Local graveyard has profound connections with the world’s most popular singing nanny

Last July, Portadown-based historian Brian McKernan shared a delightful story here that connected Mary Poppins directly with Armagh and Lurgan.

Friday, 1st March 2019, 8:00 am
'AE' with Pamela Travers 1934

It was a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious revelation that followed Brian’s discovery of a grave in a corner of St Mark’s graveyard in Armagh!

The grave was the last resting place of the family of George William Russell (1867-1935), the hugely distinguished poet, painter, writer (and lots more besides, including being a significant political and economic commentator) who originally came from Lurgan.

The Russell family moved to Dublin when George was an 11-year-old and later in life, when he was famously known as ‘AE’ Russell, George became very friendly with the Australian author of Mary Poppins – Pamela Travers.

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The newspaper story that launched Mary Poppins in 1926

During the last 10 years of his life “they holidayed together and he helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins books,” explained Brian.

Next month, from Monday, April 8 until Saturday, April 13, the third AE Russell Festival is being held in Lurgan and Armagh marking the date of Russell’s birth – April 10, 1867.

The packed programme includes talks, exhibitions, commemorative guided walks, music and poetry and there’ll be more details on this page over the next week or two.

Mary Poppins first “appeared” in 1926, eight years before the first of Pamela Travers’s series of Poppins books was published.

Brian McKernan at the Russell family grave, St Mark's Armagh

Travers’s biographer Valerie Lawson confirmed that it was on November 13, 1926 “in a short story called ‘Mary Poppins and the Match-Man’ that Pamela gave birth to her famous nanny”.

The short story was published in the Christchurch Sun newspaper in New Zealand, AE Russell was the ‘Match-Man’ called Bert, and with the help of Walt Disney, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and a host of other enormously talented people, the rest is history!

As well as providing Roamer’s page with a copy of the historic clipping from the Christchurch Sun, Brian McKernan has compiled AE’s chronological evolution from Lurgan-born poet to Bert the Match-Man.

Besides writing poems, Pamela Travers loved AE’s poetry (and Yeats too) while she was growing up in Australia.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

She moved to London in 1924 and posted two of her poems, with an enclosed stamped addressed envelope, to AE in Dublin in January 1925.

AE published her poems and replied to Pamela in March 1925 enclosing a cheque.

He also showed her writings to Yeats, Pamela’s first introduction to the AE/Yeats literary circle.

She wrote to Russell telling him that she was coming to Dublin and AE invited her to visit him.

George William 'AE' Russell

They met in AE’s Merrion Square office; he was 57 years old and she was 25.

AE was flattered by her “adoration” and she was overwhelmed by his kind attention.

Pamela’s literary icon offered her his scholarly advice and asked her to call again before returning to London.

She went to his office a few days later but left without knocking the door, thinking that his unexpected kindness was just amicable courtesy. Three weeks later AE arrived on Pamela’s doorstep with a gift – copies of all of his books!

They became close friends, writing each other letters, Pamela’s containing her stories about children and their dreams, later featuring strongly in her Poppins’ books.

AE published some more of her writings and became her mentor. Pamela returned to Ireland in late summer 1926 and spent a lot of time with AE and met Yeats at 82 Merrion Square.

Bathers, painting by George William Russell

Russell went to London in September 1926 and told Pamela that they must have met in a previous life.

She wrote that AE was Zeus and she just a page in his court.

She told her biographer (Valerie Lawson) that from then onwards and for the rest of her life she attempted to live out George Russell’s ideas.

Pamela had been a London literary-scene correspondent for New Zealand’s Christchurch Sun newspaper since first arriving in London and on Saturday, November 13, 1926 her Mary Poppins character appeared in it as short story titled ‘Mary Poppins and the Match-Man’.

The Match-Man was Bert the street artist, based on AE who Pamela affectionately called the Match-Man due the trail of spent matches wherever he went – from constantly relighting his pipe!

Many of the elements from that first newspaper story featured in the first Mary Poppins’ book when it was published in 1934.

Bert and Mary love each other; the Banks family, a parrot headed umbrella and a pavement drawing that comes alive; Bert dresses in an imaginary world of striped coat, straw hat and white flannel trousers; Mary and Bert have tea and cakes and climb onto the horses of a merry-go-round and when Mary Poppins returns home she tell the children that she has been to fairyland!

In January 1927 Pamela asked AE if she could accompany him on his next long summer holiday to Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal.

He was delighted and they had their first holiday together in June 1927.

Over the next seven years AE continued to help Pamela develop all things Poppins and the first complete Mary Poppins book was published in 1934.

Pamela insisted on giving AE a share of her writer’s cheque as he had been so crucial in its development.

AE had never taken any payment from his protégées in the past, but on this occasion he accepted Pamela’s.