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A.E.  -  George William Russell

Posted by Eva Cristofalo on October 29, 2008

How does one synthesize a life such as this? 

After months of becoming more and more engrossed with George “A.E.” Russell’s life and art, I realized I would never be satisfied with writing the short paragraph or two being requested of me.  Nor could I hope to approach the level of knowledge of those people who have spent the better part of their lifetimes studying him alongside those other Irish greats with whom he was contemporary.  Then I found this brilliant essay by Declan Foley.

Poet, painter, playwright, philosopher, mystic and visionary; politician, rural economist, editor,  memorable talker - A.E. was the Socrates of Dublin, the one writer in that irrevent city who was always spoken of with respect and affection.

(From "IRISH LITERARY PORTRAITS" by W. R. Rodgers, p185)

OFTEN I ask myself is Ireland the only country in the world that could have provided us with that great man George Russell, known to all lovers of Irish and Anglo-Irish literature as A.E. Even the delightful story behind his pseudonym is typical of Ireland. Sligo had a raft of local characters that were known only by their sobriquet:

"Pigeon Dunbar, Cairo Burns, Greek McCarrick, and Stick Harte as well as a policeman called Killargue Pat." This tradition of nicknames goes back to the earliest days, when  men and women were named according to their occupation or even a trait of character. In some cases these sobriquets evolved into family names.  
 E.g.: Beaglaoic h anglice- Begley, originates from two words:  beag, little and laoch, hero.

Thus in the time honoured tradition did George Russell earn the sobriquet, A.E. which true to his character he adopted,  an all because a printer could not decipher his original pseudonym AEON.

George Russell was well known throughout Ireland, and while the Irish are always quick to find a fault with their own no matter how slight, I have yet to find one —leaving aside some who were uncomfortable with his views of religion —to say a bad word about A.E..

He was a deeply spiritual man who had a great love of Ireland and its people. He was importantly: a visionary, a dreamer and an activist and importantly for him and us today, totally uninterested in politics, something which probably kept his sanity. The lives of numerous men and women of great vision have been utterly destroyed because they were unable to accept the dashing of their dreams, by political machinations.

One night in December 1921, an emissary was sent to his house near midnight to invite A.E. to take a seat in the Senate of the Irish Free State. A.E. awakened by the knock on his front door, opened  his  bedroom window to enquire what the caller wanted: "The President invites you to take a place in the Senate. I must have your answer tonight!"

"I will consult the Gods!" replied A.E. as he closed the bedroom window, leaving the emissary standing in the bitterly cold night. It was another thirty minutes before the emissary saw the window re-open, and the frame of A.E. emerge. One word came resounding through the night air, "NO!"  And without further ado, the window was closed.

That A.E. was a man of great commitment to Ireland, its people and its culture is without question. But the fact that he has been overlooked in a historical context raises many questions.

His major role in the Irish Agricultural Co-Operative movement and the subsequent manner in which the creameries were burned by the British in the War of Independence, shows the Government knew what was occurring in the National consciousness through such projects — his ally in this movement, Count Plunkett, suffered the wrath of the Kildare Street Club, its member’s congratulated themselves at the time on the hostility they had shown Plunkett. In the Civil War he suffered the wrath of some of those he had assisted in improve their lifestyle, by having his home burned down.

In Volume 3 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, there are numerous selections from autobiographies and memoirs of many Irish people and this extract from chapter nine of Divided Loyalties by Hubert Butler, a member of the old Butler family of Kilkenny gives us an inkling of the times:

“In 1984 Ireland is so deeply divided that few now talk of a modus vivendi between Unionist and Nationalist, between Catholic and Protestant. You never read that ancient newspaper cliché about a ‘union of Hearts’, or think as I did when I was a boy, and read A.E.’s Irish Statesman, that Ireland might become the central focus of our love and loyalty.
A.E. believed that, as the co-operative movement developed in Ireland, a real village community would grow round every creamery and that the principle of sharing would extend into every branch of life, spiritual, economic, and cultural. The communal marketing of eggs and butter would lead to more intimate and domestic forms of sharing. A.E. saw the hedges planted with apple trees  and gooseberry bushes, as in Germany, and  gymnasiums,  libraries, picture galleries and village halls, to which each man or woman made his contribution according to his powers, so that each village became a focus of activity and debate. Sixty years ago, an ingenious young person could really believe this would happen.

To create those creameries A.E. had travelled hundreds of miles on his bicycle and Plunkett, a sick man kept alive by his burning zeal, had made these long journeys which he records in his diaries: ‘A two hours crawl in the Major’s brougham to Longford. Did good I think but, oh, how boring and tiring! Two long speeches to two small meetings. My thoughts germinate in other brains and when the brains are attached to the proper physique the enthusiasm works." Sadly, both men died disillusioned, in England.

Interestingly enough, the Co-Operative Creamery movement survived all those years afterwards and with the advent of Ireland joining the European Union, some of those Co-ops are now a multi-million pound business —one in County Kerry today owns a similar business in the United States.

In December 1934 A.E. arrived in the United States on a three-month lecture tour, having been  invited by the Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace to advise and lecture on farming in the mid-West under the aegis of F.D.R’s New Deal. Sadly, he returned to England to die some months afterwards. Henry Wallace unaware A.E.’s illness was fatal, wrote to invite him back to lecture: "We need that touch of beauty and interpretation of reality which he alone can give".

A.E. died in England on July 17, 1935. His friends arranged for his body to be brought to Dublin for burial in Mount Jerome cemetery.  His lifelong acquaintance and friendship with W. B. Yeats led to W. B. being invited to give an oration at the grave. Sadly for all concerned W. B. declined with the words: “I should have to tell all the truth.” Yeats asked Frank O’Connor the author to make the oration instead. We are never satisfied, said Yeats, ‘with the maturity of those whom we have admired in boyhood, and we remain in the end their harshest critic. . . I demanded of Russell some impossible things.

Yeats walked in the procession behind the hearse, head erect.  Later he wrote to Dorothy Wellesley of A.E.:
"I have constantly quarreled with him but he never bore malice and in his last letter, a month before his death, he said that generally when he differed from me it was that he feared to be absorbed by my personality".

Chronology of the Life of A.E.

1867         Born April 10, in Lurgan Co. Armagh
1871         Attends Model School, Lurgan
1878         Moves to Dublin
1880        Attends Metropolitan School Of Art.
1882-84   Attends Rathmines School               
1885-88   Attends art classes at Royal  Hibernian Academy       
1888        Joins Dublin Lodge of  Theosophical Society
1890-97   Works at Pim’s, drapers in Dublin
1897        Begins work for Irish Agricultural Organization Society   under Sir Horace Plunkett
1898       June 9, marries Violet North
1902       First performance of his play  Deirdre. In same year becomes vice-president of Irish         National Dramatic Society, resigning soon afterwards.
1905-23   Edits "The Irish Homestead "
1923-30   Edits "The Irish Statesman "
1928        Lectures in America and receives Honorary Degree from Yale University
1929        Receives Honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin
1930        Lectures in the U.S. to raise money for his wife’s medical fees.
1932        Violet died on February 3
1934-35  Lecture tour of U.S. A  auspices U.S. Department of Agriculture
1935       Died on July 17.

(From,used with gracious permission by the author.)

Read an excerpt of A.E.'s Candle of Vision, discussing meditation.

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29 October 2008

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