The Self-Ancestral: George Russell at 150

I had read his name often enough, but had very little knowledge of the man or what he had done. He used the pseudonym AE, wrote and painted, and knew W.B. and Jack Yeats. That was largely the extent of it. Then, a chance meeting at a bookshop in Athlone led me to attend a weekend dedicated to the man and to learn a good deal about both himself, and the small group of people – some in a literal sense – preserving his legacy. This post is a brief account of this event, entitled “AE George Russell – Sesquicentennial Seminar Dublin at the United Arts Club”.

From the venue in 3 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin 2, the organiser, Declan Foley, and speakers such as Dr. Roisin Kennedy, Dr. Nicola Gordon-Bowe, John Donohoe, Adrian Frazier, and Dr. Deirdre Kelly, spoke on George Russell’s political, artistic, and private life, each providing a unique view of the figure. The event was quite small, which was in one way a shame, and in another way ideal as over the two days one was able to engage with almost all of the other attendees and speakers, and learn more about each of them, and what drew them to the event.

Russell was born in 1867, and would become a major figure of the Irish literary revival. To put things very simply, he was a painter, an editor, a poet, a nationalist and a spiritualist who claimed to have visions, and was drawn to the practice of Theosophy. Greatly involved in politics, he was a defining figure in setting up credit societies, and Co-operative banks and farming initiatives which verged on socialistic. He advised the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George. He spoke out against the 1913 Lockout, and though he was a pacifist, wrote a lament for those who were executed in the 1916 Rising.

Beyond this, he nurtured the talent of younger writers such as Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O’Connor and F.R. Higgins, the former of which allegedly walked some sixty miles from Monaghan to Dublin to meet Russell for the first time, having received some notoriety from being published in The Irish Statesman, which Russell edited.

The event

The event began with a talk by Dr. Roisin Kennedy on the relevance of AE’s work for contemporary artists, and emphasised AE’s belief that a mystical view of nature is a national characteristic of Ireland. Then came Dr. Nicola Gordon-Bowe, who discussed AE’s belief in an underlying spirituality of the material manifestations we call reality. This idea often manifested in the presence of protective figures such as Sídhe in Russell’s paintings, protecting abandoned cottages in the hopes of the reurn of their displaced owners. (Dr. Gordon-Bowe also briefly noted Russell’s fondness, ‘like all good Pre Raphaelites’, for women with red hair. He was a man of good taste.) The final presentation was an interactive one by John Donohoe, a book collector and trader with a shop in Athlone. All attendees sat around tables which were covered with original editions of books and journals by Russell. We were encouraged to look through the texts, as John offered information on many of them.

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The second day began with a talk by Adrian Frazier on William Kirkpatrick Magee (pseudonym ‘John Eglington’) and his biography of Russell. The often unflatering representation of Russell which was discussed became the catalyst for a debate, particularly over the difficulty for contemporary audiences concerning Russell’s claims to have had visions. The quote attributed to Russell concerning his experience of ‘the sense of a divine thing, just missed’, was discussed as allowing one to view his spiritual happenings as ‘experiences of missed experiences’. This was opposed by those present who held a belief in his spirituality, and questioned the objectivity of Magee’s portrayal of Russell, and whether it was a biography of Russell, or a memoir of its writer. In the end, it was agreed that the debate among attendees was necessary in order to not make mere assumptions about historical figures.

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The final talk of the week was by Dr. Deirdre Kelly, who gave an in-depth discussion on Russell and his relationship to the Theosophical Society, an esoteric organisation which was set up by Helena Blavatsky, based on a belief in supernatural elements and the existence of an ancient, universal religion, from which all world religions are derived. Dr. Kelly talked on the Sídhe in Russell’s work and his belief that they were ‘the original embodiments of the Irish race’. The weekend closed with a visit to Russell and his wife’s modest grave in Mount Jerome cemetary, not far from other important figures, such as Jack B. Yeats.

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Throughout the weekend, many similar topics were discussed by each speaker. However, each viewpoint contributed singly to my understanding of Russell and his work. And in many ways the anecdotes told in passing throughout the weekend added a lot of verve. Jim Conway, a native of Lurgan, like Russell, humourously told of the links between Mary Poppins and George Russell, who was friends with the book’s author, Pamela Lyndon Travers. Mr. Conway noted the link between the film’s carousel horses who spring to life, which were inspired by the flying horses in Russell’s paintings. Mr. Foley read a story from Frank O’Connor in which he describes the sad affair of Russell giving away all his possessions as he did not wish to be materialistic, and how O’Connor and F.R. Higgins had sat in the house, as though they were at a wake, ‘only on this occassion the corpse was one of the company’.

For me, the anecdote which stole the weekend was AE’s appearance in Joyce’s Ulysses. Russell loans Stephen Dedalus a pound for food, and having spent it on a prostitute, Stephen considers the pun ‘A.E.I.O.U.’.

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This blog post is limited in that it tells only of what was learned in a weekend about a man who 150 years after his birth is still being considered for his contributions in Ireland, and beyond. If I could choose a single line from the weekend to portray a sense of the man which I recently knew so little about, it would be the statment by John Donohoe concerning Russell: ‘he was not troubled when he was told that he was dying’.

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