Celtic Junction Arts Review

A French writer’s evening with the Sage, A.E. George William Russell

Laura Ostertag, M.A. (French)

[Note: Téry’s quotes are the author’s translations from French to English.  These small excerpts are used here for educational and informational purposes for those interested in AE.]

By Femmes Françaises – This file comes from Gallica Digital Library, Public Domain

Simone Téry (1897-1967) was a courageous and determined French journalist and novelist who wrote two significant books on Ireland in the early years of her career.  She grew up in a family of journalists and novelists who were politically engaged, so it was no surprise that Téry left her post teaching in North Africa when her father, Gustave Téry, director of L’Oeuvre (a liberal newspaper), asked her to go to Ireland to report on the status of the truce between Ireland and Britain in 1921.

Although young and relatively new to reporting in a field dominated by men, Simone made impressive contacts and was able to secure many important interviews with political figures such as Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and members of Sinn Féin.   Indeed, according to Oliver O’Hanlon, author of “Simone Téry:  the Human Question Mark in Ireland, she “is reputed to have been the only journalist, French or otherwise, to have ever interviewed Collins.”  Travel journalism and reportage were somewhat new and Téry committed herself to giving on the spot, realistic, and empathetic reports from locations throughout Ireland.  In fact, contemporary critics praised her collection of articles and interviews from En Irlande: de la guerre d’indépendance à la guerre civile/In Ireland:  from the War of Independence to the Civil War, (1923), as invaluable chronicles of a turbulent and critical period in Irish history (O’Hanlon, “Une Française en Irlande”, 140).

Simone’s insightful and candid writing illuminated the humanity of the Irish to the French reading public.  She felt that the Irish were misunderstood and caricatured in the French press.  She reminded French readers that French and Irish histories were more alike than different.  She went on to say that the French should look to the Irish to rediscover the Celtic/Gaelic soul that the French had lost.

The purpose of this article is to highlight a chapter in her second book, L’Île des bardes/The Island of Bards, (1925), which introduces the poets of Ireland whom she felt were the true warriors who led the Irish to reclaim their identity and soul.  In the first chapter entitled ”Le Reveil/The Awakening,” she states: “this revolt … was a noble protest of free, outraged men fully conscious of their soul and its rights.  And, undoubtedly,  because it has its roots in the most pure idealism … [that was] sown by poets, that the national war gave such magnificent harvests of heroism and self-sacrifice.”

While the book is divided into chapters on W. B. Yeats, A.E., J.M. Synge, James Stephens, George Moore, and James Joyce, I will focus on her portrait of A.E. George William Russell (1867-1935), the Irish poet, painter, editor, practical mystic, and hub of Ireland’s literary revival, to whom she dedicates the book writing, “à ‘A.E.’, avec mon admiration, ma reconnaissance et mon affection/to A.E., with my admiration, my gratitude, and my affection.”  They became good friends and her chapter on A.E., more than any other chapter, shows a personal connection.  This connection was so deep that she had a premonition of his failing health and traveled to see A.E. only to arrive the day after his death on July 17th, 1935.

On the very first page of the chapter on A.E., Téry captures his vast appeal:

Do you have doubts about Fate, about the origin of the universe and its end? Go see A.E..  Are you looking for information on Gaelic literature, the Celtic soul, or Irish history? Go see A.E.. Are you interested in painting? Go see A.E.  Are you wondering how many eggs Kerry exports, or how much linen Ulster exports, or what is the best method of cultivating bees? Go see A.E..  Do you find society is all wrong, and do you want to improve it? Run to A.E.’s home.  Or are your worries more mundane and, like George Moore, you are just looking for a house in which to pass winter in Dublin? It is A.E. who will find it for you.  Do you doubt yourself? Do you find life ugly and insipid? A.E. will comfort you.  Do you need a friend? A.E. is always there.

(LÎle des bardes, 99).
Simone Téry (1897-1967)

In chaotic times, how comforting to know there is one person who has all the answers.  Simone writes: “A.E., the Sage of impulsive Ireland, at once mystic and economist, poet and painter, idealist and realist, could, all by himself, make us understand the noble and paradoxical Irish soul.”  Yet is it possible to know so great a man?  As time passes, it becomes more difficult to imagine what it might have been like to encounter such a man, especially one whom history and anthologies have often neglected.  Fortunately, Téry takes us to one of A.E.’s “at homes”, his weekly gatherings at 17 Rathgar Avenue where anyone interested in discussing a multitude of topics was welcome.  Her description of A.E. in his prime in the 1920’s is so intimate that nearly 100 years later, one feels as though one is there.  So, let us now listen to Simone Téry’s testimony:

…There are chosen beings who emanate a mysterious radiance; when passers-by come across one of them in the street, they follow him with their eyes; those who meet his gaze become overjoyed, those to whom he speaks feel warmed. All the faces turn instinctively towards him, like flowers towards the sun. By his presence alone, he creates a soothing zone around him; even those who are ordinarily morose or petty suddenly before him, as if by miracle, are joyous and kind. He has the unique power to bring out the best in men and to repel the worst. Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, and Tagore are these sweet, strong souls. A.E. is another. These men are the good spirits of humanity; they have something beyond human; it is their calm force that makes the world advance. 

However, since we cannot explain A.E.’s essence, we must content ourselves to experience it. So let’s go to see him; he will welcome us.

A.E.’s home at 17 Rathgar Avenue; the site of his famous literary “at homes.”

It is Sunday evening after dinner that we are going to see A.E.. The frantic tram abandons us in obscurity and its yellow glow quickly disappears with a horrible noise. We are in Rathgar, one of Dublin’s suburbs. With careful steps, we sink into the shadows. Dublin is not the City of Lights. We wander through the deserted streets, between the small, identical brick houses, covered in climbing vines, preceded by a small, well-maintained garden. The windows make a pretty, soft lighting, like in villages. But do not count on reading the name of the streets or the numbers. By happy coincidence or by a passerby sent by Fate, we are finally led in front of the house of A.E. Russell. Let’s open the gate, cross the yard;  there are still a dozen steep steps to go.  At the rap of the door knocker, a dog barks inside the house. Soon, A.E. himself comes to open the door.

In the semi dark of the hallway, we can only distinguish his tall, vigorous silhouette and his outstretched hand. He leads us through a small studio whose walls are covered top to bottom in unframed paintings; there are also a great number of canvases lying in disorder on the floor. A ray of light filters through a curtain, and behind it we hear voices. 

Here we are, in the place where A.E., for twenty years, has spread his wisdom. One would think they were in the studio of a student who was a little bohemian, a friend of the arts. On the fireplace, a clutter of little statues, Tanagras (Greek terracotta figurines, often depicting women), and casts; on the walls, the same abundance of canvases,  as in the previous room: paintings by A.E. – blue, vaporous countrysides penetrated by light forms – and by his friends; in the middle, “The Travelling Tinsmith”, by Jack Yeats, cursing and frenetic; to the right, the pink and fat face of the good Edward Martyn.  The only luxury of the room is that of beauty.  For furniture, there are only two comfortable easy chairs, some less comfortable chairs, and two rather hard sofas.  It’s the home of a sage; but its simplicity is likable and, despite its austerity, it’s the most cheerful place in the world.

Modern photo of the “library” where the “at homes” took place. You can also see what was A.E.’s studio at the time through the double doors.

Around a wood fire, some friends are having a conversation, without outbursts, without the desire to shine.  Seated on the sofa near the fireplace, the head leaning, Mrs. Russell listens, attentive and sweet; there is some light on her face, a little melancholy and dreaminess in her eyes; sometimes a flash of mischief comes to animate her serious goodness.  Here, there are writers, artists, professors, journalists, scholars and they sometimes talk in pairs, but most often the conversation is general and the room is small enough that it is not necessary to raise one’s voice.  It looks like it’s a family reunion around the fireplace.

A.E. is the father.  He is most often seated in a high wooden easy chair in the middle of the circle; but he is also very often on a chair in the corner.  He is not on a “throne”, he does not impose himself, he does not speak more than the others.  He encourages the most shy to give their opinion, and each one, from the famous writer to the little, unknown student, says his word with the same simplicity.  A.E. listens to them all with the same lively interest as if there was no one from whom he did not have something to learn.

Portrait of George Russell by Alfred Hugh Fisher. NLI reference PD RUSS-GE (3) II

Sunken into his chair, he smokes his pipe, smiling, and the swirls of smoke blend with those of his long white beard that makes him resemble God the Father.  One would say that he hides himself in this fluffy beard: it has invaded all that it could of his face, and the clearing of his forehead where it could not reach, is threatened by the exuberance of rebellious hair that A.E. pushes back as soon as the conversation gets animated.  His hair, supple and vibrant, surges with wild locks that never could bend to any discipline, A.E. wears like a flag…The traits of his face are concealed by so much vegetation, yet they are the most expressive in the world.  Under the mustache, one makes out the smile.  But all the life is gathered in his eyes of tender gray-blue, luminous, pacified, the blue of the sky after the rain.  When he leans toward a speaker to listen or to speak to him, his eyes, with an acute gentleness, penetrate him to the very depths.  He seems to press his eyes on what he observes and his prolonged look does not leave those to whom he speaks.

Who would have the nerve to lie to A.E. facing this clairvoyant curiosity?  To what good since A.E. has seen the thoughts in the souls before one has expressed them?  He has fun giving them birth, seeing them pass across faces, evoking them from the shadow, animating them by his breath, kneading them until they are strong and alive.  A.E. plays souls like a virtuoso.

 So what does A.E. talk about?  About everything.  He does not impose a subject. He doesn’t have a pet subject like most of the conversationalists. He questions you, rather he solicits you:  “Did you work well this week?  What new discoveries have you made?”

George William Russell – Project Gutenberg eText 19028. Public Domain

Don’t be worried: A.E. is going to reveal to you what you should have discovered during the week; he is going to shake up, excite, and inflame your spirit.  You had arrived with your brain all vague and cottony, you will go off with a clear and astute mind; the head buzzing with ideas, inspirations, plans – of what to dream about and what to work on all week long, until next Sunday.  Before a great, superior man, one has the disagreeable feeling of one’s own mediocrity; but it’s proof that one finds oneself before true greatness when one can say: I didn’t know I was so intelligent.  One of the secrets of attraction that A.E. uses is that in his presence, everyone becomes more intelligent.  His genius is so modest and so convincing that each person feels grateful for the beautiful things A.E. has found.

He is ready for all subjects: literature, politics, art, political economy, history, philosophy.  For a man not hypnotized by one specialty, A.E. brings new suggestions to each topic; he can animate poetry in philosophy, transform political economy as a poet.  A.E. is a little like the Diderot of Ireland, a gentle mystic Diderot; he shakes up ideas like a torch in a brilliant improvisation; and each person takes away the spark with which he will illuminate his fire.

Frolics by George Russell. Public Domain

In the same evening, A.E. talks to us about Confucius and of philosophers from China; he exposes the strategy of a Chinese general who died five thousand years ago; and then, to prove to us his wisdom is eternal, he exposes a cosmology of an American thinker still unknown, and connects it to the philosophy of the Indies that go back to the dawn of time; at a turn in the conversation he hurries to a bookshelf, excitedly pulls out a book and reads to us passages of ancient legends, the portrait of Etain, then the dialogue between Ossian and Saint Patrick; and he comments with magnificence. At that moment, A.E. seems like an inspired poet.  His eyes lance bolts of lightning, his beard moves like a banner, and his melodious and rhythmic voice rolls out a torrent of silver.  A god possesses him and this time he no longer sees us;  from the looks of it he is following a far away vision of beauty, and in order to describe it to us, he impetuously throws magnificent or charming images above our leaning heads…

Self Portrait by George Russell, 1923. Courtesy of Lissadell House

 …He presents his pipe like an argument, and then he takes enormous puffs, he ruffles his protesting hair.  His beard rises like incense, and the voice of an irritated god comes out.  Despite this, his eyes laugh.  A.E.’s eyes are never troubled or anxious.  A luminous serenity reigns there.  Between the beard and the hair, his look is like a ray of sunshine between the clouds.  And that is rather the image of the genius of A.E.: between the mysterious mist of the imagination, there is alway the clear light of wisdom.

Because A.E. is a sage, a sage like those of antiquity.  With a clear mind and upright heart, he knows how to guess intentions, sympathize with the most diverse souls, and stay master of himself in order to always be fair.  In this time of civil war, the grudges are aggravated, souls are stirred, and hatred elevated.  Sometimes someone gives in to violence and unjustly condemns an adversary.  But from the corner where A.E. silently listens, a clear and calm voice is raised full of gentle firmness.  He doesn’t appear to censure, he doesn’t lecture, he simply says, smiling:

  “It seems you are mistaken.”

or else:

  “I believe you are not exactly fair…”

By Irish Statesman – http://whytes.ie/IrishArt/i2PastCatalogues.asp?Auction=20160313&Lot=1&offset=400, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52237299

So A.E. cites facts, recalls memories, finds justifications, and puts things in focus.  Near A.E. one feels full of indulgence for humanity and confidence in the future because he has the rare gift of only seeing the best in each person.  But, when even A.E. does not find a word in favor of him whom one is attacking, what a terrible indictment!  A.E.’s silence is more accusatory than the worst attacks.

It’s because one feels he is infinitely equitable that A.E. exercises the same influence on his country as on his friends.  In the most tragic times, while the most noble and most base passions are burning, the same voice rises and, after having examined and reasoned, concludes with a peaceful firmness:  “The right side is with you, Irishmen:  It is just that you are free.  Beware of excesses as men whose cause is just, and you will be free…” A.E.’s articles, his little brochures, fly off across England and the British Empire, in America, in the entire world, and his gentle voice, without a doubt, has done more for the Irish cause than many gunshots.

Finally, since the peace, A.E. has founded a weekly magazine, the Irish Statesman, that is interested in the political, economic and intellectual life of the nation.  In truth, the turbulent Ireland, still in pain and troubled by grudges after the civil war, has found in A.E. the wise Mentor that it needed.


  1. Simone Tery, L’île des bardes/The Island of the Bards, (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1925), pp.7-8, p.99, pp.104-110, 139.  
  2. Oliver O’Hanlon, “Une Française en Irlande,” in Catherine Maignant (editor) La France et l’Irlande: destins croisés 16e-21e siècles/France and Ireland: Crossed Destinies 16th-21st centuries, (Pas de Calais: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2013), pp.133-146.
  3. Oliver O’Hanlon, “Simone Téry, the Human Question Mark in Ireland”, 2013.  https://www.nli.ie/news-stories/stories/simone-tery-human-question-mark-ireland 
  4. Nicole Racine, Anne Mathieu, “Téry, Simone” Le Maitron, November 30, 2010 https://maitron.fr/spip.php?article132213, notice TÉRY Simone par Nicole Racine, Anne Mathieu, version mise en ligne le 30 novembre 2010, dernière modification le 29 juillet 2022.