St. John Ervine’s play Changing Winds (1917) includes the following line: ‘Was there any one on earth less like the typical Ulsterman than George Russell, who preached mysticism and better business?” Russell’s story seems a radical divide between two aspects: the ‘strayed angel’ (as W. B. Yeats’ sisters nicknamed him): artist, poet, spiritualist, visionary and the practical man: agricultural economist, organiser of the Irish co-operative movement, journalist and newspaper editor.
Born on 10th April 1867 at William Street, Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Russell lived there until 1878 when the whole family moved to Dublin. Russell spent every second summer in Armagh and on a visit in 1883 began to experience supernatural visions which continued into adult life, affecting both his art and his sense of self. His artistic talents had been clear from a young age and he took classes at the Metropolitan School of Art where he came to know the poet William Butler Yeats around 1883. Yeats wrote a pen portrait of him about this time.
From 1890-7, Russell worked as a drapers assistant and by night worked as librarian in the lodge of the Theosophical Society (a group that aimed towards the Brotherhood of Man, and discovery of humanity’s latent powers and the unexplained laws of Nature) where he also lived. Theosophy had an important and long-last effect on his thinking. It also triggered the start of his literary career with contributions to mystical journals such as Lucifer and the Irish Theosophist, and the creation of his pen-name, ‘Æ’ (or AE.). AE derived from ‘Aeon’ (supposedly the first sound in the universe). His first collection of poetry, Homeward: songs by the way was published in 1894. He was ‘aflame with Theosophy, a red hot missionary’, but that passion was to be diverted into other paths.
In 1897 Russell was being courted for a position with the Theosophical Society in America. Yeats arranged an alternative: a position with Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). The IAOS was founded to develop Irish cooperative societies in dairy farming and credit banking. His reports in the Irish Homestead, the IAOS’ journal, about the campaign for credit banking he ran in Mayo was his first excursion into journalism. Recognising Russell’s abilities, Plunkett appointed him assistant secretary to the IAOS in Dublin in 1898. Russell married a fellow spiritualist, Violet North, that year.
Russell became editor of the Irish Homestead in 1905. The paper’s aim was to promote agricultural improvement and the ideal of cooperation between rural communities and agricultural societies. Though the cooperative movement was non-political its economic campaign, coming at the same time as cultural revival, lent itself to discussion of citizenship and self-help that would be crucial to ensure Ireland’s independent operation. Russell bridged the gap between material and intellectual reform. Writing on everything from poetry to butter preservation, Russell translated the language of the Celtic Revival into a process of practical reform.
Russell was already part of the Celtic Revival circle: his play Deirdre was produced alongside Yeats’ Kathleen ni Houlihan in April 1902 and he became president of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903. Under his editorship the Irish Homestead printed the works of young writers, most notably James Joyce. But Russell was one of the few that dealt with the problem of identifying and encouraging an authentically Irish reflective tradition.
In his major philosophical work, National Being he argues passionately for the cultivation of the intellectual life in Ireland. He criticised the focus in contemporary Ireland on political and militaristic matters, which leads to shallow thinking and a population who confuse expression of feeling with thought. He seeks “scholars, economists, scientists, thinkers, educationalists and litterateurs, who will populate the desert depths of national consciousness with real thought” (p. 5), thinkers such as Greece and Germany have had. This is all as a means to an end: national reclamation.
For Russell, “A nation is but a host of men united by some God-begotten mood, some hope of liberty or dream of power or beauty or justice or brotherhood” (extended quote). The practice of thought is aimed at the development of a national consciousness, required to resuscitate the nation. It’s tempting to link this to the portrait Joyce draws of AE in Ulysses as something of a Platonist, seeking eternal wisdom. There are also clear links here to theosophy, as there is in Russell’s celebration of the sources of the Irish mind, and the variety of thinkers it has produced (if Ireland “accepts all her children”).
Much of the rest of National Being celebrates rural life, partaking in a romantic agrarianism that stems back to Thomas Davis. (Arguably as a position its more convincing coming from a man who wrote weekly about crop improvement and butter preservation.) Russell also, unsurprisingly, praises the cooperative movement and argues that it also has a benefit from a nation-building point of view. For Russell the cooperative movement develops true citizens: “people continually conscious of their identity of interest with those around them” (p. 60).
This was a central concern for Russell. In Co-operation and Nationality (1912), written with Sophie Bryant, he says, “Isolate your man from obligations to a social order and in most cases his soul drops into the pit like a rotten apple from the tree of life.” This belief stems from Russell’s work travelling the country for the IAOS. The primary target is the “gombeen man”, the local money-lender, whose influence pervaded rural life. “In congested Ireland every job which can be filled by the kith and kin of the gombeen kings and queens, is filled accordingly…round the gombeen system reels the whole drunken, congested world, and underneath this revelry and jobbery the unfortunate peasant labors and gets no return for his labours.” Just as cooperative banking would undermine the gombeen man’s business, cooperation would strengthen rural life.
Other works such as Ireland and Tariff Reform (1909); The Building up of a Rural Civilisation (1910) and The Rural Community (1913) focused on rural affairs, as did the war-time Ireland, Agriculture and the War (1915) and Talks with an Irish Farmer (1916). But Russell was also involved in urban affairs, notably the 1913 Lockout. Russell not only spoke at the London rally protesting the imprisoning of the organisers but argued on behalf of the workers in To the Masters of Dublin (1913); The Tragedy of Labour in Dublin (1913); and The Dublin Strike (1913).
The 1916 Rising both horrified and excited him. Russell was distraught both at Connolly’s execution and the British blocking of his attempts to help the Connolly family to emigrate. Russell was nominated as a nationalist delegate to the Irish Convention held in TCD from 25 July 1917 to 5 April 1918, the last attempt to reconfigure constitutional relations between Britain and Ireland. His attempt to find a peaceful solution, outlined in Thoughts for a Convention (1917) failed, and he resigned.
As Ireland sunk into war Russell’s poetic works such as “The Interpreters” and “Michael” continued to explore the idea that nations have their root in some over-riding idea. In prose Russell argued for the ideal of Ireland as a co-operative commonwealth in The Inner and the Outer Ireland (1921); Ireland and the Empire at the Court of Conscience (1921); and Ireland, Past and Future (1922), and in Irish Homestead. He declined a senate seat offered after the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, but accepted the editorship of the Irish Statesman a weekly pro-Treaty publication.
The paper failed in 1930 and the early 1930s saw the death of his wife and friends such as Lady Gregory, George Moore and Horace Plunkett. The cooperative movement had also declined since the start of the First World War. Disillusioned, Russell left Dublin in 1933. He died of cancer in a Bournemouth nursing home on 17th July 1935.
He was remembered fondly by those he had helped, befriended and supported, including many writers. In 1968 Frank O’Connor wrote of him as (Peter R. Kuch)
a creature of habit, a generous but shrewd mentor, a figure poignantly at odds with an Ireland which increasingly ignored him despite his being one of its best-known journalists, poets, painters, mystics, agricultural economists, and elder statesmen.
Featured Image:Portrait of George William Russell. Wikimedia, Public Domain.
References and Further Reading
History Ireland: Irish co-operatives From creameries at the crossroads to multinationals by Carla King & Liam Kennedy
Irish Philosophy: Was it for this? – a post on Russell’s 1913 book Co-operation and Nationality and his disillusionment after the establishment of the Irish state.
Irish Philosophy: A Slip of Poetry on an Economic Tree: the National Being – a more detailed post on The National Being
Peter R. Kuch (2004.) ‘Russell, George William (1867–1935)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35880, accessed 8 April 2015]
Nicholas Allen. (2009) “Russell, George William (‘Æ’)” in Dictionary of Irish Biography. (ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn.
Thomas Duddy. (2004) “”Russell, George William (‘Æ’)” in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers. (ed.) Thomas Duddy.
Proquest Learning (Literature): Russell, George William, 1867-1935
National Gallery of Ireland: Artworks of George William Russell
Yeats: The Visionary
William George Russell’s obituary from The Canadian Theosophist