Confessions of a Latin Lover.

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We were watching B.B.C. television. The programme ended, with credits rolling up the screen at a speed that always makes it impossible to read them. Talk about a fleeting moment of fame. The credits paused. My little daughter asked me: “Who’s that person, McMillix? He’s in all the programmes.” So he was. I was a teacher of Latin at the time, a member of an endangered species, now almost extinct. I had to explain that this was the date. The B.B.C. being such an august organisation, had to write the date in Roman numerals. It was MCMLXXIX or 1979 to ordinary mortals. She nodded but I could see that she thought it a cockeyed way of counting. She was right.  They had no zero. They couldn’t ‘put down the three and carry the one’ over to the next column, as the decimal system allows. It’s simple addition. At least it was, until some educational expert decreed that children should write all the numbers in a line from left to right and add them up sideways. Even after LX years, it still makes me furious. If it ain’t broke etc. To give McMillix his due, he provided some great family viewing, before the proliferation of screens scattered families to all parts of the house.

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In earlier times we could have brought our children to the local amphitheatre, to watch some recreational slaughter—admission free, courtesy of some great general or politician. Bread and Circuses, the sure way to political success. As members of the proletarii, the people of no wealth except for their children, (proles/prolific/proliferation and so on,) we would probably have had to occupy the higher seats, further from the action, probably in direct sunlight, but at least the food was free.  There was always some good family viewing on at the amphitheatre. We could have watched battles between groups of gladiators, with plenty of gore spilled into the sand (arena). We could have cheered to see women fighting wild beasts, or being torn apart by them. We might have been privileged to witness the dismembering of prisoners and enemies of Rome by ravenous, exotic animals. The execution of children would have been a salutary lesson to our own.  Throw in a few Christians for a laugh. On a good day the Emperor might have graced the proceedings with his presence, accompanied by the great nobles and ladies of quality. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to impress upon our proles, the glory of Rome and why the gods decreed that Rome alone should rule the world.

The study of Latin and Roman civilization has been a staple of European education for centuries. Generations have marvelled at their achievements, their mighty works of engineering and architecture and the brilliance of (most of) their military campaigns. It was the Romans who defined patriotism, love of country, as a willingness to die for the fatherland. It is a privilege, a duty and a delight. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. That was Horace, the poet son of a freed slave. Wilfred Owen, in our time, saw the grotesque reality of that lie. It is difficult to contemplate much of Roman civilization, without revulsion. Similarly, the heir to the Roman Empire, the Church of Rome inspires revulsion at the pointless opulence of the Vatican, the expense of which, split Christendom in two.  It’s a cockeyed way to carry on the work of the crucified carpenter from Galilee. I met an old English soldier who had fought in Italy during the war. He told me that he lost all respect for Catholics, because there were vendors in Pompeii, selling pornographic postcards of the frescoes in that unfortunate town. He presumed that they were Catholic. You can hardly blame the Church for everything. They did good business with the Tommies. The Romans saw pornography as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

Drumanagh Loughshinny

This is Drumanagh, a promontory at Loughshinny, north of Dublin. A defensive ditch cuts the headland off on the landward side. The martello tower is a nineteenth century addition.  I saw the field just after it was ploughed, possibly for the first time ever. There was an avenue leading from the ditch to the tower, marked by the black remains of cooking fires. Every patch was strewn with animal bones, evidence of long-standing human habitation. I found a decorative bronze pin lying on the newly turned earth. My brother, an archaeologist, promptly confiscated it.  He takes a very dim view of treasure hunters and metal detectors. It was just lying there, your honour. Drumanagh attracts legends, treasure hunters, strollers, motor bikers, people with theories, occasional fly-tippers. Some say that Cuchulainn, ‘the Irish Achilles’ seized his wife, Emer, from Drumanagh. Some suggest a Roman settlement. Vikings?  All the theories are urged with great conviction. It would repay a full excavation. No matter who lived there, it was a formidable fort.

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(This cliff is outside the ditch but similar to the rest of the promontory.)

Agricola (farmer) is alleged to have said that he could take Hibernia in a week with one or two legions. Maybe he tried. Maybe the Romans got their comeuppance near Drumanagh. A legend tells how Fionn MacCumhail and his Fianna fought The King of the World.  A recent report describes a significant find, a massacre of what appears to be a Roman force, about two kilometers from Drumanagh. Don’t ask me where. It’s all at an early stage of investigation. It could turn out to be our own little Teutoburg Forest, where Varus and another Roman army over-reached themselves. There is a certain satisfaction in thinking so. Vae victis. Alas for the defeated ones.


And yet– and yet. I still love the language. It permeates our daily speech. It is the language of the sciences, from botany to medicine. It has given the stars and the elements that compose them, their names. It is spoken, in its various modern forms, from the Black Sea to the tip of Tierra del Fuego and the high Canadian Arctic. Dan Quayle, on a tour of Latin America, lamented  that he had never learned Latin. Salsa sauce out-sells tomato ketchup in the United States, evidence of the re-colonisation of what was once Spanish America. I love its precision and clarity. An understanding of its structure is a guide to clear expression in the English language. It gave us the elegant Roman alphabet, where letters took their style from the turn of a mason’s wrist or the broad goose quill in the fingers of a scribe.

Is there not a contradiction in school teachers extolling the effectiveness of the short, stabbing sword as a weapon? Is there not a contradiction in  ‘blockbuster’ entertainment relying so heavily on blood and guts as family entertainment? Am I, in some small degree, also to blame? If so, mea maxima culpa.

I must have a word with McMillix, if I ever get to meet him.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen….Sir Walter Raleigh

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 “My Lords….Ladies …..aaaand…..Ge….e…..ntle…….e….en.   When you hear that phrase you assume that there will be a fight. What is a lord? What is a lady aaaaand what is a gentleman?  To the Anglo Saxons it was a bread and butter issue: Hlaf  a loaf.  Hlaford,   a lord, the man who ensures a supply of bread. Hlafdie, the lord’s wife, the lady who distributes the bread. It paid to know on which side your bread was buttered.  A gentleman was defined in later mediaeval times, as one entitled to bear arms and thereby entitled to wear a coat of arms. He followed the noble calling of arms. He was expected to follow his lord into battle. The last thing he was expected to be was gentle. Raiding, and conquest secured the supply of food. ‘An army marches on its belly.’ (Napoleon). Julius Caesar saw the year as consisting of winter quarters, grass growth for the horses and weather for campaigning and finally, harvest for either capturing or destroying the crops of the enemy. It’s a straightforward annual cycle, determined mostly by the weather. Greed,  megalomania, fanaticism and madness can play a part in this too. ‘You look after the enemy and I will take care of the winter.’ (Adolf Hitler).

Nothing so becomes a gentleman as his sword. The sword is a symbol of power and authority, an extension of the arm, a device for sundering limbs, for slicing windpipes and internal organs and for spilling blood. It is also a work of art, a thing of sinister beauty.  To the Samurai it was an object worthy of veneration. Wieland and Vulcan were blacksmiths to the gods. The Scythians prayed to the sword and to the North Wind. If one doesn’t get you, the other will. Conquered people are ‘put to the sword,’  a final solution.  The sword is integral to a ‘guard of honour.’ A knight or a gentleman, uses his sword only to defend the weak, to defend ‘womanhood,’ to defend his country and his own honour.  Or does he?

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Sir Walter Raleigh is presented to us as a ‘dashing’ Elizabethan gentleman. Throwing his good cloak over a puddle to protect the queen’s shoes, assured him a place in popular imagination as a gallant gentleman. It was a good investment, unlike some of his other ventures.  Like many another, he came to Ireland to win fame and fortune with his sword. He did well here….eventually.  Elizabeth’s young gentlemen were referred to as mastiffs, on account of their ferocity.  Raleigh’s half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was accustomed to making  an avenue to his tent at the end of each day’s campaigning, from the heads of his victims. “Nothing so cows a man as the sight of his children, his wife, his brothers….”  Fear and revulsion. You can see the logic of his tactic.  Perhaps the name, ‘Fort of Gold’ was what lured Raleigh to west Kerry, a region in one of its sporadic revolts against Elizabeth. In the conquest business, it is important to be in at the kill. To the victor the spoils.

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This small declivity on a clifftop is The Fort of Gold, a bloody awful place to be  as the nights lengthen and the rain sweeps in from the Atlantic.  A small Spanish/Italian force landed here in the autumn of 1580. They had magnificent armour and swords. They had little or no artillery. Their line of retreat was to the rocks below. They came to assist the Irish rebels and to place an illegitimate son of the Pope on the throne of Ireland.  The Pope’s bastard wisely stayed at home, waiting for news. The mastiffs closed in. Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s Deputy, pounded the fort with his cannon. The young gentlemen distinguished themselves in the trenches.  Lord Grey offered terms and safe conduct out of Ireland. The invaders agreed.

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(Cannon in Youghal, a town later granted to Raleigh.)

Even a lord can break his word. Raleigh took charge of the surrender and the pillaging of the armour and weapons. The few Irish taken prisoner, male and female, were executed in the most hideous manner. Under Raleigh’s direction, almost eight hundred foreign soldiers were beheaded by the soldiers in the fields below the fort, The Field of the Cutting and The Black Fields. There was an enquiry into Grey’s breach of faith. His star faded. Raleigh defended his actions on the grounds that he was merely following orders. That has a contemporary ring to it. Anyway, he was the queen’s favourite dancing partner. He gained a town, some castles and forty thousand acres of confiscated land. Young Ned Denny, who coined the nickname ‘mastiffs’, became Sir Edward Denny, lord of extensive estates in Kerry. His Lady wife, eight years later, personally counted the heads of shipwrecked Spaniards from the Armada, two hundred in all, and was paid for each one. Raleigh went on to failed ventures in the Americas, in pursuit of fortune and eventually lost his own head in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. He trembled from ague. “I would not have mine enemies think that I quaked from fear.” He tested the edge of the axe. His personal courage was never in doubt. If the axe hadn’t got him, the tobacco, his constant companion, surely would have.

The sword is the staple of popular films and television programmes. It is everywhere in children’s stories and in legend. The Sword of Light. Excalibur. Gladiators spill blood and maim, always in slow motion. Film critics use the term ‘gore fest’ as a recommendation.

The time of fear and revulsion has come round again with ISIS, the sword as ‘the key to Heaven and Hell.’  This is not a new thing. With modern media it no longer happens somewhere far away.

The lord Katsu, one of the greatest of the Samurai, never drew his sword in anger.

He adapted his scabbard to make it almost impossible to draw the weapon.

He never killed anyone—- for which he was greatly criticised.

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