Features: The Two Irelands
(Features is a semi-regular post in which I’ll be reposting the work I do for my Feature Writing class on this blog. These are not strictly published pieces, but they certainly have the whiff of journalism about them. This week: an interview.)
On his first day of class at University College Dublin, Christopher Griffith realized he’d picked up the wrong textbook. He had the Selected Work of Yeats in paperback, which didn’t have all the poems he needed. He was fortunate, however, that the girl next to him had the complete Yeats, a hardcover edition. Janet Alexander, half a world away from her home in Mississippi, let him look on with her.
“We fell in love, but she came back to America and ended up working at the Folger.”
Today, Griffith jokes that he’s brought the Irish weather with him. It is pouring, grey and dark – classic Dublin in February. Only Griffith is in Washington, D.C., teaching the literature of his home country. It is the day before James Joyce’s birthday and he’s wearing a tie that celebrates the occasion: green for Ireland, gold lettering for the high value of art. The lecture today is on Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. The stories in Dubliners move from childhood to death, and read as a map of Dublin; its streets, the recognizable landmarks of St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College, the pubs, the churches, and the everyday lives of Irish people.
It’s a map that Griffith lived, worked, and studied for seven years.
Portrait of the Professor as a Young Man
Griffith grew up in Gort, county Galway in the west of Ireland, not far from the Atlantic coast. Once described as “easy to miss, hard to leave”, Gort is the home of the forge that made the ironwork at Ballylee Castle, where Yeats spent his summers.
“In 1969, I finished high school Describing the beginning of his education, Griffith said, “In the sixties high school became free in Ireland. It was very provincial, our high school, I didn’t know much about the outside world, but we did do Shakespeare. I graduated from high school but I couldn’t go to college because I didn’t have enough honors to get a grant and my father – I was the oldest of five kids – my father definitely couldn’t afford to pay unless he borrowed money from the bank.”
Griffith went back to high school for an extra year, and received the grades necessary for the grant. His family expected him to attend college in the county seat of Galway, but he decided against it. “I was already fed up with county Galway. I wanted something more cosmopolitan, more like Dublin.”
He started his bachelor’s degree at University College Dublin as a psychology major, but quickly realized it was not for him.
“If your major was psychology you had to minor in philosophy and then for the first year you had to take a 3rd area as well. I ended up taking English lit because that was easy. Then after one year, I realized there was too much science in Psychology, and I wasn’t good at it.”
Replacing his psychology major was easy once Griffin realized which discipline had sparked his interest. “Of course the English I related to the most was the one that had to do the most with where I was at the time,” Griffith said. He was drawn to Yeats. “He wrote about things that were in my area. I mean, I knew those buildings. [He was] writing about the places I grew up in.”
As he continued on into his second and third year, he moved to another Irish great. “Joyce, wrote about Dublin in Portrait [of the Artist] and Ulysses. Other people were reading Saul Bellow and Hemingway. They read Irish lit… but they were more interested in what was happening with W.H. Auden or T.S. Elliot or Phillip Roth. But I was going through the streets of Dublin and so it was kind of amazing to me to read about the streets of Dublin.”
Griffith finished his bachelor’s degree, but without honors. He realized he needed “some sort of marketable skill”, so he went to Trinity College, for an advanced diploma in education. His coursework included student teaching, something Griffith felt ill-prepared for.
“You had to do teaching experience in a comprehensive school, which is like a modern school in the suburbs where they tore down the slums and moved the people into these high rises. I ended up teaching up there one class a day and it was pretty bad, with a bad teacher with bad kids I couldn’t understand. These were kind of urban ghetto kids and I’m the country boy so it was kind of rough, and I didn’t like the teaching.”
Realizing that teaching secondary school wasn’t for him, he returned to the literature of Yeats and Joyce. “I heard there was another higher diploma in Irish literature in English, so I felt gosh, my grant is going to run out, but that’s what I’d really like to do.”
He went back to UCD and convinced the admissions board to let him enroll in the Master’s program as soon as he finished the higher diploma.
Griffith returned to UCD in 1975, and it was during this year he met Janet over Yeats.
“She had no Irish connections at all. She was from Mississippi, so we were totally different, but she went to school in Memphis and one of her favorite courses were Irish Lit. She worked in a law firm in Memphis and after a year or two got fed up and wanted to do something totally different….she’d remembered that her Irish Literature professor said there was one year Master’s at UCD in Irish literature. [She went] just for the heck of it, just to break out, and do something totally different even though she knew nobody in Ireland. We were together for almost a year, but she had to come back to try and get a job.”
Janet’s journey from Mississippi to Dublin reminded Griffith of a story from Dubliners. “Eveline” tells the story of a young women, driven away from home with no prospects in Dublin who makes a last-minute decision not to run away with a sailor to Argentina. “Unlike Eveline, who wouldn’t get on the boat, Janet made the journey to a country where she didn’t know anybody. Yet she made the journey, with this book.”
Griffith pulls down an older edition of The Portable James Joyce from his office bookshelf. “It’s got my wife’s name on it, of course it’s her maiden name, she probably brought that book with her to Ireland in 1975… It was [Irish literature] that brought us together. This guy from the west of Ireland and this girl from the Gulf coast of Mississippi.”
It was Janet, ultimately, that brought him to America.
They’d decided to keep up their relationship, despite the distance. “October 1976 until June 1977, we didn’t see each other. So we’d telephone, I’d go down to the post office on O’Connell street – which was the headquarters of the 1916 rebellion, you can still see the bullet marks on the columns – I’d use the telephone there to call her.”
He’d been considering the possibility of a Ph.D., but never outside of Ireland, despite spending two summers working in Massachusetts and Washington during his undergraduate years. “[Janet] was saying ‘Try America.’ I would have never applied if she hadn’t helped me. I didn’t understand the American system. Credits, we don’t have credits. I didn’t understand you do a course and get three credits, I didn’t understand that stuff, so she helped me make the applications.”
Griffith applied to several schools for his doctorate, including GW, which accepted him, but without financial aid. “I came down to Connie, who’s still down the hall right now,” he motions towards the English department office, “This was 31 years ago, she said we can’t give you money the first year. I ended up going to University of Wisconsin for three and a half years.”
Griffith arrived there on Labor Day 1977. He’d been accepted with a teaching assistantship as his financial aid. To his surprise, he was assigned to teach a strange class called “Freshman Composition”.
His mouth turns into a smile as he recollects his first day of teaching a college-level class, looking out on a classroom full of nervous freshmen, “like they were dressed for Sunday church.”
“English in an Irish university means literature. I didn’t know about comp. We were expected to have done that at high school level in Ireland.”
Griffith didn’t worry anymore once he recognized exercises that looked a lot like his high school Latin grammar book. “I think when you’re young you can improvise, you can wing it. You know it’s adventure, you have your doubts but you figure whatever it is, I’m sure I can adapt to it.”
His students at University of Wisconsin felt a bit differently. “The students themselves… they were more frightened of me than I was of them. I was a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land, but they were too, because they were the first generation, they were, like me, the first in their families to go to college. These kids themselves didn’t know what to expect. And they were waiting for me to tell them what to do.”
He had to strain to be understood. “I just came from seven years in Dublin so I had a bit of a Dublin accent. The name of the book we were using in the course was “Writing with a Purpose” and they thought I was saying the textbook was “Riding with a Porpoise”. They asked, ‘What does this class have to do with dolphins?’”
The first week in Milwaukee, Griffith stayed at the home of a local family as part of the international student orientation. Although impressed by the willingness of the families to open their homes, he realized later on that many of the international students had been proselytized their first week in the country.
“They were very hospitable but they would go and say ‘We’re going to church on Sunday would you like to come?’ And when you’re sharing their home it’s hard to say no.” He said. “I went to church with them; I’d never seen church like that before. I was used to the Catholic Church, the vestments and the alter, but you had guys in business suits that looked like insurance salesman talking about being saved… It was a very odd culture clash for me.”
Griffith and Janet eventually decided to get married after he had finished with the course portion of his doctorate. Janet was promoted at the Folger, and he assumed that he could finish the comprehensive exams and his dissertation independent of the Wisconsin campus. The newly married couple moved to Washington the same month of Reagan’s first inauguration.
Day-to-day life caught up with Griffith, and after several attempts, he gave up on the doctorate for good. After University of Wisconsin told him his time to finish the requirements was up, he was accepted at University of Maryland. He managed to write 80 pages of his dissertation on the drama of Yeats, but ran into trouble over Maryland’s modern languages requirement. Griffith was accepted again as all-but-dissertation at UCD, but even after paying tuition for six years, he never finished the doctorate.
“I guess I was teaching and then I had a daughter in 1986. That’s the big regret in my life, its the worst thing, I never finished that. I never got the doctorate. Then again things turned out fine. I have Strayer, I have GW, I have Politics and Prose, I have a great life. I’ve been in Washington now for twenty-seven, almost twenty-eight years.”
At Strayer University, Griffith doesn’t teach Irish Literature, but rather “a whole bunch of things I’m not qualified to do”, from the history of science to origins of Western culture. “Jack of all trades, master of none.” he says with a laugh. He’s been there since 1981.
“My students are all very different. Strayer, the average age is 34. [It's] 60 percent women, my campus is mostly African-American, and I have some very poor students who have very limited background and some of them have terrible tragedies in their lives. Then that’s very different from my people at Politics and Prose. A lot of them are professionals or retired, a lot have Ph.D themselves. They’re doctors and Library of Congress people. They’re just doing it for the fun, and I’m just doing it for the fun. There’s no evaluation involved, no class preparation, no tests. While at GW, you’re paying very high fees and the students want good grades and they’re worried about tests. There’s always that element of judgment involved.”
The previous night he had taught the 2nd class of African-American history, one of the courses he’d had since the beginning. “It’s kind of odd for an Irish guy, a white Irish guy to be teaching African American history, but nobody’s ever complained.”
“There’s this myth about Oisin , who goes back to Ireland [after] three years and it turns out to be three hundred and everything’s changed.” Griffith is referencing the mythological Irish figure who is spirited away to Tir na Nog, ‘the land of Promise’. “Even though I’m teaching Irish lit, my Ireland is different from the Ireland that’s there now.”
Does Griffith feel like Oisin? Yes and no, he says. Ireland has changed so much in 30 years. “Early on I used to go back every year, the seventies and eighties. Then when my daughter was born, I went back few months later, when my father was dying.” He flips to the back of The Portable James Joyce, remembering a poem:
Of the dark past/A child is born;/With joy and grief/My heart is torn.
Calm in his cradle/The living lies./May love and mercy/Unclose his eyes!
Young life is breathed/On the glass;/The world that was not/Comes to pass.
A child is sleeping:/An old man gone./O, father forsaken,/Forgive your son!
“Joyce wrote this poem, Ecce Puer, after his father had died and his grandson was born… I didn’t really want to go back, but I hadn’t been back in years, I didn’t realize how sick my father was. He had lung cancer and bone cancer. My siblings said, well, you probably should come back now.So I did. I was with him for the last three days before he died. We all were.”
“I feel that now, my life is here.” Griffith explains.
He attributes the change to both his home country and himself. Today in Gort, the second language of the town is Portuguese, after many Brazilians immigrated to the town to work in a slaughterhouse, “doing the meat packing the Irish didn’t want to do.”
“This is my Ireland,” he says, pointing to the black and white photo of Joyce on the cover of the book. “It’s more an Ireland of the imagination rather the Ireland I grew up in. So there are two different Irelands: the Ireland I teach in America and the Ireland in 2008.”
When he visits family, he says, “They think I have this pretentious American accent. And it’s not just the accent, it’s words we take for granted in America. Words I used to know, I’ve forgotten what they mean. Like what’s a rug? Is it a carpet you put on the floor or a blanket you put over your feet? So even with my mother, there’s this communication problem. I’m telling my mother, why don’t you throw out that stuff, and she would say you can only put so much in the tip and if it’s not in the tip they won’t take it. I don’t know what she’s talking about.” The mysterious ‘tip’ turned out to be an outdoor garbage container on wheels.
Visiting family is no vacation either. “Joyce said he was going to fly the nets of family. Well I did too in a sense. My sisters and my brother, we’re all very different from each other… there’s people not speaking to each other among my family.”
“I’m the only one that speaks to everybody. Maybe its because I’m out of the country, the distance, maybe I’m like James Duffy”- the isolated narrator of Dubliners’ “A Painful Case” – “I have that distance with them, which is just as well, because when I go back, we have family events… and they have these big emotional quarrels. It’s nasty. I’m kind of the peacemaker because I don’t take sides.”
“You know someone said Irish Alzheimer’s is forgetting everything except the grudges.” Griffith yawns, the Dublin-esque weather catching up with him, “One reason not to go back is to avoid all that family.”
“Once my mother dies,” he pauses, “Maybe I won’t go back so much.”
Griffith taught composition briefly at GW in the eighties, but his only outlet to teach Irish Literature was his Politics and Prose classes until 2006, when the opportunity to teach Irish Lit brought him back to GW. It’s apt for a fan of Finnegan’s Wake, a novel-length poem which last line runs into its first.
“I was only here for two semesters [in the eighties]; it’s very odd I keep ending up back here. Do you know Tara Wallace? She and I shared an office and she was pregnant at the time. Now her baby is 25 years old.”
Today, Janet is the artistic producer of the Folger Shakespeare Theater, moving up slowly from that first secretary position to producing plays with a quarter of a million dollar budget. Christopher Griffith still uses the Joyce anthology that she carried to Ireland to teach his favorite subject.
“This stuff is very personal to me because it’s partly is how I met her. Like Joyce running off with Nora Barnacle, you know you’re very lucky if you do find a soul mate who is just right for the long run.”