“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.
In this year in which the 1916 Rising is to be commemorated, some have expressed concern about its history being rewritten 1. This suggests that there is a complete and perfect history in place that should never need revising – an idea that is clearly mistaken. History is always being rewritten as new perspectives and new data emerge, and this has always been the case for Irish history. Since at least the 17th century there have been different accounts of Irish history conflicting with each other, reflecting different understandings. And even when women weren’t mentioned in those histories, they were still there.
When Maud Gonne first came to Ireland in 1888, she met with John O’Leary with the aim of working for Ireland, but found that all the nationalist groups were closed to her. Arguing that women should be involved and citing the work done by the Ladies Land League, Gonne was told that “they did too good work and some of us found they could not be controlled.”2
Sophie Bryant (née Willock) was a true renaissance woman – suffragist, educationalist, mathematician, psychologist, theorist and “one of the most sophisticated and perceptive of the revivalist thinkers” 1 Born in Sandymount, near Dublin, on 15 February 1850 to Revd William Alexander Willock, a mathematician and fellow of Trinity College Dublin, and his wife, daughter of J. P. Morris of Skreen Castle. The family moved to London when Bryant was thirteen.
She married in 1869, but her husband died the next year. She was appointed to teach mathematics in North London Collegiate School, confounding the popular idea that girls were not suited for mathematics by sending a succession of girls to study the subject in Girton. She studied for her own degree at the same time, taking a BSc (London) in 1881 with a first in mental and moral science and a second in mathematics. Three years later she became the first woman to be awarded a DSc (in psychology). She became headmistress of the North London Collegiate in 1895, and was active in the development of education, including teacher training 2
It must contain and represent the races of Ireland. It must not be Celtic, it must not be Saxon—it must be Irish. The Brehon law, and the maxims of Westminster, the cloudy and lightning genius of the Gael, the placid strength of the Sasanach, the marshalling insight of the Norman—these are components of such a nationality.
Thomas Davis, quoted by Sophie Bryant in her 1913 Genius of the Gael (London:T. Fisher Unwin, p. 12), facing chapter 1: “The Composite Irish Nation of Today” (online at archive.org).
The original unabridged quote is from page 268 of:
Thomas Osborne Davis (1914) “Ballad Poetry of Ireland.” in D.J. O Donoghue (ed) Essays, literary and historical. By Thomas Davis. Centenary edition, including several pieces never before collected. Dundalk:Dundalgan Press, pp. 366–376 [online at UCC Celt].
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.
Continue reading “Mysticism and Better Business: George William Russell (AE)”
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)
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).