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— Victor Davis Hanson
— William M. Calder III
— Ron Grossman
— Edith Hall
— Michael Longley
— James G. Keenan
— Debra Hamel
I am quite sure that from my early days-say eight or nine-the strongest sense of pleasure I enjoyed was in watching or tending animals and in trying to interchange the content of books into real facts of my own life.
The books were most often history-the old simpleminded history books of those days with dates of the kings and moral judgments on each one, and battles lost and won. I had an objection to fairy stories, as not real, but I had the absurd habit of trying to change the course of history and imagine that my heroes, for instance the Stuart kings, had won, that James II had recovered his kingdom, or that Bonnie Prince Charlie had driven out George II in 1745. But there were also novels to delight me-Walter Scott and Harrison Ainsworth and G. A. Henty, and again I frequently retold myself the stories, making the necessary corrections to suit my notion of how things ought to have come out. I suppose that the facts of history still remained facts for me even after I had altered them, and the destiny of characters in fiction still preserved their lives since they were projected from the printed page anyhow, and my putting speeches into their mouths or ideas into their heads still did not violate their ultimate existence as their authors had given them to me. It was just that some other things had happened to them that the writers did not know about.
Perhaps it was only in poetry that I rejoiced in just what I read, and that was because the sound and the rhythm captivated me. Those needed no admixture of how I wanted "real" life to be.
I have always, for as long as I could recollect anything, been a happy visitor at zoos, but from the age of seven or eight I tried to form small zoo-like communities for myself-white mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, and a hedgehog that I captured, though like all hedgehogs I have ever known he managed to escape fairly soon. I know too that I wanted mostly to watch my pets. I did not want to handle them especially, and so though I had a dog or two to raise, dogs were never exactly what I liked best. When I could watch the mice and guinea pigs and others, and feed them, and come to know what their community was like, I was very content. Certainly, this kind of management was the complement to my obsession with reality in books, as opposed to the fantastic quality of fairy stories. Animals are undeniably real, and so are their lives when you can watch them all together.
The conclusion of these childish peculiarities has apparently been that from my early twenties, I have been a farmer and a university teacher of Greek and Latin literature. I suppose that with slightly different influences, I might have been a teacher of English or some other modern language, but from the age of ten, something latched my child's imagination to Greek. Very soon afterward-and for that I am everlastingly grateful to my first Greek teacher, of whom more later-I met with Homer and then Herodotus, and this settled my devotion to Greek forever afterward. At the beginning, I am afraid, it was nothing more profound than the strange alphabet and the knowledge that those letters, unknown to most readers, spoke to me intelligibly.
The pets were gradually replaced by my care of my mother's hens, which she started to keep in our back garden, and the management factor in me increased in importance, and drew me closer to the farming which I eventually adopted. This latter might never have happened but that I had cousins who had two farms in Tipperary, and as a child I used to go there in summer, and more and more afterward; and though at twenty I had no idea how I would ever come to be able to buy a farm, I was bent on doing so. Mine was a thoroughly practical concern. I intensely despised what I heard called "gentleman farmers." I wanted to do the farming tasks myself-the milking and feeding and finally, when I got the chance, which was not till I had emigrated to the United States, to do the plowing and work of cultivation.
Similarly, or so it seems to me still, I needed to read the novels and poems I loved, and when I had thoroughly grasped them or learned them by heart, I wanted to talk about them with others like myself. From this to teaching is only a very small leap. It is certainly the way I want to teach still. I have never felt concerned with the methods of understanding literature or philosophy. It is the particularity of the book, or the particular poem that concerns me. The only outside matter to take account of is how it stands related to the rest of the author's writings.
Why am I sharing what can at least pass for a connected, if incomplete narrative of my life? There does have to be, of course, someone else for whom one writes besides oneself. One cannot really know one's own face better for looking at it in a mirror, because of the self-consciousness of that look. The obvious answer as to an audience is one's family. Yes, this is written for my family. But not only the family. Maybe the oddity of the conjunction of my two interests, farming and classical literature, is the reason for describing the way I went. I rather doubt it, for so odd it isn't, though a little unusual. Maybe the book is due to a warmth of feeling for the two professions, some perhaps misguided zeal for two causes not very high on the world's popularity list. That is nearer it, I think. Or maybe it is just a rechewing of the grateful joys of the past, and sometimes of their opposites. I know that many people believe in the genuine isolation of the past: let it bury its own dead, its successes, and its failures; continuity is the supreme illusion. I have never been able to see it like that.
Chapter Two Origins
There are two framed documents hanging in my study on my Cavan farm which are my closest link with real history, and also the most evocative. The first of them is nearly five feet long and gaudy with gold, black, and red coloring. It traces the Grene family from its possible origin in Kent in the twelfth century till the time the first Grene came to Ireland, which happened in 1609. This family tree itself was drawn up by the then king-at-arms, William Camden (and as such signed by him) with that date, 1609. No one knows why that particular Grene became interested in getting his family tree authenticated at that date. Possibly because King James I had given this George Grene a grant of Irish land in County Kilkenny. Again, no one knows why the king should have given him the land in Ireland. Perhaps the Grenes had lent the king money, and this was in the nature of a repayment. The Grene family was then Catholic, and without some other very strong claims on the royal attention, they would have hardly been so favored. King James had been brought up a Presbyterian, and though he was aware that there were many loyalists who were Catholic, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, designed to blow up the entire Parliament and the King, would hardly have made him particularly favorable to someone qua Catholic. Camden was also the king-at-arms when he gave Shakespeare his coat of arms sometime in the 1590s, and some people have linked this also with an acquisition of some extra property.
The construction of the thing is fascinating. Most families till, say, the middle nineteenth century, had coats of arms which they stamped on the doors of their carriages and elsewhere on their various pieces of equipment. The king-at-arms traced these coats of arms through the generations, and each generation contributed new features from events of their day in which they had participated. Thus, ours has a very prominent cross to commemorate participation in the Crusades. The final coat-that is, the one made up by the king-at-arms at the request of the member of the family-involved creating an amalgam of all the special designs, put together with traditional colors and patterns. Hence, notes like "azure upon a field d'or." The names of the generations of Grenes are given in Latin, with occasional additions such as eques auratus, "gilded horseman," which means he had the order of knighthood.
It is natural to be a bit skeptical. I wonder, for instance, how possible it was for Camden or his assistants literally to run down the names of all the family members for as far back as three to four hundred years. I wonder, even more, if such efforts could be made and made successfully, how could the time and energy possibly be commensurate with any likely payment-even if we know that the costs of establishing the family tree were high.
Yet, there are signs of some serious trying for accuracy. The further back you go, the more often you find nomine ignoto, "this man's (Christian) name is unknown," and even more frequently, after listing a son, his father's marriage is noted as uxor eius ignota, "wife unknown." Unless the job was taken seriously, I hardly think the maker of the tree would patently admit ignorance, instead of inventing a name in either instance. But the piece of evidence that seems to me to give the strongest sense of an attempt at accuracy is something else. Originally, the Grenes were not Grenes at all but Nortons. It is the Nortons who were in the Crusades and the Nortons who are traceable to the reign of Stephen. About the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century, there was a Grene with the added note filius naturalis, though for a couple of generations the entry reads "Grene alias Norton." This was about Chaucer's time, and the spelling "grene" occurs in Chaucer. (Names like Grene, White, Brown, etc., have in various countries been taken when the state authorities forced their previously unidentifiable citizens to have a new signification. Those who took names from colors, or from trades like Smith or Baker, did not want or did not dare to call themselves after a family of real distinction.) From this time on there were Grenes, and for several generations they carry the Norton arms with the bordure compony, a particular design around the border of the coat which like a bend (bar) sinister indicates bastardy. After what was either a conventional or perhaps only a respectable interval, this was dropped (presumably by order of William Camden or his assistant), and the Grenes quietly emerge with the Norton arms. I don't know what happened to the Nortons; maybe the family died out. But if there had not been a very serious and concerned search after accuracy, it would surely have been tempting and certainly less likely to give offense for the searcher to skip the awkwardness of the filius naturalis, and have invented an original Grene with no dishonorable origin noted. So I am inclined to believe that this is a serious effort at historical accuracy, and that when the records were more numerous, it was possible to examine them more easily than I would have imagined.
My grandfather had a passionate interest in the pedigree, and on his own continued it from the original George Grene of 1609 till his own time. He died in 1910. Though his version of the pedigree is not nearly as sensational in its coloring (and, of course, of much less value as a historical document), running only in plain black and green lines, it has for me a special interest, because the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries of Irish history are so close to my heart. My grandfather also very obligingly wrote a longish piece on the family, drawing on sources no longer available. In his day, there were many records kept in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, where the Grenes had originally been given their land. These records were mostly transferred to the Four Courts in Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century and were largely destroyed in the burning of the Four Courts during an episode of the Civil War in 1922. One of the Grenes was hanged by Cromwell about 1650, and so presumably had been serving as an officer in the Royalist army. Another fought at the Boyne for King James II in 1689. Thereafter his sons and grandsons, some of them anyway, fought in the French army and, according to my grandfather's account, one of them fought at Dettingen in 1742 against King George II. Apparently some of the Grenes, brothers or otherwise, stayed on in Ireland, for my grandfather found the names of land farmed by them at the time that Sylvester Grene was at Dettingen.
Of course, that such documents should arouse emotion and pride is a bit absurd. Every son of Adam has ancestors, even if they do not figure in family trees. It would be also more pardonable to feel these emotions if the ancestors for generations had played a prominent part in the great events. I cannot really say that for the Grenes. Even those with the destinies that seem violent, like the man who was hanged by Cromwell or they who fought at the Boyne or Dettingen, were doing quite typical things for the minor gentry that they were. When I knew that I was being overpowered by the family tree, I was secretly pleased by the scurrilous comment of my aunt Jessie, well known for her acid tongue. She said that she had never heard of anything unusual done by these ancient Grenes except that she had heard of one of them so poor (and so greedy) that he had given the family tree as security (I am glad to say temporarily) for a leg of mutton.
There were also some matters of the greatest concern to myself, exclusively recorded in my grandfather's account. Somewhere in the early eighteenth century, Patrick Grene married twice. His first wife was a lady called Elizabeth Russell, his second, Susan Colpys. By his first wife, among other children, he had an eldest son, Sylvester. This is my direct ancestor. By his second, he had another family, and these are the so-called cousins with whom we have always had the kindest relations. I do not know at what time the Grenes migrated from County Kilkenny to Tipperary, but by the early nineteenth century the Grenes of Patrick's second family already owned Cappamurra there, with a lot of land and a most beautiful old house. Another of them, Nicholas Biddulph Grene, owned the land of what has since been called Grenepark, and built there in 1826 another medium-sized but splendidly dignified Regency place. At that time my great-grandfather George Grene apparently owned a large farm at Clonmel, about twelve miles off, and used to ride over to breakfast with Nicholas Biddulph when Grenepark was building.
Now comes the matter that interested me so, especially when I was a child. The intimacy between the two branches of the family was then as now very close, unexpectedly so since the "cousinship" is a very formal title for a very distant relation if one figures out the range of years and the half nature of the kinship anyway. So far both branches of the family seem to have been about equally well-to-do, and both lived off the land. Then my great-grandfather George married a Scotch lady who was Protestant and turned Protestant himself, sometime about 1830.
There had never been a Protestant Grene before, and whatever uncomfortable fates had befallen the members of the family, all had happened because they remained obdurately Catholic. It is paradoxical that my great-grandfather turned when Catholic emancipation was already a fact, and his conversion clearly made little difference in his prospects. Anyway, the Scotch lady had money and did not like the country, and the two went up to Dublin and bred up most of their children to be lawyers and doctors and businessmen. Among them, my grandfather became an officer of the Royal Irish Constabulary and eventually District Inspector. This looks well on paper and, in fact, was a fairly important position, for there were only about fifteen of them in Ireland. It is now the custom to dispraise the RIC as harsh and tyrannical, especially in their function as the official opponent of the rising nationalism. It is rather hard to get at many facts about this, though as police against antigovernmentalists, they are hardly likely to have been very merciful. My grandfather was very badly injured in the Belfast riots in the middle eighties, and a few years afterward was retired and went to live in Dublin. There is an ominous note on his record describing him as a "zealous, perhaps at times, an overzealous officer." I know his photograph well, and the face has always looked to me quite brutal.
Meanwhile, the other Grenes stuck to Cappamurra and Grenepark. They sent their children to good Catholic schools; some of them became priests, monks, or nuns. Mostly, they continued to farm. By the middle twenties, they were at least in fairly comfortable terms to face the depression. My side of the family, well represented by professionals and businesspeople, managed in about one hundred years to lose all their money. My father was an accountant in the Sun Insurance office in Dublin, a job that was got for him because he had an uncle who was a director of the company in London, and it was always thought that some of his influence would push my father further up the tree. It never did. He remained an accountant on a very middling salary for a very middling job, which he was far from liking.
Excerpted from OF FARMING & CLASSICS by DAVID GRENE Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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