Monday, April 17, 2017

George William Russell (AE) - Writer, Painter, Philosopher, Social Activist

by Arthur Russell
George William Russell was born in the rural townland of Drumgor, near the town of Lurgan, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland on April 10th 1867 to Thomas Elias Russell and Mary (nee Armstrong). He was baptized in the nearby Shankill church. He was the youngest of three children; a brother Thomas Samuel who was 3 years older and sister Mary Elizabeth, who was one year older. When he was 11 years old, the family moved to Dublin to allow father Thomas to take up a new job in a brewery. George was sent to the Metropolitan School of Art where he befriended the principal teacher’s son, William Butler Yeats, who was destined to become the brightest light of the Irish Literary revival as well as a future Nobel prize winner for literature.

When George was 17, the Russell family was dealt a severe blow with the death of his sister Mary Elizabeth. The poignant poem “A Memory” gives indication of how her death affected him, and was an early indication of his writing talent.

You remember dear together 

Two children you and I 

Sat once in the Autumn weather
Watching the Autumn sky

There was someone around us straying 

The whole of the long day through 

Who seemed to say, "I am playing 

At hide and seek with you"

And one thing after another
Was whispered out of the air
How God was a great big brother
Whose home is everywhere

His light like a smile comes glancing
Through the cool winds as they pass
From the flowers in heaven dancing
To the stars that shine in the grass

The heart of the wise was beating
Sweet sweet in our hearts that day
And many a thought came fleeting
And fancies solemn and gay

We were grave in our ways divining 

How childhood was taking wings 

And the wonderful world was shining 

With vast eternal things.

His Cooperative Work

After leaving Art School, where he developed his painting skills, but obviously not enough to consider taking up painting as a full time profession capable of giving him an income, he went to work in his father’s employer’s brewery. Later he became a clerk in Pim’s drapery store in Dublin, where he was earning 60 pounds sterling per annum by the time he resigned to join the budding Irish Cooperative and Credit Union movements at the invitation of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) founder, Sir Horace Plunkett.  His first job with IAOS was as Banks Organiser, but his writing ability soon saw him contributing to and then editing the Society’s magazine The Irish Homestead which later merged with The Irish Statesman. He had a strong social sense and threw himself wholeheartedly into the development of the Cooperative movement as a means of supporting the economic development and market integration of emergent small holder proprietors that the various Land Purchase Acts were creating all over Ireland at the time. His cooperative work brought him to every part of Ireland, most of which still had searing and recent memories of famine and eviction which were seen as outcomes of the centuries old landlord system of land ownership in Ireland.

He edited the IAOS publication until 1930, which provided him with an outlet to display his writing talents as well as giving him a facility to mix the practical with the visionary (the vision and the dream). His boyhood experience as the son of a small holder farming community in Armagh helped him to provide well grounded technical advice to his farmer readers, at the same time giving him opportunity to outline philosophical thoughts on what the social and political future for his rural readers might be. He was sought after as a speaker lecturer not only in Ireland, but also in the United Kingdom and pre and post Depression era United States of the 1920’s and 1930’s.  

After his death in England in 1935, his body was returned to Dublin and lay in state for a day in Plunkett House, headquarters of IAOS, before it was brought to Mount Jerome cemetery for burial.

His Literary Work

Cover of AE's first publication (1894)
Drawing by the author
His first book of poems, Homeward: Songs by the Way, published in 1894, established George William Russell as one of the leading lights of the Irish Literary Revival. His friend W B Yeats considered this little book as one of the most important literary offerings of the day.

The Origin of His Pseudonym “AE”

As his literary reputation grew he adopted the pseudonym “AE”, derived from the word Aeon. This is a gnostic term used to describe the first created being. The story is told that his printer had difficulty deciphering Russell’s handwriting and could only discern the first two letters of the 4 letter word in his manuscript. When asked to clarify the remaining two letters of the word, Russell decided not to add to what had already been composited by the printer and thereafter used AE to sign off on all subsequent offerings.  His mystic disposition had earlier caused him to join the small Theosophist movement in Dublin for several years, but he left after the death of its founder, Madame Blavatsky. While living there he met his future wife, Violet North and married her in 1897. The couple lived for some time in Coulson Avenue where they were neighbours to Maude Gonne and Count and Countess Markiewicz.

He was an active member and contributor to the Irish Literary Society, which was founded by his friend W B Yeats and others. The early moving force for the literary movement was the writings of Standish O’Grady who looked at Ireland’s romantic past for inspiration. On reading O’Grady, Russell was moved to write "one suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him and knows he was born in a royal house - it was the memory of race which rose up within me."

His Theatrical Work

Yeats and Russell shared a passion for the theatre and together they formed the National Theatre Company, later called the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Yeats was President, Russell Vice-President and among the Committee members were Maud Gonne and the Gaelic language scholar and later first President of the Republic of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Russell's play Deirdre is credited to have been the spark that set the Irish dramatic movement alight. Not only did he write the play, he also designed the costumes in its first production. His brilliant but eccentric personality contributed mightily to the evolving Irish literary revival, which is popularly referred to as the “Celtic twilight”.

His Paintings:
Bathers - by AE (exhibited in 1904)
Russell had a talent for painting, which he followed during his life, mainly for his own recreation "whenever words failed him". There is a respectable gallery of his works which would lead one to question how good and enduring his painting legacy would be if he had invested more time and effort into that side of his output. We will never know. Suffice it to say, his paintings have a significant market and are well regarded by many.

The Irish Times newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary of the first exhibition of his paintings in 1904 at which he sold an amazing 68 paintings – many to the noted New York art collector, John Tobin; suggested it is high time for another exhibition to create awareness and appreciation of AE’s art.    

Russell the Social Activist

He was destined to live through troubled times in Ireland and much change. The first two decades of the 20th century were the final years of the British Empire in Ireland and ushered in the formative years of the new Irish Free State that emerged in the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence in 1919-1921. It was never in Russell’s nature to be a mere bystander or spectator in the movements of his times, and he engaged fully in trying to formulate what kind of Ireland would face into the last century of the millennium. As a visionary, poet, painter, author, journalist, economist and (finally) an agricultural expert he had views aplenty and was never slow to express them with great articulation and conviction.

He was involved in the general strike of 1913 and took part in a mass meeting in Albert Hall London in support of the Dublin strikers, where he shared the platform with George Bernard Shaw and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. He was an Irish Nationalist, but as a committed pacifist he deplored the violence of the Nationalist inspired Dublin Rebellion in Easter 1916. This did not stop him from organising a subscription for the widow of one of the executed leaders, James Connolly, who he had befriended during the 1913 strike; both men having shared views on how to deal with the exploitative attitude of many employers of the time.

The following lines written by Russell indicates something of the dilemma he and many pacifist nationalists of the day felt. He could admire the idealism of those who followed Patrick Pearse in taking up the gun in pursuit of nationalist ideals, but like many others he had serious issues with bloodletting as a means to achieve them.    

“And yet my spirit rose in pride
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died
Or were shut up in penal cell
Here's to you Pearse, your dream, not mine
And yet the thought- for this you fell
Has turned life's water into wine”.
(from To the memory of some I knew who are dead and loved Ireland  - 1917)

He was conscious his adherence to non main stream views and opinions at a time when the extremes on both sides of the political divide were in clear ascendancy, drew sharp criticism from many, but he remained stoically unapologetic for his pacifism through that most turbulent period of Irish history.

On Behalf of Some Irishmen Not Followers of Tradition

They call us aliens we are told 

Because our wayward visions stray 

From that dim banner they unfold 

The dreams of worn out yesterday.

We hold the Ireland of the heart 

More than the land our eyes have seen 

And love the goal for which we start 

More than the tale of what has been.

No blazoned banner we unfold 

One charge alone we give to youth 

Against the sceptred myth to hold 

The golden heresy of truth.

His Relationship With the Newly Independent Irish State

George William Russell was disappointed that Irish independence was painfully slow in bringing the cultural and social flowering for which he yearned. He was of the opinion that the emerging rather puritanical state with its narrow vision, of which censorship of arts and writing was one of its most potent instruments, effectively blocked intellectual and artistic freedom as it tried to establish the new nation during the 1920s and 30s. He was particularly critical of the excessive influence the Catholic Hierarchy had manage to establish over the emergent body politic. It was his discomfort with this, along with the death of his wife a year earlier that caused him to leave Ireland in the aftermath of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress which was held in Dublin and which he considered a potent demonstration of over pervasive clerical power.

He moved to Bournemouth in England where he died in 1935.

His Support to Young Writers and Artists

During his years in Dublin, his company was much sought after and his home in Rathgar Avenue, Dublin became a meeting place for those interested in the Arts and Economics. He paid special attention to young talent, which he did all in his power to groom and encourage.

He was an endless source of support and advice to emerging writers. He first met James Joyce in 1902 and encouraged him to hone his craft as a writer. He once loaned him money, which Joyce acknowledged pithily with a written “AEIOU”.

One of his lesser known acts was to support the American writer Pamela Lyndon Travers, the future author of Mary Poppins (published 1934) at a time when her interest in myths brought her into contact with both Yeats and himself in 1924. AE encouraged her to write and even published some of her writings in The Irish Statesman.

Simone Tery the French writer in L'ile des Bards wrote about him:
"Do you want to know about providence, the origin of the universe, the end of the universe? 
Go to AE. 

Do you want to know about Gaelic literature? 
Go to AE. 

Do you want to know about the Celtic soul? 
Go to AE. 

Do you want to know about Irish History? 
Go to AE. 

Do you want to know about the export of eggs? 
Go to AE. 

Do you want to know how to run society? 
Go to AE. 

If you find life insipid - 
Go to AE. 

If you need a friend - 
Go to AE.

These lines from a contemporary are a fitting accolade for one of Ireland’s not so well known writers who played a vital role in what is now known as the Celtic revival.

Author’s Note – While I had always been aware of George William Russell, otherwise known as AE, with whom I share a surname: I was not so aware of any family connection with him until very recently, when a distant cousin with interest in genealogy put focus on a lady called Frances Mary McGee, whose mother was a daughter of our common great grandfather. This lady married the brother of George William (AE), and while his surname was also Russell, Thomas Elias was not directly related to “our” Russells. (At least we need to go much further back to find any blood linkage). This information about Frances Mary caused me to remember conversations in my own family about a distant cousin called Fanny (short for Frances) McGee, second cousin to my father who had married into a family associated with artists and poets. Who else could it have been?

It was a personal Eureka moment, as I share some of AE’s interests (though not necessarily his unique talent) for reading, writing, (I really know little about painting!) As well I share a strong belief in the positive role of self-help cooperative endeavor for solving problems facing Agriculture in feeding today's World's burgeoning population.

Arthur Russell is the Author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he, his family and his dreams endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion was awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.

Further information from


  1. That's very interesting I've never heard of him I think I need to write his na!e out on my book list and see if I can find a book by him so I can read it

  2. I am a descendent from Russell's of Drumgor in Lurgan. My great grandfather Henry Thomas Russell fought inthe boer wars and I would love to know what the connection is with George William Russell as my uncle is an artist and who knows where the talents passed down from


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