully) called "That myriad-minded man" by Archbishop Gregg (also the title of Henry Summerfield's excellent biography) due to his many, many talents. He was a Mystic, Poet, Pacifist, Political Facilitator, Philosopher, Writer, Pacifist, Painter Artist, Theosophist, Newspaper Editor, Economist and Cooperative Movement organizer, Literary Facilitator, Visionary, Vegetarian, Novelist, Critic, himself employing his favourite line from Whitman's "Song of Myself": "I contain multitudes."
George William Russell was born in William Street Lurgan on the 10 April in 1867. George Russell maternal Grandmother Letitia Armstrong just twenty years earlier has perished during Black 47, he attended the Model School until he was eleven at which time (1878) his father moved the family to Dublin for work. His family had an accountancy or book keeping business in North Street, Lurgan. His early life in Lurgan had a profound influence on his great life.
He later began his working life as a clerk in Pim's Stores in Dublin to be unbearably boring. In October 1883 and in 1880 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art on Kildare Street where he was joined by his lifelong friend (and occasional antagonist) W.B Yeats. His love of painting lasted most of his life of which he an amazing natural ability, WB Yeats also wanted to be an artist but found it unsuitable, in sympathy with his chum they decided to try poetry instead, which they developed over the next ten years. A lot of the influence of AE can be found in the writing and poetry of WB for instance it was AE who first voiced the idea of being buried beneath Benbulben. AE was very close to all the Yeats family the sisters described him as an angel and WB’s brother Jack Yeats spent many summers in Sligo and Donegal with him drawing and sketching landscapes.
As a poet he published several books of poetry and books including "The Candle of Vision", "The Interpreters" and "Imaginations and Reveries" in which he writes of his friends, his religious beliefs, and most of all his vision for the Irish Nation.
Although he had been asked to become a senator in the fledgling Irish Free State which he turned down, he would later come into conflict with the Catholic narrowmindedness of the De Valera Irish government, especially over Censorship and the ongoing failure of governments to create greater opportunities for the people which broke his heart.
He held court in his Saloons know as His 'at homes' were he discovered most of Irelands great writers which were packed with young poets and artists as he encouraged all with talent to pursue their life in the arts including James Joyce who gave him a more appropriate place later in "Ulysses" with A.E.I.O.U. but not exclusively Irish Talent he also influenced the creation of Mary Poppins by the Australian, Pamela Travers. Travers became very close to Æ as she began her writing career. They holidayed together and he helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins' books. Although he had never accepted any financial gain for helping his protégés, he did accept a share of her first Mary Poppins' royalties in 1934 as he had been so involved in the process. Pamela completely adored him and was with him constantly she was with him right up untill his last breath.
His personality, desire to help everyone around him, and his disinterest in personal gain or status are reflections of his sincere and complex spiritual belief system.
He had a great love and care for the ordinary people expressed through his support of the Dublin 1913 Lock-out strike which brought him in contact with Larkin & James Connolly. Russell had written a famous moving letter in The Irish Times on behalf of the strikers and on a platform with Sylvia Pankhurst and GB Shaw against the jailing of James Larkin, he delivered a Speech in the Royal Albert Hall, London on 1 November 1913 to to an audience of 12,000 people.
"I stand for the first time on a public platform in this country. The great generosity of English to Irish workers has obliterated the memory of many an ancient tale of wrong. I come from Dublin, where most extraordinary things have been happening. Humanity long dumb there has found a voice, it has its prophet and its martyrs. We no longer know people by the old signs and the old shams. People are to us either human or sub-human. They are either on the side of those who are fighting for human conditions in labour or they are with those who are trying to degrade it and thrust it into the abyss."
He was the most influential figure in the Great Irish Literary and Cultural Revival from 1890's - 1930's.
AE was a pacifist who greatly inspired Gandhi who had read his theories of non-violence originally advocated by Russell in 1894
He advised, inspired and provided practical support to numerous individuals and organisations who sought to improve social and working conditions in Ireland, including the Suffragettes and Trade Union leaderships.
He was one of Ireland's greatest poets - for many years he and Yeats (who were the closest of friends for well over 20 years) were regarded as Irelands 'Two Great Poets'.
He founded the National Irish Theatre in Dublin, which became known as The Abbey Theatre, and was its first President AE was responsible for myriad ideas such as: the inclusion of animals on the original Irish coinage, the design of the Starry Plough socialist flag, the holding of the 1917/18 Irish Peace Convention, establishing an Arts Club, a Modern Art Gallery and importing foreign art to inspire young Irish artists, writing the constitution and rules for many organisations, promoting women's equality
In 1932/3 AE toured mid-West America for 6 months lecturing to farmers at the invitation of the Roosevelt administration were he inspired Roosevelts New Deal, who had greatly admired his work in Ireland. In 1933 he became ill and wanted to be close to his friends including Pam Travers moved to Bournemouth in England, where he died from cancer in 1935.
At his funeral in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Yeats was asked to give the oration at the grave. He refused on the grounds "I would have to tell the truth!" He passed the task to Frank O'Connor. As they left the cemetery Yeats asked O'Connor the speech to give to the newspapers. O'Connor stunned Yeats with the reply: "I gave it off the cuff!"
In later years Frank O'Connor was asked what he said at the graveside: "Yeats stood behind me, an old man who looked as though he didn't have long to live himself, and opposite me on the other side of the grave was Mr De Valera; in those days it wasn't considered a mortal sin to attend a Protestant funeral. I don't know what nonsense I spoke over the grave, I suspect it was all very youthful and very literary -- all I should say now was that this was the man who was father to three generations of Irish greatest writers & Poets, and there is nothing more to be said."
This is just a brief snippet of AE Russel, members of the Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival Society are in the process of compiling a more comprehensive publication on his life and times.
Our thanks to Jim Conway for writing this article for us.
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