Rathmines Readers – AE’s 150th centenary
Bearded, bear-like, immensely kind; Frank O’Connor compared him to an old fur coat, unkempt but warm, while the artist Beatrice Glenavy said "he had a sort of wild look, but it wasn't wild with fury, he was wild with warmth and vitality and terrible interest in everybody." Brendan Jacobs, the nephew of the artist Estella Solomons, met him often when he visited the house of he aunt Estella Solomons in Rathfarnham and thought that he was God, albeit a God who was not very good at croquet.
Born in Lurgan on 10th April 1867, the Russell family moved to Dublin when George was a child. He can be justly claimed as a Rathmines reader, for he was brought up in Grosvenor Square, attended school in Rathmines and lived most of his later life in the close vicinity of 17 Garville Avenue. While he could not have used Rathmines Library as a child – it did not open until 1913 – we can safely assume that he brought his own children there in later years, and perhaps used the old newspaper room to catch up on the daily news.
By 1901 Russell and his wife Violet were living in Coulson Avenue, close to where the Markieviczs and Maud Gonne lived. Maud Gonne became the famous subject of “The Battle of Coulson Avenue”, when in protest against the bunting being put on display for visiting royalty she hung a black garment out of her upstairs window on a flagpole – in some accounts a petticoat, in others a pair of bloomers. The horrified residents called the police and in the meantime Gonne’s friends gathered to defend her right to display the offending garment.
Russell’s protests against the status quo were less dramatic but all he did stemmed from a deep belief that Ireland was on the cusp great change, indeed of a new age. This was linked to the strong mystic element in his nature, a spirituality which refused to tie itself to any one creed. In the 1911 census – the family by now living with their two sons in Garville Avenue - he and his wife describe their religion as “Eclectic” and he unashamedly painted and wrote poetry about his visions of the mystical beings that he believed inhabited the Irish landscape.
If Russell was a mystic, he was one with a practical side, for he was also very active in the activities of The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, which organised credit facilities for small farmers on a co-operative basis. These activities included editing its journal, The Irish Homestead, (later The Irish Statesman) which gave Russell the opportunity of publishing young writers, the work of poets and essayists mingling with advice on bee-keeping and foraging for mushrooms. Unlike his friend and sometime critic Yeats, AE did not have an ego that was sensitive to competition; he encouraged rather than criticised those he thought held promise. Half nurse, half guardian angel to the Irish Cultural Revival of the early 20th century, Russell was the mentor and friend to most of the young writers and artists of this period.
He and his wife held open a weekly "At Home" at his house in Rathgar, benevolently welcoming writers and artists and providing advice on the nature of the universe and how to contact fairy hosts, assistance in the practicalities of getting work published and a seemingly bottomless well of moral and emotional support. One of his protégées was the poet and editor Seumas O’Sullivan, who also lived in Rathmines for many years. It has been recounted that O’Sullivan, along with John Eglington, had the dubious honour of introducing Russell to the delights of drinking in the Bailey pub on the night before his marriage in 1898.
Image right: Frontispiece, George Russell in America. From A Memoir of AE, by John Eglinton. London 1937. (click to enlarge)
But in later life, after the tragedies and bitterness of revolution and civil war, Russell’s belief in a brave new Ireland began to fade. His hope had been that Ireland’s coming to nationhood would be part of a new world order. As he had said: When the hour comes we will have something to give the world, and we will be proud to give rather than to grasp.
There was not much evidence of this generous spirit in the newly-formed Irish state. Catholic triumphalism was reached a zenith at the Eucharistic Congress in 1934. AE found the whole experience of seeing Dublin over-run with piety so distressing that he took himself out of the city for the duration, calling on Manannan, the Celtic god of the waves, to come and wash away the damned Christian idolators. The Congress which AE found so distasteful had at least had the positive effect of bringing most of the population together in a common celebration, and thus may have helped the healing of wounds after the Civil War; but it did so by creating and affirming a national identity that was firmly anchored to the idea of a narrowly Catholic state.
When AE's wife, Violet, his wife, died in 1932 he finally decided that he could no longer live in this new Ireland. He spent some time in America, lecturing, but by 1934 it was obvious that he was too ill to continue with these tours. He died in a nursing home in Bournemouth in July 1935. His friend Pamela Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins left a moving account of his last hours. As she travelled home from Bournemouth on the evening after his death, she was enveloped in a sensation of awe as she watched the moon rise out of the sea:
And it was light - such light there was perhaps, on the first day. Never before have I seen such a moon. It came slowly out of the sea, full, golden, and enormous, dazzling as the sun.
This piece on George Russell is the first of an occasional series “Rathmines Readers” which will celebrate the strong literary heritage of Rathmines and its environs. Biographies and critical studies of AE are available in Dublin Libraries and his original writings in Dublin City Library and Archive.