There has been so much tempest in my life that the quiet places in which my childhood was spent, and the quiet voices that sounded there, seem to me sometimes not to have belonged to my life at all, but to have been part of the life of another of whom I have heard or read, or whom I have imagined; one whom I can observe with considerable detachment as the story of his days pieces itself together in my mind again and his dreams come back to me.
And this detachment is in no wise inconsistent with a certain charity and definiteness in the recollections of impressions and emotions. I am not sure whether it is a good thing for a man to possess, as fully as I have possessed it, the faculty of getting, as it were, outside of himself and of contemplating himself as if from a little distance.
Many of my failures have doubtless been due to the fact that my thoughts and emotions of yesterday, my ordeals and triumphs of tomorrow, have always been more to me than my deeds of today: the remembered or imagined experience more insistent than the actual. Often in a world which demands swift and ruthless action I have found myself pausing to catch some far-off sound—the echo of a long-silent voice—or to anticipate some unspeakable glory of a new sunrise or moonrise. When people have been talking to me about national policies, I have been listening to the flickering of the wings of flies on a window-pane that I once knew; in the midst of military plans and organisations I have been watching myself as a child come out of a certain green gate into a certain sun-lit field; or as a lad breasting great breakers beneath the moon, striving with strong white shoulders, wet and glistening.
And continually my thoughts have gone back to the places that were first familiar to me, and my ear has heard the voices that it first heard. I will set it down to my credit, that I have never loved any place better than those old places; or any voice better than those old voices. I have been faithful to them in my heart even when I have deliberately turned my feet from them, seeking far places and far voices …
You must not think that we who love perilous adventure have not also the common affections; that we do not remember, as poignantly as you bankers and solicitors and government clerks, some fireside where our kin once gathered, some caress of a woman’s or a child’s hand. For myself, I have never gone out to do any difficult thing, or to face any long road of sea or land, that my heart did not yearn at the leave-taking; and I have never spent a night away from the house where my kin were that I would not have given much to be among them.
Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one, a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other, an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on far quests and fight for lost causes.
What I have written here is the only defence I shall make for myself in this book, whose object, as I plan it, is simply to record things done and thought; not to explain, or to apologise for, or to justify anything. And it may perhaps stand as a defence for many a nameless brother of the ages; for I suppose that what I have said of myself is true of many others, and has its root in some old duality in the nature of man who, born of a woman, is yet the child of God. The woman in us loves to sit by our own fireside; the man in us urges us forth on divine adventures.
I was born in the city of Dublin on 10 November 1879. My father was an Englishman. My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side were, I assume, born in London, but my grandfather’s family was certainly of Devonshire origin. The three children of the marriage (my father and his elder and younger brothers) were born in London, my father’s birthday being the 8 December, 1839. While the children were young the family removed to Birmingham. My father was a sculptor, and had, as it were, only drifted to Ireland; but Ireland was to become his home, and, through his children, his name was to become an Irish name.
On my mother’s side I can go back to a great-great-grandfather, Walter Brady of Nobber in the County Meath, a Cavanman by origin. He fought in ’98, and one of his brothers was hanged by the Yeos; another lies buried in the Croppy’s Grave at Tara. His son Walter, my great-grandfather, married Margaret O’Connor, who had five sons and three daughters—Catherine, Phil, Anne, Patrick, Larry Christy, John and Margaret.
Irish was the language of North Meath in their days, and the only language that my great-grandfather knew well. His home, by all accounts, was a place of mirth and kindly cheer and song. The famine year drove him from his land in Meath, and he came to Dublin with his five tall sons and his three daughters. My mother remembered him as a tall old man who wore knee-breeches and a silk hat, and who spoke Irish.
I remember my grand-uncle Phil as a patriarchal man, whom I regarded with awe on account of his mighty age. My grand-uncle Christy was the youngest of the brothers. He had beautiful horses, and drove with all the pride of a Meath yeoman’s son to Baldoyle and Fairyhouse. He had wide fields, which I remember white and fragrant with hawthorn. To spend a day at Uncle Christy’s was always an event in our lives. He had married a Wicklow woman—a double Keogh—and great was their generosity, and great the cheer of their table and hearth. I know many Irish words which I first learned from my Uncle Christy. His voice had a ring, and his eye a humour that I have never known in any other man’s.
My grandfather was a very different man from my Uncle Christy. He was taller and gentler, and less successful in life. His place was smaller, and his cattle and horses were fewer. The bad year of ’79—the year in which I was born—hit him hard. But his temper was so placid, his manhood so true and fine, that even greater reverses than those which came to him could not have brought any bitterness into his life, or have affected the charitableness of his spirit. He never, to my knowledge, said a hard word about anybody.
My grandfather had married Brigid Savage, a Fingall woman, who was the best step-dancer of her day in the North County. Their children were Walter, Brigid, Catherine and Margaret. This Margaret, daughter of Patrick, son of Walter, son of Walter, was my mother. Of my grandfather I shall speak again, for I spent part of my childhood in his house; and I shall have to speak, too, of his youngest sister, Margaret, my fosterer and teacher.
For the present, I have said enough to indicate that when my father and my mother married there came together two very widely remote traditions—English and Gaelic. Freedom-loving both, and neither without its strain of poetry and its experience of spiritual and other adventures. And these two traditions worked in me, and, prised together by a certain fire proper to myself—but nursed by that fostering of which I have spoken—made me the strange thing I am.