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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Aug 26th hawker plaque sunrise island 009

(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.

Baldungan Castle, Skerries, Cromwell and Plastered Priests

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baldungan August 2013and a few others 010

From the top of this castle you can see five counties: Dublin, Meath, Down, Louth, Wicklow. Or is it seven? Westmeath, Kildare? As small boys, our Geography was not too accurate. There were some who argued for nine. Anyway, you can see a lot of counties. That was the reason for building it where it is or rather, where it was. The original castle covered a large area. What remains is the shell of the castle church. Old engravings show two towers and some shards of the outer wall. The number of counties is now an academic argument. Young lads can no longer climb the spiral stairs to the top and argue about their world view, due to a steel gate and health and safety considerations. In our day, if you fell off, it was ‘on your own head be it.’ When you looked down, the castle whirled. When you looked up from below, it toppled constantly against the background of flying cloud.

I literally tremble to think of how we walked around the open square at the top. That was before vertigo and stiffness in the joints; before good sense took all the thrill out of doing stupid things. We were on level pegging with the birds. The last time I climbed to the top I had some of my children with me. They thought it was a great place. I could not stand upright. My legs shook uncontrollably. I ushered them all downstairs. The gate put an end to any further expeditions. It’s great when you are prevented from doing the thing you dread, by circumstances outside your control. Remember how the lad in For Whom the Bells Toll prayed for rain so that he would not have to be the bravest again, on the day of the bull running.

The jackdaws own the castle now. The empty joist holes provide desirable residences with spectacular views. There is usually a dusting of jackdaws circling around, particularly in the busy nesting season. I remember the toe-holds where you could climb up to peer into the nests. These crevices have been re-pointed, so that pleasure is gone. Twigs and straw still accumulate inside, concealing secret passages and entrances to subterranean passages. Of late, some of the larger raptor birds have put in an appearance, soaring lazily on the thermals, picking out their scurrying evening meal far below.

Secret passages! Aha! Dan Brown could easily squeeze 2,000 pages of twaddle out of Baldungan Castle. Did it not belong to The Templars at one time? Did they not come in secret through the Smugglers’ Cave at Loughshinny, crawling the mile or two on bended knees, (with sharpened bicycle chains around their thighs), emerging through a concealed entrance in the castle to plot yet another futile Middle-Eastern War? Did they not lay out the plan of the castle as a pentangle to guard against the evil descendants of the Merovingians, King Pippin and the deeply sinister Granny Smith?

Eh, no. The Templars owned literally thousands of castles, granges, manors and villages all over Christendom, willed to them by devout people to finance their Crusades. They had more money than God. They excited the envy of kings. The Crusades failed and the Templars became redundant. The kings snaffled their wealth. Are the Templars still out there, pulling the strings of government and the Church, running our banks, listening to our phone conversations, dining in the best restaurants, manipulating the media? Eh, no. They are certainly not up in Baldungan Castle. Cromwell rendered it uninhabitable.

The castle appears to have been built from Loughshinny stone. The folded cliffs fragment into regular blocks, ideal for building castles. Mortar enough of them together and you have a castle that can command five, seven or nine counties, (depending on which small boy can shout the loudest). I remember the old mortar with the horsehair still binding it. Now it has been replaced with cement. Lichens of all types adorn the stone, evidence of clean, healthy air. I recall two tall fragments of wall, each as high as the surviving tower. They swayed in the wind. One fell down, after eight hundred weary years of keeping watch. The farmer asked permission to brace the other one and make it safe. He was refused on the grounds that it was a national monument. He asked permission to knock it down and remove the risk. He was refused on the same grounds. It fell down, one stormy night. Ideal Templar conspiracy weather. Maybe it had been undermined by the Templars to block the entrance to their treasure chamber. Rule nothing out.

In 1649 Cromwell arrived. He ‘sat down before the castle’ and ‘reduced it ‘ by artillery. We believed that he tortured all the priests and plastered them into the walls, before moving on to ‘sit down before Drogheda.’ We looked for plaster with priest-shaped bumps in it. There was never any plaster in Baldungan. The priests must have got plastered somewhere else. Bit of a let-down in a way. It wouldn’t have made much of a headline.SHOCK>HORROR! NO PRIESTS PLASTERED IN BALDUNGAN CASTLE> Cromwell’s work is still evident all around. The soil is full of stone from the castle. Gate pillars and field boundaries show Baldungan stone. Cromwell’s name is still invoked as a curse in Ireland: ‘The curse o’ Crummel on it.’ Strange to see him honoured as a republican in monarchical Britain and reviled in republican Ireland. The historian, Michael Wood, in a BBC documentary, asked a young schoolgirl in Drogheda, what she knew about Cromwell. ‘ A bit of a b***** really, wasn’t he?’ she replied after some thought. Say no more.

The farmer’s straw gleams like Templar gold. The sun shines through the filigree wall. The clouds still fly overhead. The fields stretch away to the misty mountains. The birds still circle. Baldungan Castle still holds its ancient air of mystery.

“After a while I heard someone climbing the stairs and eventually a woolly hat emerged, followed by Kate Sheehy, red in the face and panting. The tip of her nose shone brightly, a sign of health, in dogs at least. Snowflakes clung to the wool of her hat, where my brothers had momentarily forgotten the deference due to ladies, or maybe, I reasoned later, they had been paying her the oblique compliments of the inarticulate. She drew in a deep breath and laughed.
‘That’s a terrible climb. It always gives me cramps in the legs.’
She stamped on the little platform and the snow squeaked under her boots. ‘Have you been up here long?’
‘A good while,’I said.’It’s quite a sight isn’t it?’
She looked around, turning slowly through three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the whole scene. A tremor passed through her body, possibly from the biting wind.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said softly after a while,’so clean, almost untouched.’
I followed her gaze to where the distant hedgerows foreshortened to become a black forest, standing out starkly against the dazzling white.
‘Imagine living here,’ I interjected. ‘Think of the feeling of power, looking down on everyone.’
‘They must have been very frightened all the time, to build such high walls.’
I had never thought of it that way.
‘Thomas de Barneville,’ she said. ‘Did you ever hear tell of him? He built this as his stronghold.’
‘Vaguely,’ I answered, peeved. I was supposed to be the expert.
‘He built this place, all right. He took the land from the Seagraves, Norsemen.’ ”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
Available from Chaos Press, hb and pb at

Hawker Hurricanes, Hitler and Harry. Catalina at Skerries and Loughshinny August 24th/25th 2013

Harry Hawker epitomised the romance and adventure of early aviation. His name evokes the knightly sport of hawking, a world of falcons and hunting, of speed and deadly accuracy. Born in 1889, he saw the very beginnings of heavier-than-air flying … Continue reading