Talk on legacy of forgotten Irish figure George Russell

George 'AE' Russell
George 'AE' Russell

One of the forgotten figures of Irish history, George “AE” Russell who was born in Lurgan, is one of the subjects of a special talk in Armagh this week.

AE Russell, who was a poet, painter, playwright, writer, politician, cooperator and mystic, was a very influential figure in Irish society.

He noted James Joyce and William Butler Yeats among his friends.

Russell’s contemporaries regarded him as significant to Ireland as his life-long friend WB Yeats, but history has never given him credit as one of the architects of modern Ireland.

The second son of Thomas Russell and Mary Armstrong, his father was the son of a small farmer and became an employee of Thomas Bell and Co, a prosperous firm of linen drapers. The family relocated to Dublin, where his father had a new offer of employment, when George was eleven years old. He was educated at the Metropolitan School of Art, where he began a lifelong friendship with Yeats.

He started working as a draper’s clerk, then worked many years for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), an agricultural co-operative society initiated by Horace Plunkett in 1894. In 1897 Plunkett needed an able organiser and Yeats suggested Russell.

As an officer of the IAOS he could not express political opinions freely, but he made no secret of the fact that he considered himself a Nationalist. During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out he wrote an open letter to the Irish Times criticizing the attitude of the employers, then spoke on it in England and helped bring the crisis to an end.

He claimed to be a clairvoyant, able to view various kinds of spiritual beings, which he illustrated in paintings and drawings.

Russell is one of up to 20 Armagh heroes, scholars and celebrities who have been almost erased from history but are the subject of a lecture by historian and journalist Eric Villiers at the next meeting of the Armagh and District History Group. Mr Villiers’ project, which has taken ten years to research, has uncovered writers, actors, painters, musicians, explorers, poets, soldiers, scientists and one or two villains, whose names have generally disappeared from British and Irish historiographies.

Across several generations historians have unwittingly or wittingly excluded faces that did not fit their particular narrative of the period from the mid-19th century to 1960.

Another remarkable anecdote was uncovered during research into the life of William J. Lawrence, a one-time Armagh drinks salesman who represented Michael Collins when he was elected a County MP. By then Lawrence, who never went to university, was the world’s leading expert on Shakespeare. Having been driven from Dublin by jealous academics, Harvard University discovered him washing dishes in New York hotels to survive, and gave him a professorship.

A summary of the research project will be presented at the History Group at the Irish and Local Studies Library, Abbey St, Armagh on Wednesday October 14 at 7 30pm. Anyone interested in attending is welcome and admission is free.