“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.”— George William Russell (A.E.) (1867–1935), “On Behalf of Some Irishmen Not Followers of Tradition,” in Collected Poems by A.E. (1913)
The poet, essayist, economist, critic, and artist George William Russell, who wrote under the pseudonym A.E., died 80 years ago today in a nursing home, dismayed by the direction taken by the Irish Free State since it had won a measure of autonomy from Britain for the people of Ireland. But then again, there was virtually nothing that could match the mystical nationalism and nationalistic mysticism of this often overlooked member of the Irish Literary Renaissance.
Russell’s vision of Ireland as not just a country about to fulfill its potential, but also about to serve as a beacon to the world, is every bit as ecstatic as the one held by American believers in “Manifest Destiny” the century before. “Out of Ireland will arise a light to transform many ages and peoples,” he wrote to William Butler Yeats (maybe his only rival for belief in the other-worldly) in an 1896 letter.
Novelist George Moore, who described a trip with his friend in his autobiographical trilogy Hail and Farewell (1912), regarded Russell in a half-amused, half-captivated fashion: “AE is extraordinarily forthcoming, and while speaking on a subject that interests him, nothing of himself remains behind, the revelation is continuous, and the belief imminent that he comes of Divine stock, and has been sent into the world on an errand.”
Though telling James Joyce when they first met that there was “not enough chaos in your mind to create a world,” Russell ended up publishing three of the young man’s stories that eventually ended up in Dubliners. Joyce, proud and probably peeved at that initial remark, satirized “A.E.” as “A.E.I.O.U.” in Ulysses.
Joyce, it seems, was one of the few people who did not fall under Russell’s spell. Those who came to Russell’s house to listen to him rhapsodize included the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, Lady Gregory, James Stephens, Padraic Colum, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Oliver St. John Gogarty—anyone who was anyone in the Irish literary (and even political) world.
What was Ireland’s “light to transform many ages and peoples”? It was very unlikely that Russell had the “Celtic Tiger” in mind—economic growth has proved chimerical. No, it wasn’t wealth, but literature that has proved enduring.