Dawe & Longley, Across the Roaring Hill (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1985) - remarks on John Hewitt and George [“Æ”] Russell .

Source: Gerald Dawe & Edna Longley, eds., Across the Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland: Essays in Honour of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1985), Introduction. [Only those remarks on pp.vi-vii included on this page.]


However, the wide-apart worlds of AE, now fifty years dead, and John Hewitt might symbolise the overall change since 1921. In fact, these two Ulstermen, from Lurgan and Belfast, have certain qualities in common. Hewitt, listing AE’s range of interests, sums up his own: ‘literature, art and politics.’ [1] Their literary output displays a similar industrious fecundity. Above all, they share a utilitarian view of literature as the means to a social (and in AE’s case spiritual) end. Hewitt approves AE’s writings as ‘sustenance for the long and painful journey to social justice and human fulfilment’. [2] Each, with his intense vision of community, experienced the pain of that journey. The behaviour of ruling Nationalism contributed to AE’s sad departure in 1933 for England, where he died two years later. Unionist prejudice blocked Hewitt’s appointment as Director of the Ulster Museum and Art Gallery, and he left in 1957, suitably for Coventry. (After retirement in 1972, he returned to Belfast.) AE’s practical role in the agricultural co-operative movement accords with Hewitt’s socialism, but the mystic amuses the atheist. On some raptures [vi] about fairies, Hewitt comments: ‘Peter Pan was only a few years away.’ [3] Yet Hewitt notes that John Eglinton called AE a ‘Protestant Theosophist’ [4] as he himself, at a different extreme of reaction, may be Protestant in his atheism.

Mysticism, quite distinct from that of Catholic Nationalism, also pervades AE’s vision of ‘The National Being’: ‘Manifold, rich, intricate and of many dimensions’. [5]. His most lasting legacy is that he grasped, not so much the actual ‘roots of difference’ - Yeats, for all his song and dance, was less surprised by the tide of the twenties - as their malign effect on what he apprehended as a palpable spirit. He dreaded the ‘soul’ of the country becoming ‘so blackened by hate and so coarsened by conflict that life in it would not be worth living’ [6] And he perceived how the law, which he constantly cited, whereby ‘if you hate things you grow like them’, can spread from political into intellectual life:

Nobody in Ireland writes with good nature about those who differ from them. Our imagination is so active, our vision so penetrating, that we see where the other man’s error will carry him and his nation, so that we boil him in the hottest oil of words we can at once, and we rarely reflect that even the most erring man has a spirit in himself which will prevent him from going the whole hog in his errors, and will finally bring him back to humanity as the gyroscope brings the engine to the level. [7]

At the same time, AE emphasised the healthiness of true-debate, as opposed to the drive for all-out victory: ‘We do not derive the slightest pleasure from the society of those who hold in all matters the same opinions as we do. We suffer in such society an intolerable boredom, for our own emanations are poisonous to us as they are to plants.’ [8] As editor of the Irish Statesman (1923-30) he crusaded against, in Terence Brown’s words, ‘those aspects of Irish intellectual and cultural life that tended to national exclusivism, xenophobia and cultural imposition’. [9] Although, as Brown says, a lynchpin of AE’s polemic - ‘the cultural necessity of the Anglo-lrish Protestants in the new state’ [10] - was not proven, he at least handed on the torch of ‘the wedding of cultures and the [vii] mingling of races’ [11] to Sean O’Faolain and the Bell.


1. John Hewitt, ‘The Folded Dream: The Printed Words of AE’, in The Arts in Ireland, No. 3 (1973), p.52.
2. Idem.
3. Ibid., p.49.
4. Idem.
5. The Living Torch, ed. Monk Gibbon (London: Macmillan 1937), p.191.
6. The Irish Homestead (31 Dec. 1921); in Selections from the Contributions to the Irish Homestead by G. W. Russell - A.E., ed. Henry Summerfield (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1978), Vol. II, p.786.
7. Ibid., p.925.
8. The Living Torch, p.351.
9. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-79 (Fontanca 1981), p.121.
10. Ibid., p.126.
11. Irish Statesman (22 Jan. 1927).

[ back ]

[ top ]