AE, the man who was Lurgan's foremost yet now all-but-forgotten literary son
He was a writer, painter, influential editor and political activist and a friend of Yeats and Joyce but AE, George William Russell, is little known today in his native Lurgan. Michael McKernan, co-author of a new book on his links to the town, tells Noel McAdam how moves are afoot to change that
MANY tributes have been paid over the decades to one of the north of Ireland's now less-remembered literary figures but for the mysteriously named Lurgan-born AE – real name George Russell – a fellow feeling for his native region was somewhat lacking.
With no hint of humour, Russell insisted he had "never been sufficiently grateful to Providence for the mercy shown to me in removing me from Ulster".
"Yes, he was thankful that God spared him," says the co-author of a new guide to Russell, Michael McKernan. "But it was Ulster he was talking about, it wasn't Lurgan! He hated all the sectarian stuff and could see nothing but trouble ahead."
In fact, as McKernan and the Lurgan and North Armagh George Russell society have recently discovered, AE was a regular visitor to Ulster as an adult, both to areas of the province that during his lifetime became part of Northern Ireland and to Co Donegal.
However, a lifelong belief in pacifism and reconciliation may have been sparked by his disillusion over the antagonism he witnessed before his family moved to Dublin.
AE – the first two letters of the word Latin word Aeon, a pen-name Russell used; the truncated form, arose from a printer's inability to decipher his handwriting and stuck – was the pseudonym for a man whose personality the guide describes as "unique".
"In one single person there was the capacity to be the dreamy mystic lost in his own deep thoughts while at the same time being enormously practical and decisive," McKernan says.
Apart from his prolific writings which included philosophy and political commentary, Russell was a painter, poet, editor and land reformer whose international admirers included Mahatma Gandi and American President Franklin D Roosevelt. He is even immortalised as a character in James Joyce's Ulysses – Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus, who owes him a pound, tells him: "A.E.I.O.U."
McKernan himself only discovered AE a couple of years ago, in a casual conversation with a neighbour, but is now planning a fuller biography which is, he says, "about half way through".
"I have said to myself, how did I not know about this remarkable man, whose writings I have found so enriching?" he adds.
But McKernan believes the reason AE is all but forgotten today is his own, innate modesty.
"He never took the credit for anything," McKernan says. "He was hugely influenced by Far Eastern philosophies, believed in reincarnation and a core requirement was to declare war on himself – no arrogance, no ego. He would have been writing with [WB] Yeats, across the table, for 10 years but while Yeats persued being 'Ireland's greatest', Russell was of a more self-effacing nature.
"His breadth is astonishing. In one piece he can be detailing how to keep a hen house, in the next he is a critic of Russian painting."
McKernan cites the most accessible of Russell's works as The National Being but says there are also worthy compilations of his journalism for the Irish Homestead and Irish Statesman magazines, and the best existing biography is That Myriad-Minded Man by Henry Summerfield (Gerrards Cross, 1975).
Posterity, as we know, can be kind to some and punish others. We seem to remember and revere particular individuals while others are all but airbrushed out. But for Russell all that could be about to change, as an annual exhibition which celebrates his life is on the cusp of becoming a permanent fixture in the aptly named Carnegie Street library of his home town.
"The library does seem keen to have this as a feature. We have 20 high-quality digital images of his paintings and similarly framed paintings as well as large, interpretative boards, which could also be sent out to other public buildings," McKernan says.
Most of the well-organised and colourful new guide connects Russell with key parts of Lurgan including its magnificent park, Brownlow House, which has in more recent times been the headquarters of the Royal Black Institution and Shankill Parish Church where his parents were married, in 1862.
And for all the august company he kept – Prime Minister Lloyd George, James Connolly, who admired his agricultural reform work and Joyce (whose first work was published in the Irish Homestead) there is a lighter link for AE also – with Mary Poppins.
McKernan insists AE provided Poppins author Pamela L Travers with some of the inspiration for her books, later brought to life by Walt Disney in the classic 1960s Julie Andrews musical and its more recent sequel.
The chimney pots over which the characters dance and the park in which the original movie song Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is performed are not from London, but Brownlow House and Lurgan Park, according to McKernan.
"It is highly likely that they stepped off the train in Lurgan on the way north from Dublin where AE would have shown Pamela his home town," the guide states.
Apart from his own writing, Russell also supported and sponsored the work of writers whose reputations have outlasted and exceeded his own, including Frank O'Connor – who called AE "the father to three generations of Irish writers" – and Patrick Kavanagh.
It was as editor of 'Homestead' that he helped develop and champion the Agricultural Cooperative Movement which attempted to alleviate poverty by encouraging farmers to work together, a concept which would later influence the Credit Union movement.
Yet just a blue plaque marks the site of Russell's birth, in William Street in Lurgan while a bronze bust, presented by the Irish Co-Operative Organisation, is featured in the Town Hall. Soon they may be supplemented.
:: George Russell (AE), Lurgan and North Armagh, by Michael and Brian McKernan, is published by Rathgar Publishing, with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Lurgan Townscape Heritage Partnership. It can be purchased in shops in Lurgan and Armagh, priced £5, or ordered via email@example.com or from George Russell Festival Society, C/o 14 Kiln Lodge, Lurgan, BT66 6HT (£5 + £1.25 p&p).