This A4 page leaflet was published by the Mansion House Conference. The text consists of a letter written by George Russell to The Manchester Guardian, printed in the issue of May 11th 1918. This copy is held in UCD Special Collections.
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.
“It may seem strange to some that The Irish Times would ask whether this is what the men of 1916 died for”, an editorial in the paper said the day the Troika came to Dublin, under the headline “Was it for this?”1. Why does this line from Yeats’ poem “September 1913”2 still resonate so much?
For many it is because the Ireland that the 1916 Rising aimed to achieve does not exist. Yeats’ dissatisfaction is shared with us. This feeling is not a new thing. In 1922, George Russell wrote in Studies that3:
the Irish Revolution, which began in Easter Week, has also triumphed solely in externals. Our spiritual, cultural, and intellectual life has not changed for the better. If anything, it has retrograded.
I have found few people in Ireland deeply concerned about the ethics of civil war or revolution. The majority accept the principle that it is lawful to use physical force in support of high ideals. Their questioning is about the justice of the cause; and if that be admitted, they seem to think the right to use physical force to secure its triumph follows in logical and unquestionable sequence. I will not discuss the morality of civil war or revolution. I remember a man, tired of ideal ethics, who cried out at a meeting many years ago: “Let us hear no more of the good man or the bad man. Let us speak of the wise man and the foolish man.” I am like that man.
Æ George Russell (1923) “Lessons of Revolution” in Studies Vol. 12, No. 45 (Mar., 1923), pp. 1-6 [JSTOR]
This piece was written just after the War of Independence, as the Civil War was looming. This opening paragraph gives Russell’s view of the majority opinion about the ethical status of the Rising and subsequent warfare. The rest of the article gives Russell’s opinion of how successful those events were in producing the type of state he and others had hoped for (not at all).
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.
What too many people in Ireland mistake for thoughts are feelings. It is enough to them to vent like or dislike, inherited prejudices or passions, and they think when they have expressed feeling they have given utterance to thought. The nature of our political controversies provoked passion, and passion has become dominant in our politics. Passion truly is a power in humanity, but it should never enter into national policy.
Chapter I, The National Being (1916), by (A.E.) George William 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, and until that master idea is manifested to us there is no shining star to guide the ship of our destinies. […] We have to do for Ireland—though we hope with less arrogance—what the long and illustrious line of German thinkers, scientists, poets, philosophers, and historians did for Germany, or what the poets and artists of Greece did for the Athenians: and that is, to create national ideals, which will dominate the policy of statesmen, the actions of citizens, the universities, the social organizations, the administration of State departments, and unite in one spirit urban and rural life. Unless this is done Ireland will be like Portugal, or any of the corrupt little penny-dreadful nationalities which so continually disturb the peace of the world with internal revolutions and external brawlings, and we shall only have achieved the mechanism of nationality, but the spirit will have eluded us.
‘AE’ (George William Russell) on the need for a national reflective tradition. He sees in the Ireland of his time the mistaking of feelings for thought and the overdominance of passion in politics. From The National Being (1916)
I am a literary man, a lover of ideas, but I have found few people in my life who would sacrifice anything for a principle. Yet in Dublin, when the masters issued that humiliating document, asking men – on penalty of dismissal – to swear never to join a trades union, thousands of men who had no connection with the Irish Transport Workers – many among them personally hostile to that organisation – refused to obey. They would not sign away their freedom, their right to choose their own heroes and their own ideas. Most of these men had no strike fund to fall back on. They had wives and children depending on them. Quietly and grimly they took through hunger the path to the Heavenly City. […] For all their tattered garments, I recognise in these obscure men a majesty of spirit. It is in these workers in the towns and in the men in the cabins in the country that the hope of Ireland lies.
William Russell (AE) puts the General Strike of 1913 firmly in the realm of rights and freedom: to associate, to have one’s own ideas, to follow one’s own ideals.
From ‘The Dublin Strike’ by George Russell. Section I. A Plea for the Workers’, a speech delivered in the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1 November 1913 to an audience of 12,000 persons.
Published by the Irish Worker Press, Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1913. [available on archive.org]
We wish the Irish mind to develop to the utmost of which it is capable, and we have always believed that the people now inhabiting Ireland…made up of Gael, Dane, Norman and Saxon, has infinitely greater intellectual possibilities…a more complex mentality. Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.
Quoted by Richard Kearney in the Sunday Independent, May 26, 1985. These words were also included in the opening of a collection of essays, The Irish Mind, published in 1985 and edited by Kearney. The quote was intended to act as an epigraph for the book, outlining the context of and acting as a preface to the subject.
AE, aka George William Russell originally wrote this in the Irish Statesman(17 January 1925).