Here is a review of the Irish novel Cre Na Cille by Mairtin O Cadhain, translated by Alan Titley, from Yale University Press, which is putting out another translation of the same novel in March 2016. I just received a copy of this new translation and will either publish a review of it or provide a link to a review of it. It should be interesting to compare the two translations. Titley translated the title as The Dirty Dust; the new translators, Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson call it Graveyard Clay.
The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille
by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Alan Titley
Yale University Press, $25.00, 328 pages
Máirtín Ó Cadhain, pronounced approximately “Marteen O’Kine” (1906-1970), was a teacher in the west of Ireland and an IRA member. During World War II he was imprisoned and during this time—never put a writer in prison if you are in authority, it only makes them more productive—“it is claimed,” Alan Titley, the translator, in his introduction, writes, “that his years of imprisonment were his real education as a writer. His letters show that he read voraciously and wrote furiously.” He wrote in Irish—Titley is very adamant that we call the original language of Ireland, “Irish,” not “Gaelic”–as part of what was called the “Gaeltacht,” a term Titley tells us “originally meant Irish speakers” but “came to mean those areas in which Irish was the dominant language.” In this movement the novels were often pastoral romances that depicted the west of Ireland as a sort of rustic paradise as in the movie The Quiet Man, but first Flann O’Brien, in his novel An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) published in 1941, by emphasizing the tropes of Gaeltacht novels and taking them to extremes worthy of Beckett satirically skewered the genre, then Ó Cadhain, in 1949, took a howitzer to it and blew it to smithereens.
He did it with a book consisting purely of dialogue among the deceased inhabitants of a graveyard in the west of Ireland interspersed with what he calls interludes from the Trumpet of the Grave, a lyrical voice that sings of the passage of time, the cycle of life and death. This voice, though, appears to have little impact on the dead who bicker among themselves as much or more as they did above ground when alive. Someone once said (I forget the reference) that he liked the Irish because they were honest, that is, they never spoke well of each other. That plum is gnawed to the pit in The Dirty Dust. The main character is a woman, Caitriona Paudeen, who has recently kicked the bucket and finds to her outrage that she has died before her hated sister, Nell, who managed to marry the man Caitriona fancied, Jack the Lad. Not only that, Nell had the temerity to rub it in by sitting on Jack the Lad’s lap and telling Caitriona that now she would have to marry Blotchy Brian, attractive as his name.
From then on Caitriona has it in for her sister and as each dead person enters the graveyard, she plies them for news of her sister, who not only stole her one true love (according to Caitriona) but also unjustly strives to get the land of Fireside Tom who lives at the top of the hill. She resents also that her son Patrick married the daughter of Nora Johnny or “Toejam Nora” as she calls her, who, six feet under studiously ignores Caitriona and talks incessantly about gaining “culture” and perhaps starting a “rotary” devoted to cultural pursuits underground.
But there are others here. The French pilot who was shot down and buried here who breaks into the conversation with French cries for liberty, who also tries to learn the language the rest are speaking but has a hard time of it. There is the man everyone calls the Old Master, the schoolteacher who was so refined and wise and imperturbable up above, but is outraged and second only to Caitriona (surely the most foul-mouthed heroine or anti-heroine in all the world’s literature, at least in Titley’s translation) in his profanity when he finds out his beautiful younger wife has married Billy the Postman. Then there is the Postmistress who keeps a kettle in the back room for steaming open everyone’s letters. Tim Top of the Road is accused by everyone else of stealing various tools and clothes and sections of turf. Listen to the names of others: Guzzeye Martin, Gut Bucket, Black Bandy Bartley, The Foxy Cop, and Redser Tom. Then there’s Colm More’s daughter who always pops up to ask, usually at the most humorously inopportune time, to ask if the newly arrived deceased needs “spiritual assistance,” and asks if he or she says the Rosary.
No one is ever, from a third person point of view, ever identified; you have to figure it out from the voices and word choices and name references from one to another. The best thing to do is just to keep reading and enjoy the moments when you do recognize the voices and pick up on the recurrent themes. One person is always mentioning how he (or was it a she?) twisted an ankle, the other how he drank forty-two pints one night. Others argue about Irish politics and football, who won the 1941 championship. There is a lot of hatred and anger but also the disappointed desires that have produced them.
For instance, here is Caitriona:
The night that Nell got married, that’s what the cow threw in my face. “I have Jack,” she said, “You can have Blotchy Brian now, Caitriona.”
Do you know, Margaret, but those few words hurt me far more than all the other wrongs she did me. What she said was like a plague of stoats buzzing back and forth through my brain spitting out venomous snots. They never left my head up to the day I died. They never did, Margaret. Every time I saw Blotchy Brian I’d think of that night in the room at home, and on the gloating grin on Nell’s puss because of Jack the Lad. Every time I’d see Brian’s son or daughter, I’d think of that night. Every time somebody even mentioned Blotchy Brian, I’d remember it . . . on the room . . . on the grin . . . on Nell in Jack the Lad’s arms! . . . in Jack the Lad’s arms . . .
This is a vital passage in the emotional trajectory of the novel for it is echoed at novel’s end by Caitriona’s repetition of Jack the Lad’s name again but this time in wondering response to something Nell has done to make reparations to her.
I cannot speak to the quality of the translation but there is an excellent review that covers this aspect well in The Dublin Review of Books by Philip O’Leary, who says Titley takes many liberties with Ó Cadhain’s Irish especially in the plethora of profanity, something he does to shock English readers as much as the puritanical Gaeltacht readers were shocked by The Dirty Dust. Whatever the case, those of us who enjoy reading The Dirty Dust will have another chance to read it again in another translation (entitled Graveyard Clay) published also by Yale as part of its Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
But for now The Dirty Dust is strong medicine; it makes you grimace but then the laughter comes.