Away with the fairies
The fascinating story of a kooky writer who befriended elves, fairies and Irish and American literati
Ella Young was a member of the Celtic Twilight movement who collected Irish myths from western peasants and re-packaged them for a contemporary readership. In 1925, at the age of 57, she decided to emigrate to the United States where she settled in California and became a fixture on the lecture circuit telling stories of mythical horses and Cú Cullain while hanging around with west-coast alternative types until her death in 1956.
She was something of a peripheral figure in the Dublin literary scene, and thankfully, this biography of Young does not make any extravagant claims for her importance in this area. Her biographer Rose Murphy notes, she “played a modest role in her impact on the public's consciousness of Ireland's native oral literature (sic)” but it is not for this but as a “fascinating, puzzling and noteworthy woman whose story is worth telling” that she is put before us.
This is a book about journeys, spiritual and literal. Young, (referred to as Ella throughout the book while her friend Maud Gonne is Maud; thankfully, we are spared W.B. Yeats being called William and, AE, George Russell, is always referred to by both letters), was born in Antrim before moving to Limerick as a 3-year-old and later, as a teenager, to Portarlington. Hers was a typical enough middle-class Presbyterian upbringing, but as a teenager she began to resent the dourness of her religion and the quiet of the midlands. When her family moved to Rathmines, coinciding with her enrolment in Dublin's University College, she took to the Dublin salon scene with gusto.
How exactly she came to join the Anglo-Irish literary revival crowd is not altogether clear from this account, although the popular historian Standish O'Grady's work seems to have been an important influence.
But not long after she had escaped from Portarlington, she began to hanker after rural life again, this time travelling to the west of Ireland where she collected folk tales. Her first book, Celtic Wonder Tales was published in 1910 and illustrated by her friend Maud (Gonne).
Young was taken, not only with old myths, but also the local superstitions and beliefs. She began to believe in fairies and thought she could hear fairy music, keeping an account of their performances in her journal, noting their playing was “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity” although the vocal parts were less easy on the ear with “voices that wrangle and seem to shout aimlessly”.
She also made friends with a number of elves in Ireland and later in California: “they are about the size of a child twelve years old. Their heads are large for the size of their bodies. They have pointed ears, round eyes, and an engaging quality” and on at least one occasion she was joined on a country walk by a group of “five or six elves of the hillside… trotting beside me”.
Years later, she found herself trapped in Canada after being refused a visa to enter the United States. Her friends in the States launched an energetic campaign to have her allowed in, and at one point President Hoover was tackled on the issue at a press conference.
Ultimately, her visa application was successful; Young acknowledged that her friends had helped make her re-entry to the US possible, but believed that their aid had been secondary to that of the little people on her behalf.
Her kookiness was not confined to fairies and elves. She also saw spaceships (only in California unfortunately) and, along with her literary pals in Dublin, had developed an interest in Theosophy, a vogue which James Joyce identified as a recourse for disaffected Protestants who could make a dubious aristocratic claim on Catholic culture.
Of course, most of the Celtic Twilight/Theosophy clique were members of the Church of Ireland; not only was Young's erstwhile Presbyterianism unusual, but it would seem to have informed her take on occultism.
Her rejection of predestination led her to argue against Yeats that fate and horoscopes could be changed. Yeats could not stand her, and if Young has anything to commend her, it is her canny ability to irritate the pompous poet by merely being in his presence.
The title of the book describes Young as a “mystic and rebel” but while her mysticism is very evident, her rebelliousness appears fleeting. It seems she had engaged in gun smuggling prior to the 1916 Rising and hid weapons for the IRA during the War of Independence, but again, her role was peripheral.
As her biographer notes, Young had little interest in the practical lives of the “natives” who often seem little more than repositories for stories. She cared little for the economic conditions of the western people in Ireland or later the native Americans with whom she conversed, although she was perfectly happy to live off the royalties from their stories.
She noted of AE, poet and key figure in the co-operative farming movement, that he was “as much interested in cows and chickens as… in gods and elves”. Young, however, was not.
Her understanding of politics was bizarre to say the least. At one point, she asked a friend: “Aren't you glad about the Bolshevik successes? Russia, Ireland and America are the three nations destined to bring in the New Age,” failing to suggest what the citadel of capitalism, the first experiment in state socialism and Ireland had in common, but later noting, “we are fighting for a new order in the ‘New Age'”. Perhaps it was the echoes of the New Order that drew Young to Hitler, with whom she had a “strange fascination” and kept a copy of the Fuhrer's horoscope, although, her references to the “supremacy of the white race” suggest her admiration had more sinister roots.
Perhaps the blurb on the back of the book, which describes Young as a “mystical, whimsical woman” would be sufficient to warn off any sceptics. She was, in her own eyes, literally away with the fairies (not forgetting the elves, of course). Maybe it is not fair to expect much of substance from someone who pursues such an ethereal existence, but Young is so detached from reality and so clearly misguided when she does make periodic trips back down to earth, that spending time in her company is a very frustrating experience; although she predated the arrival of acid casualties to San Fransicso's Haight Ashbury, she talked and wrote about as much sense.
The book is written in a clear, pacey style but falls down for the most part because of its subject who comes out as little more than a space cadet with alarming fascist tendencies. By the end of the book, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Yeats whose unhappiness at spending time with Ella Young was, by this account, quite justified.