AE's Armagh Roots

Ian Maxwell remembers George William Russell

I saw how all the trembling ages past,
Molded to her by deep and deeper breath,
Neared to the hour when Beauty breathes her last
And knows herself in death.

George William Russell was a mystic, visionary, poet, artist, pacifist, economist and one of the outstanding men of the Irish Literary Revival. He initially wrote under the pseudonym AEon, but a proof-reader's query led him to adopt the pseudonym by which he is best remembered, that of Æ.

Russell was born in William Street, Lurgan, on April 10 1867. The town was founded in 1610 by John Brownlow under the scheme for the Plantation of Ulster, and its success was built upon the linen industry.

It was a bustling market town in the 1860s and a few years after Russell’s birth its population stood at just over 10,000. The new railway had reached Lurgan in the 1840s, the station a short distance from Russell’s home, and the town also had a model school, a courthouse, a gas works and was the location for the union workhouse.

Lurgan also had an unenviable reputation for sectarian conflict. Later in life, Russell remembered how ‘at any time a chance word might provoke a battle, and a whole horde of wild fanatics lying in ambush might rush out of the doors at a signal given, and in the name of God try to obliterate His image on each other’s faces’.

His father, Thomas Elias Russell, came either from Co Tyrone or Drumgor in Armagh, and was a bookkeeper employed by Bell and Co, a Quaker firm of cambric manufacturers in Lurgan. His mother, Marianne Russell (nee Armstrong), was from Co Armagh.

Both Russell’s mother and father were devout members of the Church of Ireland, although Thomas also used to attend the Primitive Methodist services. George was the youngest of three children: his sister, Mary Elizabeth, died at the age of eighteen, and his brother Thomas was to predecease the author by only a few years.

Soon after his birth the family moved to a cottage just within the entrance of Lord Lurgan’s grounds.  Dominated by Brownlow House, built in the Elizabethan style of Scottish sandstone in 1836 on the site of a seventeenth century building, it remains Lurgan’s grandest building with its tall spiralled chimney pots and lanterned tower and dome.

The three children attended the Model School, established only a few years before George’s birth, and where the young mystic did well in writing and drawing. According to one of his friends, a master told him fairy stories which made a lasting impression.

In later life he remembered having a quite ordinary childhood, and took pleasure in spending his own money when he reached the age of five or six. He later recalled that he had a taste for penny dreadfuls about the Wild West and a childhood ‘made lurid by pirates and highwaymen and detectives and Red Indians’.

In 1878 Russell’s father accepted an offer of employment from his friend Robert Gardiner, who had a partnership in a firm of accountants, and the family moved to Dublin. Looking back Russell wrote, ‘I was born in Lurgan…and have never been sufficiently grateful to Providence for the mercy shown to me in removing me from Ulster, though I like the people I cannot breathe in the religious and political atmosphere of the North East corner of Ireland’.

Nevertheless, from time to time he returned to Ulster on holiday. According to his friend Carrie Rea, who met him just after he left school, he spent a fortnight in Armagh City every two years, but in the alternative years he may have stayed on his maternal grandparent’s farm at Drumgor, which he certainly visited.

Remembered today as a mystic and visionary Russell was a leading figure in the Dublin Theosophical Society from 1888 until 1908, when he formed his own Hermetic Society. One friend recalled: ‘With the crystal sincerity, and childlike simplicity which at all times distinguished him, he revealed to me that his aim in life overriding all else was to bring knowledge of the World of Spirit "where all hearts and minds are one" into the clouded sphere of human thought.’

Russell died of cancer in Bournemouth, England, on July 17, 1935, and his body was returned to Ireland for burial. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, but his association with Lurgan is remembered by a bust of the author which stands proudly in the Town Hall. Russell’s philosophy of life is summed up by his gravestone inscription which reads:

I moved among men and places,
And in living I learned the
truth at last.  I know I am a spirit, And that I went
forth in old time from the self-ancestral to labours. Yet
Unaccomplished.

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