Charles Johnston

Life
1867-?; b. 17 Feb., Ballykilbeg, Co. Down; son of William Johnston, MP [see infra], and Georgina, dg. Sir John Hay, Bart., of Park, Scotland; ed. Derby, ed. High School, and TCD; initially planned to be a missionary; fnd. Dublin Hermetic Society with Yeats and others, 16 June 1885; read paper on “Esoteric Buddhism”, later publ. in Dublin Univ. Review; prepared for Indian Civil Service, 1886; sat final exam, Aug. 1888; reached India Nov. 1888; appt. asst. and Dep. Magistrate at Murshedabad Lwr. Bengal, afterwards Cuttack district of Irissa; visited Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Allahabad; invalided two years later; travelled four years on continent, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Austria, and France; publ. Reflections and Refractions (1893), and withdrew it shortly afterwards; visited USA, 1896; Mem. Royal Asiatic Soc., and Pres. Irish Literary Society NY; translated Upanishads (1896); What is Art?, from Tolstoy; Julian the Apostate, from R Mereshkovski; The System of the Vedanta from Prof. Paul Deussen [German]; also The Memory of Past Births (1900); Kela Bai (1900); Ireland, Historic and Picturesque (1902); articles on Oriental, historical and literary subjects to leading magazines; m. niece of Madame Blavatsky. JMC

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Works
Ireland: Historic and Picturesque (Philadelphia: Winston 1902), 293pp.,; Ireland’s Story - new edition with an additional chapter: 1904-1922 (Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1923), ill., C. S. Daniell , xiv, 442pp. 8o.

Bibliographical details
Ireland: Historic And Picturesque (1902): Contents: I. Visible and Invisible; II. The Great Stone Monuments ; iii. The Cromlech Builders; IV. The De Danaans; V. Emain of Maca; VI. Cuculain the Hero; VII. Find and Ossin; VIII. The Messenger of the New Way; IX. The Saints and Scholars; X. The Raids of the Northmen; XI. The Passing of the Norsemen; XII. The Normans; XIII. The Triumph of Feudalism; XIV. The Jacobite Wars; XV. Conclusion. Index.

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Commentary
W. B. Yeats (1 - Letter to John O’Leary): ‘There is little news: Charles Johnston is gone to Russia to get married to Madam Blavatsky’s niece who is pretty and simple. Madam Blavatsky and her sister, the girl’s mother, do not much like it. The sister weeps and Madame covers them with lambent railery - she likes Johnston very much, but then he was intended for a Mahatma. The lodge Blavatsky despairs. He is the last failure. Only one member of the lodge is happy-a young lady who turned up her eyes and said “Oh that beautiful young man. How wicked of Theosophists to try and prevent people from falling in love”. (8 Oct. 1890; rep. in John S. Crone, “Willie Yeats and John O’Leary”, in The Irish Book Lover, Vol. XXVII, No.5, Nov. 1940, 245. Note: Crone explains that the letters reached him from the widow of D. J. O’Donoghue, who was O’Leary’s executor.)

W. B. Yeats (2): In Memoirs (ed. Donoghue, 1972), Yeats mentions a stay of seven or ten days with Charles Johnston and his elder brother during which they made fire ballons [kites?], adding - in reference to Maud Gonne - ‘I was not, it seem - not altogether - captive.’ (p.46.) Note: in this passage Yeats calls Johnson ‘brilliant’ and speaks of his dwelling-place as ‘Orange Ulster’, an oblique reference to his father.

W. B. Yeats (3): In his Autobiographies, Yeats noted of Johnston’s native Ballykilbeg that ‘everything was a matter of belief’ in Protestant salvation and Catholic damnation. (Autobiographies, 1955, p.91; See R. F. Foster, ‘Protestant Magic: W. B. Yeats and the Spell of Irish History’ [1990], rep. in Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities, Michigan UP 1996, p.92.)

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Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948), Ellmann, pp.61-63: ‘one was Yeats’s school-fellow, Charles Johnston, son of a Protestant Member of Parliament from Ulster, who had planned to be a missionary’ (p.42); Ellmann summarised Johnston’s account of the seven rounds of the soul, in ‘Esoteric Buddhism’, Dublin Univ. Review (July, 1885), pp.144-45, and also cites his ‘The Theosophical Movement’, in Theosophical Quarterly [New York], V (July 1907), 16-26, detailing his credulous response to Sinnett’s The Occult World, which Johnston met with in 1884: ‘The entire reasonableness of the account there given of the life and growth of the soul, interwoven with the history of the world, came home with convincing force, and has remained with me ever since.’ (Ellmann, p.63). Note that Ellmann Yeats met with the book at Dowden’s and showed it to Johnston, who ‘almost immediately joined the Theosophical Lodge in London, of which Sinnett was now president, and brought back accounts of its activities to his Dublin friends’, but Jeffares has Johnston show the book to Yeats.

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Frank Tuohy, Yeats (1976), ‘[Yeats’s] fellow student still at High School, Charles Johnston, the son of an Ulster Member of Parliament [...] giving all his time to some sort of mysticism and [was] likely to fail his examination [...] Yeats felt accused of leading him astray [...] [Johnston] a brilliant classical student marked out for worldly success, was by this time determined to become a missionary in the South Seas. He and his sister, with a younger brother who followed in their wake, were the children of their father’s third marriage, ad were allowed a good deal of independence. To this they responded by becoming vegetarians, non-smokers and total abstainers. The sister founded a vegetarian restaurant [...] Katharine Tynan [...] who knew him well, said that ‘Charlie Johnston introduced Theosophy to Dublin’; Johnston had already discovered Sinnett’s book The Occult World [...] Confronted with an enthusiasm like Johnston’s, Yeats came to feel ashamed of his own lack of zeal [...] Charles Johnston beat all Ireland in the Intermediate examinations, and yet, when Yeats met him in America years afterwards, he told him “There is nothing I cannot learn and nothing that I want to learn”.’ (pp.31-32); Yeats, Johnston, and their friends founded the Dublin Hermetic Society [... &c ...] first meeting in a rented room in York St., on 15 June 1885 (p.33-34). [Gives account of the testing of Madame Blavatsky by Sinnett on behalf of Soc. for Psychical Research]; ‘the 18-yr old Charles Johnston went to London to hear the investigator’s conclusions. The summing up [...] was unambiguous [‘one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors of history’]; Johnston went up to chairman F. W. H. Myers and told him that ‘the whole thing was so scandalously unjust that, had I not been a member of the Theosophical Society, I should have joined it forthwith’; Johnston gives digest of findings to Dublin society; Chatterji invited to address Dublin society (p.34); Johnston the most orthodox of the Dublin Theosophists, gives Yeats introduction to Madame Blavatsky (p.48). Note, Richard Ellmann (Yeats: Man and Masks, 1948), reporting the same, names the investigator as Hodgson and the circumstance that Blavatsky’s servants in India reveal the table-moving tricks that she had used; and further that ‘Johnston was not alone in his fidelity.’ [p.64]; obtained charter from Sinnett for Lodge, throwing in his lot with Madame Blavatsky [ibid.].

A. N. Jeffares, New Commentary on the Poems of W B Yeats (1988), Yeats’s school-fellow Charles Johnston read books by A. P. Sinnett; Hermetic Society, rooms in York St., incl. “AE” [George Russell]; ‘another member was Charles Johnston, son of the MP for Ballykilbeg, Northern Ireland, a brilliant fellow pupil of Yeats’s at the High School, Dublin, who married Madame Blavatsky’s niece.’ (p.5). See also a reference to John Eglinton, ‘Yeats at the High School’, Erasmian, XXX (June 1939) [New Comm., p.379.]

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Quotations
Ireland Historic and Picturesque: ‘Finally, encircling all, is the perpetual presence of the sea, with its foaming, thunderous life or its days of dreamy peace; the silver sands or furrowed cliffs that gird the island our white waves rush forever, murmuring the music of eternity.//Such is the land of Eire, very old, yet full of perpetual youth; a thous[and] times darkened by sorrow, yet with a heart of living gladness; too often visited by evil and pare death, yet welling ever up in unconquerable life, - youth and life and gladness that thrill through earth and air and sky, when the whole world grows beautiful in the front of Spring//For us spring is like the making of a new world ... &c. ... A living spirit throbs everywhere, palpable, audible, full of sweetness and sadness immeasurable - sadness that is only a more secret joy ... Who ever has not felt the poignant sadness of the leafless days has never known the real Ireland. ... Here in our visible life is a whisper and a hint of our life invisible ... This is our secret, the life that is in sorrow as in joy ... the soul that throbs incessantly under all the calamities of the visible world, though the long tragedy of our history ... Finally from all our fiery trials we shall see the genius of our land emerge, tried indeed by fire, yet having gained fire’s purity ... our great destiny, and thereby of the life destiny of universal man ... [may] deserve her name, Inis Fail the Isle of Destiny’. (Quoted in Justin McCarthy, ed., Irish Literature, 1904).

Ireland: Historic and Picturesque (1902): ‘[...] I see in Ireland a miraculous and divine history, a life and destiny invisible, lying hid within her visible life. Like that throbbing presence of the night which whispers along the hills, this diviner whisper, this more miraculous and occult power, lurks in our apparent life. From the very gray of her morning, the children of Ireland were preoccupied with the invisible world; it was so in the darkest hours of our oppression and desolation; driven from this world, we took refuge in that; it was not the kingdom of heaven upon earth, but the children of earth seeking a refuge in heaven. So the same note rings and echoes through all our history; we live in the invisible world. If I rightly understand our mission and our destiny, it is this: To restore to other men the sense of that invisible; that world of our immortality; as of old our race went forth carrying the Galilean Evangel. We shall first learn, and then teach, that not with wealth can the soul of man be satisfied; that our enduring interest is not here but there, in the unseen, the hidden, the immortal, for whose purposes exist all the visible beauties of the world. If this be our mission and our purpose, well may our fair mysterious land deserve her name: Inis Fail, the Isle of Destiny.’ (p.22; captured from Gutenburg Project, 15 June 2004; [link].)

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References
Ireland, Historic and Picturesque (Philadelphia: Winston 1902), 293pp., front. ill., ills. [Cathach 1996/97]

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Notes
J. B. Yeats: Johnston’s opinion of the formative influence of John B. Yeats on his son W. B. Yeats: ‘Many of the finer qualities of Willie Yeats’ mind were formed in that study [i.e., J. B. Yeats’ studio] on St. Stephen’s Green, in long talks on art and life, on man and God, with his sensitive, enthusiastic father. One remembers the long room, with its skylight, the walls of pale green, frames and canvases massed along them; a sofa and a big armchair or two; the stout iron stove with its tube; and, filling the whole with his spirit, the artist stepping back again, always in movement, always meditating high themes, and now and then breaking into talk on the second part of “Faust”, or the Hesperian apples, or the relation of villainy to genius.’ (Quoted in E. H. Mikhail, W. B. Yeats: Interviews and Recollections, 1977, p.9-10; cited in Terence Brown, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Life, 1999, p.26 [pb. edn. 2001].)

Roy Foster suggests that the ‘lapidary’ obituary notice on Yeats that appeared in the New York Evening Post (20 Jan. 1939) may have been ‘a last shaft from his old schoolmate’ Charles Johnston: ‘He ranked at his death as the First Poet of English. He was known more widely than any living Irishman except George Bernard Shaw. he was a writer of shining prose, poetic Irish plays, elegant essays, and constructive criticism of Irish art and letters. He was a Nationalist patriot when that took courage; he was a Senator of the Free State from 1922 to 1928; in 1923 he won the Nobel Prize. / Beyond that, he was a little daft.’ (Cited by Foster, op. cit., ftn.10, p.178.)

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