Celtic Junction Arts Review

Ireland’s Forgotten Genius, George ‘AE’ Russell

Michael McKernan

AE George Russell, Public Domain

He is a man of extraordinary prodigality of mind. Ideas, the hoarded gold of others, are scattered by him with amazing profusion. There is probably no writer today who does not owe something to Mr. Russell[.]

Irish novelist and playwright, George A. Birmingham

In recent times the various ‘centenaries’ of the events surrounding the birth of an independent Ireland have led to a renewed public interest in the outstanding leaders of that time. Political leaders such as Pearse, Connolly, De Valera, and Collins and literary giants such as Yeats, Shaw, and Joyce have all been the subject of retrospective appraisal.

George William Russell By John Butler Yeats – http://onlinecollection.nationalgallery.ie/objects/11683, Public Domain

Yet in the period from 1900 to 1930, one now largely forgotten figure, George William Russell, better known as ‘AE’, was a leader across just about every sector of Irish life. He was a political thinker, economist, rural reformer, publisher, editor, poet, artist, and visionary. No one else in the history of that time comes close to matching Russell in the sheer breadth of his contribution to public life.

How did he acquire the unusual name AE? As a writer Russell adopted different pen-names. Once, opening a book at a random page the word ‘Aeon’ seemed to jump out at him and he was charmed that ‘Aeon’ was a gnostic and mystic term meaning the earliest living creatures. He immediately used it as a pen name for a philosophical article. However, the printer could only make out the first two letters of his writing and thus ‘AE’ appeared below the article. People referred to the influential article as ‘AE’s’ article and so AE stayed with him thereafter.

The recent upsurge in interest in AE Russell means all of this is about to change. Since 2017, there have been successive annual festivals in his hometown of Lurgan, County Armagh. Several new books have appeared, and a new National & International Society is being formed in Dublin in 2023. One of the ambitious plans facing the new Society is the project to create a new Cultural Centre based on AE’s rich legacy.

An assembly of A.E. fans, researchers, and enthusiasts in Marble Hill in Dunfanaghy, county Donegal in August of 2023

Russell was born in Lurgan, county Armagh, in 1867 and left at the age of 11 when his family moved to Dublin. However, he maintained his Northern connections throughout his adult life. He often acknowledged the formative influence his northern childhood had had on him. As an activist, it had given him an aversion to violence and sectarianism and although his family wasn’t poor, a loathing of the indignity of grinding poverty never left him.

In contrast, as an artist, his childhood had filled him with the colourful visions, memories and images of carefree days exploring Lurgan’s sprawling Brownlow estate with its turreted castle and shimmering lake and parklands. These images later flowed into AE’s poems and paintings and, most especially, in his later collaboration with author Pamela Travers as she produced ‘Mary Poppins’. Much of the imagery in ‘Mary Poppins’ came from AE’s suggestions, based on his vivid childhood memories of Lurgan.

By Alastair Rae – originally posted to Flickr as Brownlow House, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10831639

In Dublin, AE attended art college where he met W. B. Yeats. They were to be friends (and rivals) for the next fifty years. AE’s contemporaries were astonished at his natural ability to draw immediately anything he saw. It may well have been AE’s talent in visual art that persuaded W. B. Yeats to pursue poetry instead.

Although Russell never considered art as a career, such was his talent that he became recognised as one of the best painters in Ireland. When leaders of the United States arts community curated a major exhibition of European art in New York in 1913 only 3 Irish painters, including AE, were invited to contribute. On the poster for the Manhattan event, the greatest exhibition of European Art ever, the only Irish name was Russell – alongside artists like Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh.

“Sea Serpent” Painted by George William Russell – Public Domain

After art college, Russell settled down to years of study of Theosophy, becoming an avid student of ancient Indian philosophies. He maintained himself working as a clerk in a Dublin Department store. Eventually AE emerged, certain about his role in life and guided by a code which required personal discipline, full deployment of his talents in the service of others and a disregard for reward or recognition.

Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett By National Photo Company Collection – Library of CongressCatalog: Public Domain

He joined Horace Plunkett’s Cooperative movement and immediately proved to be a highly effective organiser of rural cooperatives. He went around Ireland forming hundreds of cooperative societies eventually becoming Secretary of the movement and editor of its influential journal ‘The Irish Homestead.’ His success came from a pragmatic determination to tackle rural poverty but also his belief that workers on the land deserved respect and dignity. At the ‘Irish Homestead,’ he ensured that rural readers enjoyed coverage of politics, culture and the arts as well as all things agricultural.

Russell wrote extensively on the economics of sustainable rural communities. His work was admired in Ireland and internationally. In India, Gandhi expressed interest in Russell’s thinking, including how sweeping change could be achieved without violence. Later in depression-torn America, Roosevelt’s administration sought Russell’s advice on rural economics. Russell embarked on several tours of the United States addressing packed meetings, accepting honorary degrees from universities, broadcasting on radio and advising the US Government directly. Much of the thinking behind Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ stems from Russell’s ideas.

Vice President Henry Wallace
Vice President Henry Wallace Official portrait, c. 1941–1945

Æ was a prophet out of an ancient age. He was one of the finest, most gifted, and most colourful people I ever knew. Never anything but the utmost humility, simplicity, sweetness and light. May God grant that the Irish may be able to produce such a man again.

 Vice-President Henry Wallace of the United States

While driving cooperation forward, AE had also been writing poetry and was eventually persuaded to publish it.  Like in his painting, AE’s talent shone through and there was an immediate market for him in Ireland and abroad. In the early 20th century, he was regarded as being on a par with Yeats. Yeats himself described AE as:

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet.
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet. Public domain.

The one poet of modern Ireland who has moulded a spiritual ecstasy into verse…The most delicate and subtle poetry that any Irishman of our time has written.

AE also encouraged the talent of others using the ‘Irish Homestead’ and later the ‘Irish Statesman’ to showcase new writers. He was the first to publish James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, and many others. Frank O’Connor described Russell as: “The father of three generations of Irish writers.” AE is referred to repeatedly in Ulysses including Joyce’s famous acknowledgement “AEIOU.”

As a writer, Russell was unsurpassed for his challenging commentary on public affairs and his impressively resourceful prescriptions for economic and social progress. Unsurprisingly, many people sought him out for advice and support. This not only included poets and painters, but leaders of cultural organizations, and politicians.

Irish poet and revolutionary Patrick Pearse, profile picture showing a young man in a dark suit with short well kempt dark hair and light skin. He appears serious.
Patrick Pearse. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b15294. Public Domain.

AE knew the revolutionary leaders of the era. He knew them mainly through literary connections – Pearse and McDonagh were both accomplished poets – or through his agricultural reform work. Connolly was an admirer of AE and the two had supported workers during the 1913 Dublin Lockout.

Russell told the poet-revolutionaries that he did not share their views. He was a pacifist and more concerned with the character of any future Ireland than bringing it about by uprising. To this end, Russell applied himself to the creation of many of Ireland’s embryonic cultural institutions including the Metropolitan Gallery, the Abbey Theatre, the Cuala Press, and the United Arts Club as well as writing a prescription for progressive nationhood in “The National Being.”

He worked in the 1917 Convention hoping it would bring about an honourable political settlement. He was horrified by the bloodshed of the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. In the new Free State, he pursued progressive causes, uniquely supporting the suffragettes and women’s rights; calling for respect for Irishmen who had fought in WW1, and opposing conscription and censorship.

“The Plough and the Earth Spirit” painted by George Russell

AE died on 17th July, 1935 in England.  His return to Ireland was honoured with an aerial salute as the boat arrived in Dun Laoghaire. The Irish Times reported that 500,000 people took to the streets of Dublin for his funeral. The procession was over a mile long.

Today it is hard to explain how this remarkable man has virtually disappeared into the footnotes of Irish history. However, groups of admirers have recently come together across Ireland to address this obvious deficit – and AE will finally get the recognition his greatness deserves. There have been successive annual festivals in Russell’s hometown of Lurgan, County Armagh, two new books (a short biography and poetry anthology) with more underway, and a new National & International Society is being formed right now in Dublin. AE enthusiasts have even held a recent Convention in Donegal taking in all the places where Russell used to go and paint.

One of the ambitious plans facing the new Society is the project to create a new Cultural Centre based and themed around AE’s rich legacy. It aspires to be a place that can house a major collection of his paintings and writings and be a magnetic and luminous attraction for all interested in AE and the momentous 1890-1930 period in Irish history.

And the list of AE followers both active and on social media, and in Ireland and beyond Ireland’s shores, is growing rapidly. The AE Renaissance is underway! Please visit, like, and follow the George Russell Facebook page or their website: georgerussellfestival.org

Fascinated by George Russell? Learn more in the article The Sage and Great Soul: Carl Jung and the Irish Writer Æ (George Russell).