IOU for AE – An Irishman’s Diary on Patrick Kavanagh’s debt to George Russell
George “AE” Russell: ‘Self-Portrait’ (1923)
Although renowned as a poet and mystic, George “AE” Russell had a strongly practical side too. Some of his life’s best work was done via a day job with the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, where for many years before and after independence, he encouraged the country’s farmers to maximise their earnings by such means as pooling resources in co-ops.
So it’s no coincidence that, in 1929, it was he who unleashed the artistic potential of a young Monaghan rustic called Patrick Kavanagh.
Kavanagh was a bad farmer, but a somewhat better poet. And it was the Russell-edited Irish Statesman, which had succeeded the Irish Homestead as the IAOS journal, that gave him his first big break.
No only did AE publish his work, he astonished Kavanagh by paying for it too: a handsome guinea, which was no trivial sum in the year of the Wall Street crash. Crucially, he also encouraged the farmer-cum-shoemaker to increase his literary production instead, suggesting other outlets that might buy it.
An upshot of their correspondence was Kavanagh’s famous trip to Dublin in December 1931. He could have cycled there, or even taken a train (his sponsors sometimes included the Inniskeen GAA club, of which he was treasurer, although it wasn’t always aware of the patronage).
But as his biographer Antoinette Quinn explained, he preferred to accentuate the “rural authenticity” for which he sensed a market in the city.
In his own words, he was playing the part of “country gobshite”. So forgoing the Sunday suit in favour of everyday working clothes, he walked the 50-odd miles to Dublin, in mid-winter, to make an impression.
Arriving at AE’s house in Rathgar, unannounced and hungry, he was silently dismayed to learn that the cook had been given the day off.
And considering also that the host’s wife was dying in hospital at the time, Russell might have been excused from giving his guest any kind of welcome.
But despite his obvious strain, the older man showered kindness on his protégé.
Before they parted, as was AE’s habit, he also presented “an armful of books”, including Emerson, Whitman, and Dostoevsky. As Quinn notes, Kavanagh would have been even more grateful had he not been worried about “the weight he would have to carry on his return journey”.
If the beneficiary in this case was unusual, Russell’s generosity to a fellow writer was entirely typical. He was, it has been said, devoid of literary ego or begrudgery, and delighted in helping others where he could.
In his few remaining years, he schooled Kavanagh for a big literary prize then in the offing, and extolled the virtues of this “strange genius” to WB Yeats, who would have a key role in deciding who won.
When Russell died in 1935, Kavanagh went to Dublin again for the funeral, genuinely bereft at the passing of his mentor. But even in death, Russell continued to help him.
Kavanagh won the 1939 AE Memorial Fund award of £100, just edging out his rival front-runner, a young comic novelist called Flann O’Brien.
There’s a funny story about AE & Yeats, told by Katherine Tynan, another of the poets Russell published. She recalled him complaining one day that Yeats had written somewhere of his (AE’s) habit of walking though the streets, reciting aloud and “swinging his arms like a flail, unconscious of the alarm and bewilderment of the passers-by”.
As Russell protested, this was in fact an accurate description of Yeats himself. Tynan agreed, quoting the comment of a sympathetic Dublin policeman who had witnessed WB in action: “’Tis the poethry that’s disturbin’ his head”.
Well, although AE’s head was disturbed by some of the same ideas as Yeats, poetic and theosophical, he was sufficiently grounded to recognise Kavanagh’s earthy talents. And despite being himself much less saintly towards fellow poets, including Yeats, the Monaghan man was eternally thankful, remembering AE ever after as a “great and holy man”.
It seems apt, therefore, that 2017 marks a coincidence of anniversaries involving the two friends. Later this autumn, events in Inniskeen and Dublin will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kavanagh’s death in November 1967.
Last April, by contrast, it was 150 years since Russell’s birth. And celebrations of that milestone continue this month with a two-day seminar in AE’s memory at the United Arts Club, Dublin. The event takes place on August 26th and 27th, with speakers including Adrian Frazier and Nicola Gordon-Bowe. Details can be had from organiser Declan Foley, via email@example.com.