The 150th anniversary of the birth of George Russell (on 10 April 1867 in Lurgan) comes at an appropriate time. The major focus of Russell’s life was on developing Ireland, materially and culturally. A poet, he seemed an unlikely choice as organizer for the newly established co-operative movement in Ireland in 1897. Yet his indefatigable work vindicated Horace Plunkett’s choice.
In 1916, Russell dedicated his new book The National Being: Some Thoughts on an Irish Polity to Plunkett1:
A good many years ago you grafted a slip of poetry on your economic tree. I do not know if you expected a hybrid. This essay may not be economics in your sense of the word. It certainly is not poetry in my sense…In my philosophy of life, we are all responsible for the results of our actions and their effects on others. This book is a consequence of your grafting operation, and so I dedicate it to you.
This book comes closest to bringing together Russell’s myriad interests reflected in his various friendships: Yeats’ mysticism, Plunkett’s concern for the rural population, Connolly’s fight for the urban labourer and Bryant’s argument for a unified Irish identity. The bulk of the book deals with the practical problems that a new Irish state needs to solve.
AE identifies, as he did in his 1913 Co-operation and Nationality the key problem of rural stagnation and underdevelopment. As there, he argues for a cooperative solution, starting with cooperation over food production, rather than dependence on the state for answers. He outlines in more detail how he sees this will develop an outward focus in communities while allowing them to create the structures and facilities than they particularly need. The aim is to develop the countryside as a place where people will want to live: “is not the idea of a civilisation amid the green trees and fields under the smokeless sky alluring?”2.
In contrast, urban civilisation is “a nightmare, a bad dream…they grow meaner as they grow more urbanised.” Russell’s concern here is not solidarity as in the rural situation, but freedom which farmers already possess and labour lack. Russell’s analysis highlights the oppression that he sees in industrial societies, underpinned by job insecurity. The power of arbitrary dismissal undermines free expression and independence of character. “not alone material independence for man, but the freedom of the soul, its right to choose its own heroes and its own ideals without let or hindrance by other men.”3
Again Russell turns to a cooperative solution, this time starting at the consumption side, allowing city dwellers to combine to maximise their purchasing power. This in time will develop into democratic industry growing up to provide commodities for the co-operative shops. With both urban and rural united within the same movement, Russell hopes this will enable them to see their interests are the same.
This is the core problem, for Russell. He is against revolution: “I am sympathetic with idealists in a hurry, but I do not think the world can be changed suddenly by some heavenly alchemy”. But he agrees change is needed: legislatures and the press are too easily captured by powerful interests. Instead he wants control from the bottom, hoping “the idea of democratic control of its economic life will so pervade Irish thought that it will be in the body politic what the spinal column is to the body.” 4
This is not to say that he wants homogenity. Instead he believes that cooperation will help act against divisions such as rich against poor, rural against urban and indeed, sectarian divisions. It would also allow Irish solutions for economic and political problems to emerge: “the signature of the Irish mind is not apparent anywhere in this new machinery of self-government.”5
This is part of the more mystical and nationalist thread of The National Being. Like Sophie Bryant, Russell believes that nations have a particular character that persists. Like “The clan was…aristocratic in leadership and democratic in its economic basis”, he says and lists luminaries from Swift to Plunkett who “were intensely democratic in economic theory, adding that to an aristocratic freedom of mind.”6
Earlier in the book Russell made a plea for the cultivation of intellectual life. In a “mystical meditation” he put forward the notion that “the State is a physical body prepared for the incarnation of the soul of a race”. For the soul to grow national ideals must develop, something neglected in the political push for nationhood: “the nation was not conceived of as a democracy freely discussing its laws, but as a secret society with political chiefs meeting in the dark and issuing orders.” Therefore Russell calls instead for “scholars, economists, scientists, thinkers, educationalists, and litterateurs, who will populate the desert depths of national consciousness with real thought and turn the void into a fullness.”7
Without such national ideas uniting in one spirit the rural and the urban, and coordinating the actions of statesmen, universities, social organisations and citizens, Russell warns Ireland could become just one more “penny-dreadful nationality” embroiled in conflict. He calls on idealists to “come out of this present-day Irish Babylon, so filled with sectarian, political, and race hatreds, and to work for the future.” Yet he does not believe this can or should be done in a hurry8:
Nations which form their ideals and marry them in a hurry of passion are likely to repent without leisure, and they will not be able to divorce those ideals without prolonged domestic squabbles and public cleansing of dirty linen
Russell continued to write about his vision of Irish culture, notably in the Irish Statesman from 1923 to 1930. He argued for an inclusive view of Irishness, incorporating Gael, Dane, Norman and Saxon. With GB Shaw he opposed the Sinn Fein call to withdraw from the League of Nations, the Imperial Conference and the British Commonwealth, arguing that the Irish place was in the world, just as great Irish figures of the past “affected powerfully the thought of the world, from the remote missionaries who from Ireland invaded Europe with the Gospel of Christ, down to the era of Swift, Berkeley, Goldsmith, Sheridan and Burke.”9.
After 1927, Fianna Fail entered the Dail, changing both Irish politics and the focus of The Irish Homestead away from being a European political and cultural review towards domestic controversy. The journal campaigned furiously against the Censorship Bill (1928) with some success, until it closed in 1930.
It is appropriate that we remember George Russell because just as he was in his time, we are faced with choices about where Ireland goes next. We have changed direction from the path set in 1927 and we have washed much dirty linen. We have to decide on our future relationship with Europe, and face the likelihood that British exit from the EU will hurt rural Ireland, potentially widening urban-rural rifts. The “twin serpents of sectarianism” that threatened the infant Irish state are not fully dead.
Then as now we need to come together and decide our way ahead. Perhaps the point we aim for will have some similarities to that George Russell, self-christened AE for Aeon, hoped for10:
We should aim at a society where people will be at harmony in their economic life, will readily listen to different opinions from their own, will not turn sour faces on those who do no think as they do, but will, by reason and sympathy, comprehend each other and come at last, through sympathy and affection, to a balancing of their diversities, as in that multitudinous diversity, which is the universe, powers and dominions and elements are balanced, and are guided harmoniously by the Shepherd of the Ages.
Featured Image: Drawing by AE (George Russell). Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
George Russell (1916) The national being; some thoughts on an Irish polity New York:The MacMillan Company (online)
Text versions of George Russell’s works, including The National Being are available from Project Gutenberg.
Nicholas Allen (2000) “The politics of a cultural journal: George Russell and the irish statesman.”in Bells: Barcelona English language and literature studies [online], Vol. 11 , p. 7-15. http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Bells/article/view/102902
Irish Philosophy: Mysticism and Better Business: George William Russell (AE) – an overview of Russell’s life and thought.
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.
Daniel Mulhall (2016) “Irish writers and 1916: 1. George Russell (AE)” on Embassy of Ireland – Great Britain (blog)
Daniel Mulhall (2017) “AEIOU: Ireland’s debt to George Russell” on Irish Times (10 Apr 2017).
Daniel Mulhall (2017) “Hairy fairy revisited – An Irishman’s Diary on George Russell” on Irish Times (10 Apr 2017).
— Swan River Press (@SwanRiverPress) April 10, 2017
— Swan River Press (@SwanRiverPress) April 10, 2017
— Nat Gallery Ireland (@NGIreland) April 10, 2017
- George Russell (1916) The national being; some thoughts on an Irish polity New York:The MacMillan Company (online) ↩
- The National Being, chapters IV-VII. Quote on p. 63. ↩
- The National Being, chapters VIII-XII. Quotes on p . 63 and p. 74. ↩
- The National Being,, chapter XIII. Quotes on p. 99 and p. 103. ↩
- The National Being, quote on p. 110 ↩
- The National Being, quotes on p. 125. ↩
- The National Being, pp. 2-7, quotes on pages 2, 7, 5. ↩
- The National Being, quote on p. 136. Quote below p. 7 ↩
- George Russell (1923) “A Confession of Faith” in Irish Statesman 1.1 (September 15) quoted on page 11 of Nicholas Allen (2000) “The politics of a cultural journal: George Russell and the Irish Statesman.”in Bells: Barcelona English language and literature studies (online), Vol. 11 , p. 7-15. http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Bells/article/view/102902 ↩
- The National Being, quote from pp. 175-6. ↩