Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003
If one were to take a random sample of the citizens of Craigavon it is unlikely that many would be able to identify George Russell by his name and very few more by his pseudonym AE. Yet George Russell was one of the major figures of the Irish literary renaissance and a man of great importance in the ferment of Dublin in the last years of British rule and the first years of the independent Irish Free State.
That his major contributions were made when living in Dublin and that his political views were contrary to the majority thinking in the community into which he had been born may explain in large part the ignorance about his career which exists in this part of Ireland. It does seem a pity, nevertheless, that such an outstanding man should not be better known in the area of his birth. It is only fair to add, though, that any ambivalence felt about Russell in the town of his birth was returned in equal measure by him. "I have never been sufficiently grateful to Providence," he said, "for the mercy shown to me in removing me from Ulster". Despite this uncharacteristic moment of bile it must be allowed that he was indeed a polymath who, at the height of his powers, was a visionary, poet, painter, author, journalist, economist, agricultural expert and certainly an eccentric.
The details of George Russell's birth may be read in the baptismal records of Shankill Parish Church, Lurgan. He was born on April 10th 1867 at No.10 William Street, Lurgan. This would appear to be an uncontroversial statement but the renumbering of William Street since then has led to confusion and debate about the actual site if his birth. It is the opinion of Mr Kieran Clendinning, the noted Lurgan historian, that the building in which he was born is now known as "The Beehive Bar" close to the old Technical College.
His father was Thomas Elias Russell a native of the townland of Drumgor, which lies halfway between Lurgan and Portadown. The Russells had long been settled in Drumgor and members of the family still live in the locality, though the site of the old Russell home has now been swallowed up by the development of the new town of Craigavon. George was not much interested in pedigree or genealogy but he did refer often to the fact that there was an ancestor about whom his father did not care to talk. It was not until after his father's death that George discovered that this ancestor had been called Thomas Russell. He was convinced that Thomas was, "The man from God Knows Where" in Florence M. Wilson's fine poem.
This Thomas had been a prominent United Irishman who was hanged in Downpatrick goal for his involvement in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. George never found time to establish the connection as an objective fact so it still remains a fascinating conjecture.
Thomas Russell of Drumgor, the father of George, did not stay on the family farm but obtained a post with Thomas Bell and Co., Linen Manufacturers of Bellview, Kilmore Road, Lurgan. The Bells were an old Quaker family, long connected with the linen business in the Lurgan area. In time he married Mary Anne Armstrong of Balteagh who was employed in a general store in Lurgan. The townlands of Drumgor and Balteagh are neighbours and the families of the Russells and Armstrongs had long been friends. The young couple took up residence in William Street and soon involved themselves in the life of the town. They worshipped regularly in Shankill Parish Church each Sunday morning and in the evening they attended the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Castle Lane. Their domestic life seems to have been rather unsettled as they are recorded as also living in Hill Street and North Street.
George William, a second son and third child, was born in 1867 and soon afterwards the family moved again to the Gate Lodge at the head of the grand entrance to Brownlow House. This was the entrance that opened on to the centre of Lurgan. (This grand avenue with its magnificent gateway has now disappeared and has been replaced with the thoroughfare known as Windsor Avenue. Lord Lurgan sold his estate to the Lurgan Real Property Co. in the early 1890s and they demolished the gateway and gate lodge in the process of building the houses in Windsor Avenue.)
Although the house itself was quite small, the move to the Gate Lodge had a liberating effect on the young George, giving him virtually free run of the large Brownlow House demesne where he could ramble, dream and play with his sister, Mary Elizabeth. His father Thomas was a cultivated man who regularly attended concerts and dramatic performances in the Lurgan Assembly Rooms. These were just across the road from the Gate Lodge and are now known as the old Lurgan Town Hall. Standing beside them is the imposing Mechanics' Institute. These buildings had been built circa 1860 (the Assembly Rooms costing £2,300) and had been of great benefit to the cultural life of Lurgan.
Thomas was a man who much enjoyed music (beautifully copied manuscripts of his still exist) but the young George certainly did not. Music was the only one of the artistic gifts denied to him as he was tone deaf all his life and could not tell one tune from another. In all other ways he was acutely sensitive to beauty and it was at this time that he fell in love with the beauty of nature in Lord Logan's demesne - the parkland, the lake and the backdrop of the towers of Brownlow House all had a profound effect on him.
He was later to recall that his first vision came about at the age of four or five and was brought on by the daffodils surrounding the lime trees in the demesne. This was to become the essential feature of George Russell - he was a real visionary, not just in the sense that he had dreams for the future, but that he had actual visions in which he saw glimpses of the past and future that were glowingly real to him even though they were invisible to others. It is not unusual for imaginative children to play at fantasy games, perhaps imagining themselves to be cowboys, Vikings or spacemen. George's imagination was centred on ancient Babylon. He wrote:
"Today was past and dead for me, for from today my feet had run
Through thrice a thousand years to walk the ways of ancient Babylon."
Most children give up their dreams as they grow older; George's visions lasted throughout his life.
The young boy enrolled at Lurgan Model School at the age of three years and ten months and attended there for seven years. His records still exist in the form of proficiency marks and show that he had literary gifts and was good at drawing but was very poor musically!
The year 1878 brought a major change in lifestyle for the Russells when Thomas was invited to join a friend's business in Dublin. His friend was Robert Gardner, the Gardners being another family long connected with the Drumgor area. They moved in that year to a new home in Emorville Avenue and continuing their nomadic habits moved later to 67 Grosvenor Square and then to 5 Seapoint Terrace. In Dublin George attended Power's School in Harrington Street, and later Dr. Benson's School in Rathmines. He was not particularly impressed with his education, saying at a later date "I learned nothing at school". The move to Dublin did not mean that George lost all contact with Co. Armagh as he regularly spent his school holidays with his aunt in Drumgor. During one of these holidays, at the age of sixteen, he had a vision while walking in Drumgor Lane:
"there broke in on me an almost intolerable lustre of light - pure and shining faces, dazzling processions of figures - most ancient, ancient places and peoples and landscapes lovely as the lost Eden"
He was to experience visions such as this for many years and they are described in his poems and paintings.
A devastating tragedy struck the family when George was seventeen. This was the death of his only sister Mary Elizabeth who was a year older than himself. In many of the poems about his early years he uses the word "we" and it is probable that the anonymous other was Mary Elizabeth.
You remember dear together
Two children you and I
Sat once in the Autumn weather
Watching the Autumn sky.
There was someone around us straying
The whole of the long day through
Who seemed to say, "I am playing
At hide and seek with you"
And one thing after another
Was whispered out of the air
How God was a great big brother
Whose home is everywhere
His light like a smile comes glancing
Through the cool winds as they pass
From the flowers in heaven dancing
To the stars that shine in the grass
The heart of the wise was beating
Sweet sweet in our hearts that day
And many a thought came fleeting
And fancies solemn and gay
We were grave in our ways divining
How childhood was taking wings
And the wonderful world was shining
With vast eternal things.
Thomas Russell was doing reasonably well in business and at this time George enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art where one of his teachers was John Butler Yeats, who had been born in Tullylish, between Gilford and Banbridge, where his father was the Rector. John Butler Yeats had two sons, the painter Jack Yeats and the poet W B Yeats and at the time of George's enrolment W B Yeats was also a pupil at the Metropolitan school. The two young men became friends and Yeats introduced Russell to Theosophy - a movement which we may find difficult to take seriously now, but which was then very influential with many important adherents in its membership.
George became a probationary member in 1890, his certificate of enrolment being signed by Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the movement. He joined a small residential community of Theosophists in Upper Ely Place but resigned in 1897 due to his disappointment with a new leader who had replaced the deceased Mme Blavatsky. In the following year he married Violet North, a fellow Theosophist. The couple had numerous homes in which they entertained generously. When they lived in Coulson Avenue they had Maud Gonne next door and Constance and Casimir Markiewicz round the corner.
(n.b. From the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought - "Theosophy means Wisdom About God but the mixture of Eastern and Western ideas appeals to few of those usually reckoned to be wise" - David L Edwards, Canon of Westminster)
Jack Yeats did not totally approve of George's interest in mysticism and thought that he did not have an entirely beneficial influence on W B, Jack's younger brother. He once ironically described George Russell as "a saint - but born in Portadown" - an accusation both geographically incorrect and showing an intolerance often found among Southern intelligentsia to "the hub of the north".
After some time at the School of Art, George realised that he would not be able to make a career as a full time professional painter. His friend W.B.Yeats encouraged him to turn to writing but he needed income to survive. He obtained a job in a brewery and then became a clerk in the drapery firm of Messrs Pim Bros. in South Great George's Street. In 1890 his salary here was £40 p.a.and in 1897 when he resigned his employment it was £60 p.a. It is said that while employed at Pim's he spent much time looking out of the high windows and dreaming of freedom.
During these years he joined the Irish Literary Society which had been founded by Yeats and others as a result of the publication of Standish O'Grady's "History of Ireland". O'Grady (a Unionist M.P.)was stirred by Ireland's romantic past and his stories excited many writers. Their newly stimulated interest led to the birth of the Celtic Twilight movement. When Russell read O'Grady he wrote, "one suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him and knows he was born in a royal house - it was the memory of race which rose up within me."
The first members of the movement were usually relatively wealthy Protestants such as Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, and Lord Dunsany. They, being members of a privileged class, were rather removed from the realities of the poor. In one of his less exalted moods George described a literary movement as "four or five people who lived in the same town and hated each other". Another group, however, were interested in the Ancient Myths. These were the Gaelic Revival Nationalists and their shared interests brought them into contact with the writers.
Yeats and Russell also had a passionate love of the theatre and together they formed the National Theatre Company which later became known as the Abbey Theatre. Yeats was the President, Russell the Vice-President and among the Committee members were Maud Gonne and Douglas Hyde. Russell's play "Deirdre" was said to have been the spark that set the Irish dramatic movement alight. As well as writing the play he also designed the ethereal costumes used in the first production.
While working at Pim's store George was interviewed by Sir Horace Plunkett, the great advocate of the Co-operative movement. This resulted in him being appointed to the staff of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), a society which eventually led to the Credit Union movement. His first post there was Banks Organiser. He then went on to become Editor of the Irish Homestead, a magazine for small farmers, which later merged with the Irish Statesman. He remained editor of the Statesman until 1930. This magazine gave a balanced expression of Irish opinion both Unionist and Nationalist, though Russell's own sympathies were broadly nationalist. These interests reveal something of the paradox of George Russell, at one moment a head in the clouds visionary and the next a down to earth banker and agricultural adviser. His knowledge of agricultural problems was soundly rooted in his early days on the small farm at Drumgor.
By 1930 George Russell was one of the most famous men in Ireland. He had been politically involved for the first time in 1913 during the Dublin Tramway Workers' Strike. He took part in a mass meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, London in support of the strikers. Others on the platform at this meeting were G.B.Shaw, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. The 1916 Rising took him by surprise and as a pacifist he deplored the violence. True to his friendship with Connolly, however, he organised a subscription for his widow and tried to get permission for her to go to America.
As he became increasingly prominent he became universally known as "AE". This pseudonym emerged when, as he was painting a visionary scene, he heard a whispered voice saying, "AEON." Shortly afterwards in the National Library, someone had left a book open on a desk. Russell looked at it casually in passing and the word Aeon leapt out at him. On looking at it more carefully, he discovered that Aeon was the Gnostic name for the first created being and shortly afterwards he used it to sign a manuscript.
The compositor had difficulty with his writing and asked him, "AE--?" "That's enough," said Russell and from that time on he signed every thing AE. Soon he came to be called that by all. His company was much sought after and his last home in Dublin in Rathgar Avenue became a meeting place for those interested in both the Arts and Economics. To his distress, however, independence did not bring the cultural flowering for which he hoped. In the new state Puritanism and censorship blocked intellectual and artistic freedom.
By the 1930s he had come to dislike much about the new Ireland. He felt uncomfortable in Dublin at the time of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and thought that the Church had too much power. This led to him saying, "The chief failure of the Irish is their submissiveness to the church - its tyranny poisons Irish life especially in political affairs." As a result of this disillusion, and following the death of his wife in 1932, he went to live in London where he became known as a universal pundit. He had views on everything.
Simone Tery the French writer in "L'ile des Bards" wrote:
"Do you want to know about providence, the origin of the universe, the end of the universe?
Go to AE.
Do you want to know about Gaelic literature?
Go to AE.
Do you want to know about the Celtic soul?
Go to AE.
Do you want to know about Irish History?
Go to AE.
Do you want to know about the export of eggs?
Go to AE.
Do you want to know how to run society?
Go to AE.
If you find life insipid -
Go to AE.
If you need a friend -
Go to AE."
This last was vital and cannot be overstressed. He gave a helping hand to nearly every aspiring Irish writer. Helen Waddell, Patrick Kavanagh and James Joyce all benefited from his encouragement, as did P. L. Travers. James Joyce painted a vivid picture of AE in Ulysses, making fun of his eccentricities, but also, in one of the puns, which he so loved, he used the list of vowels A E I O U to express his indebtedness.
AE also gave Helen Waddell much support and in turn both she and AE aided Patrick Kavanagh, now seen as one of the great Irish poets but then a struggling unknown.
One of his lesser-known acts of support was to an American lady called Pamela Lyndon Travers. She came to England in 1924 and her interest in myth brought her into contact with Yeats and Russell. AE encouraged her to write and published her writing in "The Irish Statesman." P. L. Travers then went on to become famous in a rather different field as the author of the children's book, Mary Poppins, published in 1934.
AE did not write much about Lurgan in his books but in conversation he referred frequently to a story from his childhood. He told that when he was in Lurgan there was a lady who was dying. One day she was found weeping, not for herself, but because she was unable to rise and help a neighbour in trouble. That story to AE summed up all that was worthwhile in life.
In 1935 Russell went on a lecture tour of the USA to speak on "Rural Policies". He became ill in February and had to sail home in March. In July he had a major abdominal operation and it became obvious that he was terminally ill. For some time there had been coolness between Yeats and himself but he was much encouraged when Yeats sent a warm message. The rapid decline continued and he died on 17 July 1935 in a nursing home in Bournemouth.
His body was brought back to Ireland from London, accompanied on the train to Holyhead by a group of Irish writers including James Stephens and Helen Waddell. In Dublin his coffin lay in state in Plunkett House in Merrion Square. This was where he had worked for many years in the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. He had a Church of Ireland funeral service, which was attended by W.B.Yeats, De Valera and Oliver Grogarty before being buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Archbishop Gregg in his eulogy described him as "that myriad-minded man." James Stephens said that "he was inclined to sit on the top of the morning all day".
Although during his life George Russell was considered to be the equal of the very best in Irish artistic life his reputation as a poet and painter has not held up as well as that of W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. It was, perhaps, asking too much to be a painter, poet, author, journalist and economist all at the same time. But that does not mean that he was not a very great man. As well as producing work of high quality himself he was a facilitator to others. It may well be that today we might consider his Theosophy rather absurd but then again many might not. There are still many "new age thinkers."
Whatever his eccentricities the indisputable fact remains that Irish life was much the better for his presence. He was a great Irishman and a great Lurgan man and we in Craigavon should be proud of his achievements. A fitting conclusion might be the following words from his poem:
On behalf of some Irishmen not followers of tradition
They call us aliens we are told
Because our wayward visions stray
From that dim banner they unfold
The dreams of worn out yesterday.
We hold the Ireland of the heart
More than the land our eyes have seen
And love the goal for which we start
More than the tale of what has been.
No blazoned banner we unfold
One charge alone we give to youth
Against the sceptred myth to hold
The golden heresy of truth.