AEIOU: Ireland’s debt to George Russell
Dan Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador to London, pays tribute to the writer on the 150th anniversary of his birth
George William Russell (AE) lurks in the shadows of Irish literary history, often seen as a sidekick to WB Yeats and remembered for his cameo appearances in Ulysses. This reflects his omnipresence in the social and artistic life of his adopted city.
He was born in Lurgan, Co Armagh, on April 10th, 1867 and moved to Dublin with his family when he was 11 years old.
Joyce presents AE as a bearded mystic whose vegetarianism produces poetic “waves in the brain” resulting in “dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic” verse.
Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus owes him a pound, hence A.E.I.O.U. Joyce himself had benefited from AE’s literary (and no doubt financial) support as his first short stories were published in the Irish Homestead, which he edited from 1905 to 1923.
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
The truth about AE is that he was not all like WB Yeats and nor does Joyce’s jocose portrayal do him justice.
He may have lacked the spark of inspiration and the magical turn of phrase that light up Yeats’s poetry, but he wrote voluminously – poetry, prose works and, above all, journalism.
While his verse might be dreamy, he possessed an intensely practical strain which saw him cycling around the west of Ireland organising agricultural co-operatives and writing down-to-earth pieces on such subjects as “the organisation of the dressed meat trade”!
Although AE did not produce a Yeatsian stream of major public poems cataloguing the great events of his time, he did engage with Ireland’s public life with an intensity and longevity unmatched by any other writer of literary merit. Nothing that happened in Ireland between the 1890s and 1930s escaped his energetic attentions.
Starting as a mystical, cultural nationalist during the 1890s, he came into his own as a significant public figure in the second and third decades of the 20th century.
In 1913, Russell took a considerable political risk by publicly identifying with Dublin’s workers during the 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.
One effect of his support for Dublin’s workers was the friendship he developed with James Connolly. This made Russell conclude that the roots of the Easter Rising lay in the grievances of Dublin’s poor, but he also worried about its destructive impact on Ireland’s economic prospects which he had laboured to promote through his involvement in the co-operative movement.
In the Rising’s aftermath, he was 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 co-operative 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”.
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 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. With characteristic optimism, he strove to craft compromise proposals for an all-Ireland dominion with autonomy for Ulster and maintenance of the imperial connection.
These proposals commanded impressive support, including from his old adversaries, the leading Dublin businessman, William Martin Murphy, and Archbishop William Walsh, 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”.
He backed this up with his most ambitious public poem, To the memory of some I knew who are dead and who loved Ireland, whose outstanding feature is its inclusiveness.
It pays tribute to 1916 leaders, Pearse, MacDonagh and Connolly, but also 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.
AE’s poem, written initially as an Easter Rising elegy, was part of a deliberate effort to build bridges between different political traditions in Ireland.
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.
The emergence of the Irish Free State filled him with a mix of excitement at the opportunities of independence 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.
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 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 prioritise social and economic development.
The turning point in Russell’s engagement with independent Ireland came with the imposition of literary censorship, which he resolutely opposed. Censorship would, he argued, give power to its exponents “to interfere with the intellectual life of the country”.
In his later years, his disappointment with Ireland intensified. He departed for England in 1933 and died in Bournemouth in 1935.
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 a hybrid culture combining Gaelic and Anglo-Irish influences. AE was, in the words of a 1979 Irish Times editorial, “a great but gentle dissenter”. In his own words, he strove
Against the sceptred myth to hold
The golden heresy of truth.
There was genuine need for his sober arguments and his literary gifts – as a dogged commentator rather than an inspirational poet – when modern Ireland was being pieced together in the decades before and after independence. A.E.I.O.U.
Daniel Mulhall has contributed a biographical afterword to a new edition of AE’s Selected Poems, published today by the Swan River Press. He will deliver a talk on AE at the National Library at 7pm this evening. He is currently Ireland’s Ambassador in London