George William Russell popularly known by the first two letters of his mystic signature, Æon, Æ, was a central figure in the Irish Literary and Artistic Renaissance of the early 20th Century. He was a contemporary and friend of the Gore-Booths of Lissadell, offering Constance Markievicz a part in his play Deirdre, at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. He was also a staunch supporter of Horace Plunket’s co-operative movement, and worked with Plunkett for agricultural improvement in Ireland, as did Josslyn Gore-Booth.
Æ was born in Lurgan, County Armagh, in 1867, and moved to Dublin when he was eleven. Æ was a poet and writer, particularly of mysticism, which fascinated him and from which he derived his signature. He was also an ardent nationalist, and edited the Irish Homestead (1904–23) in which James Joyce’s The Sisters was first published. He also edited the Irish Statesman (1923–30). Æ famously wrote an open letter to ‘the Masters of Dublin’ on 6 October 1913, during the Dublin Lockout, in which he condemned the actions of employers and urged them to compromise with the workers for the sake of justice, and humanity. He died in 1935.
What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that Æ was also a most talented painter. Indeed the famous American collector John Quinn commissioned him to paint William Butler Yeats in 1902. He studied painting at the Metropolitan School of Art and the Hibernian Academy. Æ loved to paint in the North West of Ireland, particularly Sligo and Donegal, and it is fitting, given his friendship with the Gore-Booths, and his love of Sligo, that twenty-three of his paintings – the largest collection of Æ paintings in the world – is now on display in Lissadell. Many of these works were painted whilst Æ was staying at Lissadell.
The Dublin Lockout 1913
Æ condemns the “Aristocracy of Industry”- Irish Times, 7 October 1913 [excerpts]
Sirs, I address this warning to you, the aristocracy of industry in this city, because, like all aristocracies, you tend to grow blind in long authority, and to be unaware that you and your class and its every action are being considered and judged day by day by those who have power to shake or overturn the whole social order, and whose restlessness in poverty today is making our industrial civilisation stir like a quaking bog. .. That you are an uncultivated class was obvious from recent utterances of some of you upon art. That you are incompetent men in the sphere in which you arrogate imperial powers is certain, because for many years, long before the present uprising of labour, your enterprises have been dwindling in the regard of investors, and this while you have carried them on in the cheapest labour market in these islands, with a labour reserve always hungry and ready to accept any pittance. You are bad citizens, for we rarely, if ever, hear of the wealthy among you endowing your city with munificent gifts, which it is the pride of merchant princes in other cities to offer, and Irishmen not of your city who offer to supply the wants left by your lack of generosity are met with derision and abuse. .. The conception of yourselves as altogether virtuous and wronged is, I assure you, not at all the one which onlookers hold of you. No doubt, you have rights on your side. No doubt, some of you suffered without just cause. But nothing which has been done to you cries aloud to Heaven for condemnation as your own actions. Let me show you how it seems to those who have followed critically the dispute, trying to weigh in a balance the rights and wrongs. You were within the rights society allows you when you locked out your men and insisted on the fixing of some principle to adjust your future relations with labour when the policy of labour made it impossible for some of you to carry on your enterprises. Labour desired the fixing of some such principle as much as you did. But, having once decided on such a step, knowing how many thousands of men, women, and children, nearly one third of the population of this city, would be affected, you should not have let one day have passed without unremitting endeavours to find a solution of the problem. … you determined deliberately, in cold anger, to starve out one third of the population of the city, to break the manhood of the men by the sight of the suffering of their wives and the hunger of their children. …You insolently demanded of those men who were members of a trade union that they should resign from that union; and from those who were not members, you insisted on a vow that they would never join it. Your insolence and ignorance of the rights conceded to workers universally in the modern world were incredible, and as great as your inhumanity. If you had between you collectively a portion of human soul as large as a threepenny bit, you would have sat night and day with the representatives of labour, trying this or that solution of the trouble, mindful of the women and children, who at least were innocent of wrong against you. But no! You reminded labour you could always have your three square meals a day while it went hungry. You went into conference again with representatives of the State, because, dull as you are, you knew public opinion would not stand your holding out. You chose as your spokesman the bitterest tongue that ever wagged in this island, and then, when an award was made by men who have an experience in industrial matters a thousand times transcending yours, who have settled disputes in industries so great that the sum of your petty enterprises would not equal them, you withdrew again, and will not agree to accept their solution, and fall back again on your devilish policy of starvation. Cry aloud to heaven for new souls. … You may succeed in your policy and ensure your own damnation by your victory. ..The infant being moulded in the womb will have breathed into its starved body the vitality of hate. It is not they—it is you who are the blind Samsons pulling down the pillars of the social order. You are sounding the death knell of autocracy in industry. ..The fate of you, the aristocracy of industry, will be as the fate of the aristocracy of land if you do not now show that you have some humanity still among you. Humanity abhors, above all things, a vacuum in itself, and your class will be cut off from humanity as the surgeon cuts the cancer and alien growth from the body. Be warned ere it is too late.