Young, Ella (1867–1956), poet, republican, and mystic, was born 26 December 1867 in the townland of Fenagh, near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, eldest of at least five daughters of James Bristow Young and his wife, Matilda (née Russell), whose family were from Fenagh and who was a Reformed Presbyterian. James Young was possibly of a local Co. Antrim family, but had been living in Limerick before his marriage. Ella's sister Elizabeth became an actress, using the stage name ‘Violet Merville’, and Marianne Young or Younge (d. 1917), who wrote as ‘M. A. Rathkyle’, may have been another sister. Six of an original family of nine children survived to adulthood. There were some connections through marriage and friendship with Ella's contemporary Rose Young (qv); no closer relationship can be established.
The family moved to the south of Ireland and in 1880 to Rathmines, Dublin, and Young graduated (1898) with a BA in history, political economy, and law from the RUI. She joined the Theosophical Society, and was also a member of the Hermetic Society. She learned Irish, and in 1902 and 1903 visited Achill Island with Margaret O'Grady, wife of Standish James O'Grady (qv), to collect folklore about fairies for their friend George Russell (qv) (Æ), who was probably not related to the Youngs, and to seek visionary enlightenment. Her memoirs record many psychic experiences, both her own and other people's, and she spoke of the travels of her astral body. She published poems in 1906, and collections of retellings of Celtic myths (somewhat transmuted by her unique mystical perspective), The coming of Lugh (1909) and Celtic wonder tales (1910). The latter has remained in print for many years, with editions in 1923, 1995, and 2001, and a French translation in 1962. Young's interests in Celtic mythology and mysticism led to friendships with Maud Gonne (qv), who decorated one of her books, with W. B. Yeats (qv), and with many others involved in the Celtic revival. Young at one time shared a flat with Gonne in Paris and may have been in love with her; at any rate, she and Yeats were each jealous of the other's claims on Gonne's affections. They were both founder members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and gave classes in Irish history to adults and children in Dublin.
Young joined Sinn Féin in 1912, and in 1914 was a founder member of Cumann na mBan. According to her autobiography, she stored weapons smuggled for the IRA in her rented house in Co. Wicklow. After fleeing to Connemara during the aftermath of the 1916 rising, she took a room in a protestant-owned house in Dublin, where she later claimed that she had again hidden arms and ammunition, and helped two escaped republican prisoners to get out of the city. She strongly opposed the Anglo–Irish treaty; she and Æ never spoke again, after supporting different sides, and she was interned by the Free State in Mountjoy jail and in the North Dublin Union. Young was the leading supporter of a project to commemorate those who had died in the Easter rising, and was secretary from 1922 of the Irish Republican Memorial Committee, which commissioned Art O'Murnaghan (qv) to decorate a vellum volume of names.
For ten years from c.1925 she was James D. Phelan lecturer in Irish myth and lore at the University of California at Berkeley. She lived in Halcyon, in Oceana or Oceano, a theosophical settlement in California, and in the community of artists in Taos, New Mexico, where she met Georgia O'Keeffe and Frieda Lawrence, and studied Native American and Mexican myths. She had to spend three months in Canada in 1930–31 to qualify for reentry to the US as a British citizen, and thereafter she took out American citizenship. She published The wonder-smith and his son (1925), The tangle-coated horse (1929), and The unicorn with silver shoes (1932); these were stories for children, inspired by themes from Celtic myth, with beautiful illustrations and written in her delicate, carefully cadenced prose. The last book was nominated for the American Newbery prize for children's literature in 1932; all her children's stories were quite popular, and several times reprinted, up to at least the 1990s.
An autobiography, Flowering dusk (1945), is an interesting though perhaps not entirely reliable source for historians of the Easter rising and the Celtic revival; it is clear from these memoirs that for Young everyday life in Ireland or America was contiguous with the world of spirits and Celtic gods, and she believed that one could converse on the astral plane with the elemental beings of the landscape. She believed fervently in reincarnation, and said that she could hear the music of the mountains and of the sky. People who met her in California were entranced by her personality and appearance; described variously as ‘a pixie’, ‘as frail as a snowflake’, ‘a tigress’ (Riehle; Heckel), she wore long robes of satin or velvet in brilliant colours with contrasting sleeves, and entertained occasional visitors with poetry readings in an Ulster accent. In the last year of her life, she said that she had been in communication with the occupants of a thimble-sized spaceship which came and hovered in her garden. She died 23 July 1956 in Oceana, and her ashes were scattered in a grove of redwood trees, with which she had been wont to commune. Some of her papers are in the Library of Congress.