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The Green Book 19


“Probably there has never been in any country,” wrote John Eglinton in his Memoir of A.E. (1937), “a period of literary activity which has not been preceded or accompanied by some stimulation of the religious interest. Anyone in search of this in Ireland at this time may find it if he looks for it, though he certainly will not find it in either the Catholic or the various Protestant religious bodies: he will find it, unless he disdains to look in that direction, in the ferment caused in the minds of a group of young men by the early activities of the Theosophical Movement in Dublin.”

Ireland of the late nineteenth century was awash in reawakened interest in Irish legends and folklore, craft and custom, language and art; the men and women whose works would come to define the ensuing Celtic Literary Revival often concerned themselves with a belief in the authoritative wisdom of ancient traditions and mythology, and with these fervent beliefs, they propelled Ireland toward nationhood. That a new spiritual movement could hold such sway over young minds in late nineteenth-century Ireland comes as no surprise.

Theosophy was formally established in New York in 1875. Its core tenets are based on the teachings of Russian émigrée Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), who outlined her thoughts — as conveyed to her by spiritual adepts known as the Masters — in Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy is often not considered a religion, if only because of its broad acceptance and synthesis of myriad beliefs, lifestyles, and philosophies: Eastern religion and mysticism, Western occult tradition, yoga, vegetarianism, women’s rights, pacifism, and all manner of natural and supernatural sciences. Their goal as a society was:
to form a nucleus of Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers of latent in humans.
At their core, however, they would seem to embrace the freedom of creativity and imagination.

Inspired by a meeting with Madame Blavatsky in London, Charles Johnston (1867-1931), along with W. B. Yeats, founded the Dublin Hermetic Society. This small group of likeminded people grew, and by April 1886, Johnston obtained the charter to found the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society. Shortly afterward, the group leased an old Georgian house at 3 Ely Place Upper, just a short walk from St. Stephen’s Green. In addition to the fresh-faced “Willie Yeats”, others were soon drawn into the orbit of what was affectionately known “the Household”. This included Violet North, Ella Young, Althea Gyles, and George William Russell (A.E.), who, perhaps with help from Yeats and others, decorated the drawing-room walls — in one “two great Beings, one blue and the other scarlet”, in another “great serpents, crowned and plumed, reared their heads”. These Blakean murals adorn the plasterwork of 3 Ely Place Upper to this day.

With its communal living, questioning of established ideologies, and the promotion of non-conformism, it is frequently observed that the Dublin Theosophical scene sounds not unlike the counterculture of the 1960s; while it might not have advocated free love — Theosophists were supposed to have taken a vow of celibacy — there was certainly a freedom of thought and imagination. During her first visit to the lodge, Ella Young recalls, that “The speaker was talking of dream-consciousness, voyages in the astral cycles of re-incarnation, of many gorgeous things that shone and revolved like worlds in that little cosmos, that dimly lighted cosmos.” Meanwhile, the staunchly Catholic writer Katharine Tynan, who nevertheless also attended talks at the lodge, wrote, “We heard a great deal of astral bodies and mahatmas in those days,” further noting that A.E. was “full of odd theories”. In more than one reminiscence, there is mention of “a girl with very bright red hair and an eager face” — this was no doubt the poet and painter Althea Gyles, a fascinating if seemingly chaotic shadow figure who is now best known for her decorative designs on Yeats’s book covers.

In later years, A.E. would hold Sunday “at-homes” in his house at 17 Rathgar Road. To these occasions were drawn the notable literary figures of the day, including Lord Dunsany, Dorothy Macardle, and James Stephens, who was himself no stranger to mystical and Theosophical thought. One can’t help but to wonder if A.E., in some ways, was trying to recreate the vibrant days of the Household?

This issue is a sort of collage, a portrait of the Dublin Theosophical scene, from its early days to its schism and eventual dissolution. The aim is not to explore ideas of Theosophy so much as the community and literature that emanated from it — the spirit of the age.

The central figure in this tapestry is A.E. (1867-1935), perhaps Theosophy’s most ardent advocate. His earliest essays and poetry appeared in Theosophical instruments such as Lucifer and The Irish Theosophist, while in later life his accumulated respect and wisdom would be called upon to guide the burgeoning republic — though not always heeded. A.E. haunts every article in this issue, even if he does not appear directly in each.

So too did the influence of Theosophy extend beyond its initial moment. There is much in between the lines, and often synaptic threads to be discovered between each article and the players involved, and so on into twentieth century Irish literature. Ella Young emigrated to America and, according to Dorothy Macardle, even all those years later, Young remained “Irish to the heart, yet attuned to all earthly mystery and beauty, she trailed the Celtic Twilight about her still”; meanwhile James Stephens found a kindred spirit in the British writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), whose novel The Centaur (1911), with its primeval earth spirits of the Caucasus — “Urmensch” — he passed knowingly to A.E.

Those daubs of paint on the Household’s walls remain to this day, still vibrant as though painted yesterday, evidence of “ferment caused” in the hearts and minds of the men and women who lived through those times, and who linger still. As usual, I hope this issue will serve as a starting point to explore further the people, ideas, and writings contained herein.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
24 January 2022

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"Editor's Note"
    Brian J. Showers

"Theosophists in Dublin"
    Katharine Tynan

    Ella Young

"Extracts from The Trembling of the Veil"
    W. B. Yeats

"Silent House"
    Ella Young

"A Symbolic Artist: Althea Gyles"
    W. B. Yeats

"The Hermetic Society"
    Ella Young

"Some Less-Known Chapters in the Life of A.E."
    C. C. Coates

"Words of Power"
    Ella Young

"Ella Young: A Poet of the Celtic Twilight"
    Dorothy Macardle

"Memories of A.E."
    Dorothy Moulton-Mayer

"Blackwood, Stephens, and The Centaurs"
    Mike Ashley

"The Centaurs"
    James Stephens

"Notes on Contributors"

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