George William Russell. © ARMAGH COUNTY MUSEUM COLLECTION
By Irish Echo Staff
A largely forgotten figure in Irish history whose ideas were embraced by U.S President Franklin D Roosevelt is to be celebrated at a festival next week in Northern Ireland.
George William Russell – also known as “AE” and referred to as “America’s forgotten friend” – was a poet, writer, artist and political thinker.
The wide-ranging festival will take place in his hometown of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, on the southern shores of Lough Neagh -- an approximately 30-minute drive from Belfast.
The Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival is now in its third year and aims to place Russell – who has been overshadowed by writers such as W.B. Yeats – alongside Ireland’s roll-off-the-tongue historic names and earn him his rightful position in the country’s history.
Russell's influence was far-reaching – Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi was another who was inspired by his ideas – and was keenly felt across the Atlantic.
His expertise on agricultural affairs and nation building was widely read and utilized across the U.S.
Russell’s thinking was a founding influence on FDR’s New Deal. In December 1934, AE sailed to New York, heavily scheduled for a lecture tour - mainly on “rural policies” - and was met by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, later vice president, and spent time with Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
Wallace, whose grandfather had known Russell from the 1890s, wrote of him: “AE was a prophet out of an ancient age. He had a preoccupation with the intangibles which give beauty and direction to life. He was one of the finest, most gifted, and most colorful people I ever knew.”
Brian McKernan, an Irish historian and Russell expert – whose work on AE includes an article entitled “George Russell, America’s Forgotten Friend” – said he “had very important and impactful socio-political ties with the American nation.
“His personal connection with the Wallace family, Irish-American circles and individuals such as Mary Rumsey (daughter of railway tycoon Edward H. Harriman, and leading advocate of the New Deal Social Security Act of 1935, which laid the groundwork for the modern welfare system in the United States, with its primary focus to provide aid for the elderly, the unemployed, and children) brought him to wide attention,” added McKernan.
“Mary’s thoughts on how to meet national social and economic challenges had become crystalized after reading AE’s “The National Being,” which set out his thinking on such matters, based on 20 years of creating practical solutions to similar difficulties in Ireland.
“AE’s writings, conversation, speeches and ideas were at the very heart of American government across this period, but especially impactful in the formulation of solutions following the great depression.”
Russell’s links to the U.S. were not purely political - he was the only featured Irish artist at the International Armory Art Show in New York City in 1913.
In June 1928, AE received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University.
The Irish Statesman publication - which he remained editor of until 1930 - was funded by leading Irish Americans, like the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-based oilman Joseph Cullinan.
And in May 1929, Russell’s son Diarmuid emigrated to the U.S.
Diarmuid was the founding president of the highly-respected leading literary agency in New York, Russell & Volkening, Inc, now a subsidiary of Massie & McQuilkin, which brought him into contact with America’s most notable writers and storytellers, such as Eudora Welty and Walt Disney.
When Russell, who was also renowned for his mysticism, died in 1935, 500,000 people took to the streets of Dublin and the crowd following the funeral procession was over a mile long.
McKernan added: “George Russell was a remarkable man. He was a simple, friendly and humble man, who had two personal goals throughout his life – the perfection of his own character and helping everyone around him to the limits of his ability.
“Did you know that AE Russell was the main inspiration for the creation of ‘Mary Poppins?’ Well, that’s another story.”
For further information on the festival - which runs from April 8 to 13 and will feature talks, walks, live music and poetry - visit the Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival Society Facebook page.