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150th anniversary of birth of AE (George W Russell) (1867-1935)

By Declan Foley

Today Monday April 10 is the 150 anniversary of the birth of a great Irishman George W Russell,  AE. A contemporary of W B Yeats, he has not, sadly, received the same attention from the Irish government, nor the 300k to commemorate his life, which in fact was entirely devoted to the Irish nation and its people.

AE was a poet, writer, painter, Theosophist, newspaper editor and Cooperative Movement organizer, best described in the title of Henry Summerfields' biography of AE "That Myriad Minded Man". He began his working life as a clerk in Pim's Stores in Dublin. In October 1883 he enrolled in evening classes at the Metropolitan School of Arts Kildare Street, Dublin, were he met W B Yeats, also a student there. His love of painting lasted most of his life, he and Jack Yeats spent summers in Sligo and Donegal drawing and sketching landscapes.

As a poet he published several books of poetry and books including  "The Candle of Vision", "The Interpreters" and "Imaginations and Reveries" in which he writes of his friends, his religious beliefs, and most of all his vision for the Irish Nation.The introduction of Censorship by the Irish government and the ongoing failure of governments to create greater opportunities for the people broke his heart.

Horace Plunkett co-founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, the first Irish Dairy Co-operative was erected at Doneraile Cork in 1889: today the Irish Co-operative Societies are multi-billion Euro operations.

AE was employed as a Secretary and local organizer, the latter took him to every parish west of the Shannon, and most of Munster, by bicycle, train and sidecar, in all weathers. There is a delightful story in Oliver St. John Gogarty's book "Mourning Became Mrs Spendlove and other portraits grave and gay" titled "The Hero in Man'", which relates AE's work in rural areas, in rescuing farmers and their families from the gombeen men and usury that was rife in the early days of the 20 century.

At the IAOS he produced the weekly newspaper "The Irish Statesman" incorporating "The Irish Homestead" mocked by Joyce in "Ulysses"  'the pig's paper': a publication of great cultural importance as well as agricultural advice. Farming and cultural families alike devoured its contents with glee.

His 'at homes' were always packed with young poets and artists as he encouraged all with talent to pursue their life in the arts. James Joyce gave him a more appropriate place later in "Ulysses"  with A.E.I.O.U.

His support of the 1913 Lock-out strike brought him in contact with James Connolly et al. It was AE who designed the banner for Connolly's Citizen Army "The Plough and the Stars" In a radio interview circa 1948  W. R Rodgers was told by Cathal O'Shannon, "It was a symbolic of AE as it was of the Citizen Army. It was on a green background with the seven stars of the constellation on it. It was an actual plough of the old wooden type. The plough itself was in yellow with three stars of the constellation in the handles, and the four stars in the other part of the plough. The men of the Citizen Army called it 'The Starry Plough'. It wasn't easy to carry, especially if there was a high wind." p 203 'Irish Literary Portraits'. The Starry Plough symbolised the connection of the earth with the heavens

In 1932/3 AE toured mid West America for 6 months lecturing to farmers at the invitation of the Roosevelt administration, who greatly admired his work in Ireland. In 1933 be became so disillusioned with Irish politics he moved to Bournemouth in England, where he died from cancer in 1935.

At his funeral in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Yeats was asked to give the oration at the grave. He refused on the grounds "I would have to tell the truth!" He passed the task to Frank O'Connor. As they left the cemetery Yeats asked O'Connor the speech to give to the newspapers. O'Connor stunned Yeats with the reply: "I gave it off the cuff!"

In later years Frank O'Connor was asked what he said at the graveside: "Yeats stood behind me, an old man who looked as though he didn't have long to live himself, and opposite me on the other side of the grave was Mr De Valera; in those days it wasn't considered a mortal sin to attend a Protestant funeral. I don't know what nonsense I spoke over the grave, I suspect it was all very youthful and very literary -- all I should say now was that this was the man who was father to three generations of Irish Poets, and there is nothing more to be said."  p 203 Irish Literary Portraits.

Recommended reading:   
"That Myriad Minded Man: A Biography of G.W.Russell - AE."  Henry Summerfield
"Irish Literary Portraits:  W.B.Yeats, James Joyce, AE et.al W. R. Rodger's broadcast conversations with those who knew them"
"The Living Torch"  Monk Gibbon a biography of AE.
"Selections from the Contributions to 'The Irish Homestead"  ed. Henry Summerfield
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The W B Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia 
Yeats 150  ed. Declan J Foley

Essays commemorating the 150 anniversary
of the birth of W B Yeats. 

The Only Art of Jack B. Yeats ed Declan J Foley
Letters from his father to Jack and essays.
www.lilliputpress.ie