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A Poet among Politicians – George Russell & the Irish Convention
Statue of George Russell (Æ) in Dublin's Merrion Square

A Poet among Politicians – George Russell & the Irish Convention

By Ed Mulhall

It was New Year’s Eve and the chairman had been working hard to see if he could save his Convention. He still felt optimistic. The prize was a great one, a beginning of a solution to the Irish problem, but the challenges were dwarfed by what was happening in Europe, the ‘appalling killing of nations’.

He believed that the stalemate which had threatened to destroy the work of six months had been broken and that there was now a proposal which had the possibility of unionist and nationalist support, which bridged the sectarian divide and could prevent partition. The main leader of nationalism might put his still considerable influence behind the proposal; the Prime Minister was being encouraged to intervene to say the deal would be supported. There was still the problem with ‘Ulster’ but the issues were narrowing.

So it seemed to Horace Plunkett, the chairman of the Irish Convention, on 31 December 1917 as he worked in the Convention offices in Trinity College Dublin.

It was, he wrote in his diary, the most important time in his life. The proposal in question had been put forward by the leader of the southern unionists at the Convention. Plunkett had been in consultation with John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in contact with Downing Street about a possible intervention by Prime Minister Lloyd George that would give some confidence a deal would be supported, even if Ulster unionism was not in agreement. If there was such an agreement with clear majority support in the Convention, then the Convention would be a success despite the controversy over its composition and the notable absentees from its deliberations.

An agreement would provide a basis to implement devolved institutions and an Irish parliament. Such a development could act as a bulwark against the growing separatist movement in Ireland that was distracting from the war effort, as well as undermining necessary support from the United States, now an important ally in the war.

That afternoon Plunkett was visited in his offices by two of the delegates from the Convention, the writer George Russell, Æ, and the nationalist publisher and farmer Edward MacLysaght. They were significant figures in the context of the Convention; they had both been nominated by the Government, joining representatives of the parliamentary parties, county councils, churches, labour and business; they were seen as independent but with the capacity and the contacts to reflect the perspective of the more radical nationalist movement then coalescing under the Sinn Féin banner. Both had been influential in the establishment of the Convention itself and Russell had authored an important document which set out the case for it. They had been active throughout its deliberations contributing to debates and drafting documents. But they had a wider significance. MacLysaght had throughout the deliberations kept in close contact with senior Sinn Féin figures and was able to act as an informal unofficial liaison with them, with an understanding of the development of their political strategy. Russell, as an established writer and journalist, was a respected figure in Dublin and in London as a major figure in the literary revival. His reputation now is of a poet, painter and mystic aligned with the strange visions’ side of W.B. Yeats but in his time he was a pioneering editor and critic encouraging writers from James Stephens and James Joyce to Frank O’Connor and Patrick Kavanagh as well as being an influential commentator on politics, economics and agriculture. He had been associated with radical causes and had a detailed understanding of Ulster through his own Protestant background in Armagh and his work with the co-operative movement with its significant Ulster section. Plunkett was also Russell’s boss, his employer at the Irish Homestead and they had worked closely together for 20 years. Russell had proposed Plunkett as chairman of the Convention.

‘Æ and Lysaght came in a very bad temper’, Plunkett wrote in his diary that evening, ‘& talked as if they were determined to wreck the Convention.’ Their message was clear, the compromise being worked on was not going to get widespread nationalist support even if agreed. Ulster intransigence was insurmountable unless the Government intervened. No solution was possible without dealing with the two extremes. Russell had called for a more radical approach in the Irish Times a week previously. He argued that there was need for a ‘new nation’, a movement away from the old allegiances which was built on the positive elements of both traditions. The war and the Rising made this essential: ‘No one has more to give than life, and, when that is given, neither Nationalist nor Imperialist in Ireland can claim moral superiority for the dead champions of their cause.’ 

Entry in Sir Horace Plunkett's for Saturday 12 January 1918 begins bottom of the left page and continues onto the top of the right. It includes: 'And now Æ & Lysaght & Murphy are going to fight against a settlement on the Midleton compromise lines...' (Image: National Library of Ireland, MS 42,222/38)

He now told his friend Plunkett that time was up for the Convention and for those parties engaged in finding a solution. In his challenge he was putting himself in direct contrast to the then leader of parliamentary nationalism John Redmond who in one of his final political acts was attempting a compromise. Russell believed he had a better understanding of the prevalent views in Ireland than Redmond and he was convinced the proposal under consideration would not gain broad support. He would be proved right.

A compromise arrangement was proposed. The Prime Minister delivered a letter to the parties as had been requested and Redmond moved to support the resolution but then all crumbled away. Under influence from Russell key nationalist support within the convention was lost to Redmond. MacLysaght in consultation with Sinn Féin resigned, followed by Russell and with them any prospect of an agreement gaining even tacit acceptance from the separatist nationalists. When the Convention reported, on 9 April 1918, it did so with no general agreement on a plan and with many minority dissenting reports. It would be ignored and immediately overshadowed by a new and more dangerous crisis on conscription which would see positions move to the extremes and inevitable conflict in Ireland. Russell would return to focus on his writing and editing, no longer a poet among the politicians, bishops and county councillors. Only occasionally using those strong rhetorical skills so directly again (against conscription, civil war and censorship) . Within months the Irish Parliamentary Party was finished as a political force. Plunkett and his Convention would become not a formula for settlement but at best a footnote, at worst a folly.

George Russell had been staying at Edward MacLysaght’s farm in Co. Clare when they heard of the Easter Rising in 1916. Russell had visited there regularly to paint since the two had met at the Arts Club in Dublin with a shared interest in Irish writing and culture (MacLysaght was on the board of Maunsel and Co. book publishers) and in the co-operative movement. The events of that Easter had a profound effect on both men. MacLysaght was stirred into action saying ‘from that time on I felt I would have to be much more than a sympathetic spectator’. For Russell the events were even more personal. Russell had known many of the leaders from their cultural activities and had also worked closely with Connolly, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh during the 1913 lockout when he was actively involved in trying to find a resolution. He was closest to Connolly who had just before his execution asked his wife to contact Russell for assistance in getting his family out of the country.

Russell, though, wasn’t engaged directly in political activity. A convinced pacifist; while Pearse and Connolly were planning revolution, he was examining concepts of nation and identity with his influential book, The National Being, almost ready for publication. It was his role in the co-operative movement, as editor of the Irish Homestead, which precluded him from direct political activity. He had even had a major conflict with his employer, Horace Plunkett, over Plunkett’s wish to have his pro-Home Rule views published in the paper. Russell had threatened resignation saying the unity of the movement would be destroyed if the Ulster members saw the paper take such a stance officially.

From Easter Rising to the Irish Convention
In 1916 Russell recognised immediately the implication of the executions: ‘You see it is not the shooting of 50 or 1000 people moves public opinion but the treatment of one person, isolated and made public.’ He explained to his friend Charles Weekes that despite his feelings he must be constrained in his public utterances, ‘I asked my own soul about all this trouble and got, not opinions, but a direction of feeling, and what I wrote under that inspiration I do not intend to make public simply because I am in a movement which is non-political and I am an important figure in it and any statement made by me might create a split and cause intense anger.’

An artist's representation of the signing of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (Image: East Wall History Group) 

He was referring to a poem, which was, like his mentor W.B. Yeats’s 1916 poem, privately circulated. It was called ‘Salutation’. In it he recognised his own ambiguity about their cause: ‘their dream had left me numb and cold/ But yet my spirit rose in pride / Refashioning in burnished gold / The images of those who died.’ He addressed the three leaders: ‘Pearse: “your dream, not mine”, MacDonagh: “high words you were equalled by high fate” and Connolly: “for Labour as a heritage, for this has Ireland lost a son”.’ Connolly’s was the ‘last torch on the pile’. His allegiance to Connolly was also reflected in his analysis of the Rising: ‘It was labour that supplied the personal element in the revolt. It had a real grievance. The cultural element, poets, Gaels etc never stir more than one per cent of the country. It is only when an economic injustice stirs the workers that they unite with all other grievances.’

While not engaging in public, Russell was trying behind the scenes to exert some influence, supporting the attempts to get an inquiry into the death of Francis Sheehy Skeffington and a reprieve for Sir Roger Casement and to get some support for a move on the constitutional issues. He wrote to the Conservative leader Arthur J. Balfour saying that any agreement which excluded Ulster would not work even if John Redmond agreed to it: ‘Mr. Redmond cannot speak for the Irish people on this matter. He has lived so long out of Ireland that he cannot gauge the feelings of the present generation and his ignorance of the power of the Sinn Féin movement is proof of this.’ He said a settlement must give Ireland complete control over Irish affairs, provide guarantees which protected Ulster from oppression in respect of religion or legislation and contain a friendly association with Great Britain. He recommended a system with an Irish parliament, together with a House of Lords with a veto, and, noting comments made by Arthur Griffith to him after the Home Rule Bill, said such a formula, if proposed from the unionist side, could succeed. Edward MacLysaght was at the same time sending out a circular letter to his friends and other non-party men getting their view on the present situation and seeking proposals for a solution. In correspondence with MacLysaght about this, Russell said their efforts should be linked with those of Horace Plunkett who was also trying to gather interests in a conference. MacLysaght’s group included Dermot O’Brien the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, Lord Monteagle (Thomas Spring Rice an ex-unionist peer and associate of Horace Plunkett), James Douglas, the Quaker businessman, and later Col. Maurice Moore, Irish Volunteer leader and brother of novelist George Moore. Their efforts in liaising with Plunkett were hampered by his ill health but Russell also suggested some unionist figures such as A.W. Samuels and more radical nationalists such as James MacNeill, the later Governor General of the Irish Free State, whose brother Eoin, the Volunteer leader, was in prison in Britain. Russell was in correspondence with some of those prisoners, sending books, including a copy of his newly published The National Being, to Darrell Figgis in his internment camp in Reading.

The contacts between MacLysaght’s group, loosely organised as the Irish Conference Committee, culminated in a circular letter in March of 1917 signed by Russell, Maurice Moore and James Douglas setting up a general meeting to further their plans. The aim was to bypass the ‘hostile‘ Irish parliamentary groupings who had failed to agree in the past most notably in the aborted discussions involved Carson, Redmond and Lloyd George that had collapsed with a deal of acrimony and distrust between all. The letter and its accompanying document set forth the considered views of a number of ‘independent Irishmen’ that could clarify the real claims of an ‘Irish Nation’ which could inform discussion at a proposed gathering of the ‘Colonial Premiers’. The accompanying document largely written by Col. Maurice Moore was a ‘Memorandum, Concerning the Present and Future Relations of Great Britain and Ireland in the Empire’. The emphasis on the colonial dimension reflected a movement in their thinking to the concept of ‘Dominion Status’ as an option in the solution, keeping one Irish unit but firmly within the wider colonial structure. Their ideas were forwarded by Russell to Lloyd George’s private secretary, Philip Kerr, who suggested an informal meeting with William G. Adams, an official in Lloyd George’s secretariat, and an expert on Irish affairs, who had previously worked for Plunkett in Ireland as a statistician. Russell also contacted the editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson, and urged Moore to contact Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper proprietor. Copies were sent to influential figures at Westminster. The group supporting the proposal now included Alice Stopford Green, Erskine Childers, Robert Barton, J.J. Horgan, Diarmuid Coffey, Joseph Johnston and Alec Wilson. MacLysaght stressed the wider support for the document: ‘men as far asunder in views as Coote and Everard on the one hand and James MacNeill, Coffey, Moore and myself on the other.’ Moore, Douglas and Æ brought the document to London where they showed it to a number of prominent individuals including General Smuts, the South African general, who was a member of the War Cabinet.

By May 1917, there were extra pressures on the Lloyd George government to deal with the Irish question: America had entered the war and Irish interests were pressing for movement there, the rise of Sinn Féin with its first by-election successes, the demands for the extension of conscription to assist the war effort. The attempt to involve the dominion prime ministers had failed and the government was examining legislation to implement a limited form of Home Rule to 26 counties but getting no support from either the unionist or nationalist leaders for the measure. It was in this context that the convention proposal took hold. There were a number of significant interventions by individuals with whom the group had been in contact. T.P. Gill, long associated with Horace Plunkett through the co-operative movement, sent a detailed proposal to the Prime Minister’s secretary Adams on the possible composition of an assembly; the Conservative peer, Lord Amery, had called for a conference and had written to Lloyd George, Carson, Smuts and F.S. Oliver (a confidant of Carson who was proposing a federal solution). The crucial intervention though came at a dinner for General Smuts when Redmond (in the days after his party’s traumatic defeat in South Longford) indicated to Lord Crewe, the Liberal peer, that the Irish Party could support a convention. Lloyd George who had been preparing a document outlining a partition proposal for Home Rule, which had been strongly opposed by Redmond, amended his letter to the parties including the Convention as an alternative.

As this was being considered, the MacLysaght group worked to put their proposals in a pamphlet and MacLysaght, Johnston and Coffey prepared a draft which was then given to Russell to rewrite. As well as completing the text, Russell, without first consulting the others, offered the work to the Irish Times for publication to be printed under his own name. This led to an explosive meeting of the group, as recounted by MacLysaght:

‘Tonight we met (Æ, Moore, Douglas, Johnston, Coffey, Monteagle and I) to discuss his draft. He had taken quite a different line from the original memorandum which was first drawn up as a kind of brief to which we could all speak if we had gone to London to meet the Dominion premiers as was originally intended. He wrote in a perfectly detached way, outlining the ideas of each of the three parties in Ireland, remonstrating with each for its shortcomings and making an appeal to each. So far his work was entirely original. His proposals for settlement (the remainder of the document) were substantially those of our first memorandum the portion about navy and army being taken word for word from Col. Moore’s draft. Now Æ has produced a fine piece of writing which was his own. The first part of it - as well as the structure of the whole - were the result solely of his own thinking. The conclusions and arguments were however almost entirely the conclusions and arguments of a previous documents which was as much Moore’s as his. Æ has shown his draft, among others, to Healy the editor of the Irish Times. Æ in somewhat an exuberant and ingenious way signed it (without his signature Healy would not publish) and added a note to the effect that the ideas in it were the result of discussions with us, mentioning our names (not Monteagle’s as he was not one us all along). He did not wait for the meeting to decide this. We all agreed that the document was excellent. Moore, however practically said without a tactful veil that Æ was doing an illegal and dishonourable act in publishing it under his own name. The peace and goodwill which the pamphlet urged upon intolerant Irishmen was lacking between them and Æ became thoroughly angry. He went to the telephone, heedless of our requests for a few minutes consideration, and told Healy the whole thing was off. We all agreed that publication in the Irish Times was desirable. Col. Moore gradually gave in as to the form of acknowledgement which would satisfy his claim to co-authorship. But Æ was so upset that he would not listen to reason… He spoke vaguely of seeing (Healy) on Monday.’ 

The articles were published in three successive issues of the Irish Times from 26 May. This was important. As MacLysaght recognised: ‘It is highly desirable to publish this at once since the government’s alternative schemes of settlement has been known to the world. It would come well from a unionist paper.’ He also saw that it was published as a pamphlet by Maunsels as ‘Thoughts for an Irish Convention.’ In a detailed exposition of the three main factions, it urged co-operation and compromise, recommending self-government in a Dominion structure with complete control of taxation and trade, while reserving defence to Great Britain and providing for an imperial contribution and safeguards for Ulster and protection against oppression.

The group sought endorsement for their proposals from more prominent personalities including Archbishop William Walsh, who supported them, and the owner of the Irish Independent, William Martin Murphy (who said he agreed with most of the ideas but would only sign something for publication in his own paper). The list of supporters was sent to the Times and the Irish Times by James Douglas. Russell’s preparatory work with the Times worked, the document receiving a strong editorial endorsement. Russell sent the Irish Times a letter from George Bernard Shaw supporting his analysis and, while W.B. Yeats did not get the pamphlet in time to be one of the signatories, he told Lady Gregory he approved of its contents. Horace Plunkett wrote a letter to the Irish Times in support and wrote to Adams with an enthusiastic endorsement for the Convention, urging that there be a prisoner release to create a positive atmosphere amongst nationalists for the discussions. He outlined his own views in a speech in Dundalk a few weeks later and this was also published as a pamphlet ‘A Defence of the Convention.’ 

Scene from the Irish Convention. Sir Horace Plunkett is addressing the delegates. George Russell is standing in the right foreground (Image: National Library of Ireland, PD E17)

The Irish Convention and its workings
The composition of the Convention marked out its ultimate futility. Building on the proposal in T.P. Gill’s memo for a 120 member assembly, it institutionalised current divisions and old regimes by basing its representation on the county councils, with some sectoral representation from the churches, business interests, labour and the political parties. Sinn Féin were offered five members but rejected the offer. (The nationalist MP William O’Brien had suggested instead a much smaller conference of experts and had received some support from Arthur Griffith for the idea). The Ulster unionists eventually agreed to send a delegation led by Hugh Barrie but they were to refer back to a committee in Belfast on developments. John Redmond and Joe Devlin, but not John Dillion, represented the Irish Party. Lord Midleton led the southern Unionists. There were 15 delegates selected by Henry Duke, the Chief Secretary, including George Russell and Edward MacLysaght to reflect the advanced nationalist position. Russell’s friend George Bernard Shaw tried and failed to be nominated. 

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