The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Alan Titley, Yale University Press, 328 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-0300198492
In a 1950 advertisement for Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, the publishers Sáirséal agus Dill stated that “everything in it, form, narrative method, setting, dialogue etc. are brand new in Irish”. Much of that originality was due to the fact that Ó Cadhain joined an unparalleled command of his native Conamara Irish with a wide-ranging familiarity with both the Gaelic literary tradition and the modern literature of Europe and America, allowing him to view his own Gaeltacht community and to use its language in often startlingly new ways. At the time he was writing, there were two major and complementary paradigms that dominated discussion of the Gaeltacht and the native speakers who lived there. The first stated that native speakers of Irish were the walking dead, speakers of a doomed language and the last survivors of a now moribund culture nearing its end. The second underscored the otherworldly, almost timeless, quality of the life they lived in a place immune to the complexities and corruptions of the modern life with which their Anglophone compatriots had to struggle.
Like Myles na gCopaleen in An Béal Bocht (1941), but from an insider’s perspective, Ó Cadhain saw through both of these pernicious myths. Moreover he zestfully subverted the accepted wisdom that the Gaeltacht was a site of stasis, increasing silence, and cultural stagnation by ceding its proponents the playing field of their choice. If they wanted to see the Gaeltacht as a vast cemetery, so be it: he would set his novel in a graveyard with all its characters corpses. If they wanted to mourn the encroaching silence of the Gaeltacht as emigration drained away its native speakers and the language steadily receded, he would create a vigorous cacophony of wrangling voices, arguing about, among so many other things, emigration. If they insisted on putting the remaining native speakers on a lofty ideological pedestal, he would shovel them under the churchyard clay of Ó Cadhain’s title, the dirty dust of Titley’s version of it. And if they wanted to present the real human beings he knew so well as preternaturally angelic beings out of place in a fallen modern world, his characters would be literally earthy, not isolated in some prelapsarian Tír na nÓg but instead involved with perverse enthusiasm in all the muck and mire of contemporary Irish, and European, life in the 1940s.
Ó Cadhain was notoriously suspicious of the academic folklore establishment for what he saw as its perpetuation of the idea that the Gaeltacht was at death’s door, its traditions merely scattered fragments to be gathered before they perished. But he was himself a folklore collector who in 1950 stated that “folklore is in my bones”. Throughout Cré na Cille there are references, often sardonic, sarcastic or cynical, to native beliefs and traditions like “John’s Book”, which enables its possessor to save the life of one person by sacrificing that of another; prophecies (including some of the author’s own invention like “Bung Knot’s prophecy from a lad around our joint”); holy wells; ghosts and the evil eye. To these folk references he adds mention of tales about Irish saints and allusions to earlier literary texts like Fled Bricrend or Echtra an Cheithearnaigh Chaoilriabhaigh (a reference the translation obscures). Into this mix he throws arguments about Irish history and politics, particularly those arising from the Civil War; wisecracks about the burgeoning number of writers from the Gaeltacht; jibes at the state publishing agency An Gúm; jokes about Celtic scholars and philologists; comments on World War II; memories of local events like the explosion of a mine that killed nine men; and above all the incessant bickering and backbiting of the residents of the graveyard, for whom death has in no way lessened their jealousies, rivalries, and animosities.
The plot, such as it is, centres on the vituperative and vindictive protagonist Caitríona Pháidín (Titley’s Caitriona Paudeen, for some reason with an unlenited ‘P’). Caitríona is a Gaeltacht Hyacinth Bucket, a zealous social climber the guiding force of whose life is the besting of her sister Nell, who has married the man Caitríona wanted. But she is by means alone in the rambunctious richness and sheer nastiness of her language. Taunting one’s neighbours is the heart and soul of Cré na Cille, the ceaseless conversation kept flowing by the desire to cut others down to what the character doing the talking sees as their properly insignificant size. The result is a riotous torrent of words that creates a hilarious and utterly unedifying picture of Gaeltacht life, with neighbours squabbling over status, money, property, livestock, crimes major and petty and the allurements and perils of the outside world. In addition to Caitríona, we meet, among others, the schoolmaster, an intellectual snob who is enraged when he learns from a newcomer to the graveyard that his widow has remarried; the postmistress, who steams open and reads every letter that passes through her hands; the keening woman with an inordinate fondness for drink; two men engaged in a bitter and obviously interminable argument about Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; and the aristocrats of the graveyard, Peadar the publican and Siúán an tSiopa, the gombeen shopkeeper. All of them have a great deal to say about very little and their constant attempts to win usually pointless arguments are what drive the novel forward, albeit in a very slow and circular manner. Moreover, with no third person narration at all, it is only through their distinctive speech that we can sort out who is carping or criticising at any given time.
Ó Cadhain’s untrammelled iconoclasm touched a nerve in the early critics of Cré na Cille, several of whom seem to have entirely failed to recognize the Rabelaisian – and Gaelic – tradition in which he was writing. For example, one anonymous reviewer wrote that “despite all the imagination in the story and the cleverness of its narrative method it is difficult to believe that there was ever a group of people in the world like Nóra na gCosa Lofa [Titley’s Toejam Nora], Bríd Thoirdhealbhaigh [Titley’s Breed Terry] . . . Tomás Taobh Istigh [Titley’s Fireside Tom] . . . and the rest of them, without a single person among them having some courtesy or virtue”. The usually more insightful Tomás Ó Floinn stated that “cutting remarks directed against the neighbours, envy, lack of charity, ferocity, cursing, ill-will, the malicious laugh when a person stumbles, all of those things are in the people of Conamara … But there is another side as well … Máirtín Ó Cadhain only gives the unpleasant side … To that extent he sins against the truth and against art.”
Other early critics rather perversely faulted Ó Cadhain for using the kind of prolific, earthy and thoroughly authentic Irish whose disappearance they had long both predicted and lamented. It was the extraordinary richness, if not prolixity, of his Irish that gave rise to the idea that Ó Cadhain was a singularly “difficult” writer. Thus in a review of his short story collection An Braon Broghach, published the year before Cré na Cille, Daniel Corkery praised Ó Cadhain’s “great store of words” and his ability to “manipulate his own language”, but added that “if he does not make a proper habit of the close attention that is essential for the true artist, he will fail to put a polish on the profusion: the surplus will be in his way”. Indeed, having pronounced Cré na Cille “undoubtedly the most important novel written in Irish for a long time”, the great scholar David Greene added that “there would be nothing derogatory about supplying a glossary”.
One can, then, see why the translation of Cré na Cille presents a series of formidable challenges. The writer attempting to successfully bring the book into English must like Ó Cadhain have a profound command of the modern Irish language in all its dialects, as well as a more than passing knowledge of earlier forms of the language over the centuries and a firm background in modern European literature, a literature Ó Cadhain had plenty of time to read, often in the original languages, as a republican internee on the Curragh of Kildare during World War II. Finally, and by no means least important, the would-be translator must share Ó Cadhain’s approach to linguistic playfulness, his delight in puns, neologisms, malapropisms, scurrility, above all in the magic ability of rolling floods of words to create and sustain a coherent tragicomic world over three hundred plus pages. We are fortunate that such a translator has now stepped forward. Himself a writer with a prodigious command of Irish and a wickedly skewed sense of humour, Alan Titley has written novels about a Dublin cannibal, African revolutionaries, medieval Gaelic poets, asylum seekers, and, most recently – and in verse – about an Irish woman hanged as a witch in seventeenth century Boston. As with Ó Cadhain, he draws for his work on all the resources of Irish, creating what he needs when necessary and in the process proving beyond question the continuing vitality and boundless capabilities of the language despite whatever real and dire threats it still faces. His involvement with Ó Cadhain’s text can truly be called a match made in (a very raunchy corner of) heaven.
In his translator’s introduction, Titley writes: “Ultimately, as we know, there is no easy equivalence between languages. It is not the meaning itself which is the problem, but the tone, and feel, and echo … There is no such thing as a literal translation, as the simplest small word beyond ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ expands into a foliage of ambiguity.” This statement is particularly true with regard to Cré na Cille, where so much of the force and fun of the novel lies in drawing on the rich vocabulary of personal insult, abuse, and character assassination available in Irish. Wisely rejecting “Anglo-Irish Synge-like gobbldegook” or Hiberno-English, which he pronounces “now as dead as the diplodocus”, Titley also acknowledges the potential trap of slang, for “the more hip you are the sooner you die”. Instead, as he writes, “I tried to match the original Irish common speech with the familiar versions of demotic English that we know, mixing and mashing as necessary, and even inventing when required.”
The real challenge here involves linguistic register and the very different histories of the Irish and English languages, particularly their print history. Much of the Irish written from the beginning of the language revival at the end of the nineteenth century to the publication of Cré na Cille was written from what Titley calls “a linguistically puritanical point of view” that is entirely out of keeping with the ribald earthiness of the early sagas, the twelfth century Aislinge Meic Conglinne, the seventeenth century Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis, and the eighteenth century Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. In such a repressed climate, shock comes very easily. Modern English, on the other hand, has if anything grown blasé, and it often takes a good “fuck” to get a rise out of readers. Readers of Irish in the 1940s, and since, have been jolted by the range and unapologetic crudity of Ó Cadhain’s lexicon. To create the same jolt in jaded readers of English, Titley has had to turn up the heat, and this is a decision to which some in search of a more strictly literal translation will take exception. For example, the word raicleach, defined in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary as “brawling obstreperous woman; vixen, termagant”, is variously, and effectively, translated by Titley as “cunt”, “slut”, “maggot” “harridan”, “whore”, “bitch”, “piece of shit”, “scum shit” and “useless git”. Scóllachán, defined by Ó Dónaill as “scold, thin, worn-out person”, becomes “fucker”, “gowl”, “nutjob”, “slut”, “scumbucket” and “string of misery”. Conús (“slovenly, useless person”) produces “prick”, “cunt” and “fucker”, while brogús (“surly, humourless person”) yields “shithawk”, “smudge of snot”, “wanker” and “skunk”. And there are plenty more where those came from. The phrase Go ropa an diabhal (may the devil stab) is usually translated, again appropriately, as “(may the devil) fuck”, a curse that, as Titley points out, is truly horrifying for people who believe in the literal existence of Satan. Sometimes Titley keeps up the rambunctious spirit and tone of his original by using a more slangy register to translate what are fairly neutral terms in the Irish: “actually, you’re fucked” for “tá [do] chaiscín meilte” (literally “your meal is ground”); “ants in her pants” for “giodam in a leathdheireadh”; “the country is buggered up” for “tá a shliocht ar an tír”; “you’re just scared shitless” for “faitíos atá ort”; or “that’ll really piss Nell off” for “splanncfaidh sé sin Nell”. Very rarely, a translation seems a bit off-key given the speaker, as when airiúil becomes “spacious”, “toper” is inserted where there is no Irish equivalent and “salacious” is similarly inserted before “sailors” without a corresponding word in the original. There are also three places where proofreading missed a mistranslation of very simple words. Thus on page 28, the confusing passage about Caitriona’s hatred of Blotchy Brian extending to “her dog and her daughter” should read “his dog and his daughter”. On page 222, the line “she hadn’t as much as a worm wriggling inside him” should read “inside her”. And on page 255, the line “Do you see there. Nell Paudeen’s daughter who was getting the dole for yonks” should read “Do you see there, Nell Paudeen’s son …”
Discussions of translation inevitably focus on such trivia, but they don’t much matter. More important is the fact that there will doubtless be some critical of The Dirty Dust for the liberties Titley has taken with his original, however carefully thought out and clearly explained. There will in future, even in the near future, be more literal and “faithful” versions of Ó Cadhain’s masterpiece, and there is a place for them. It will, however, take a truly gifted translator to provide a more authentic sense of Ó Cadhain’s explosive, Shakepearean linguistic exuberance than Titley gives us in passages like the following: “What’s this he called her? A bitch and a whore and a cunt. Toejam Nora. Nora the Sailors’ Bit. The piss artist from Gort Ribbick of the puddles and the piddles! He said the she was drinking on the sly in the snug in his pub; that she often had to be carted home; that she started screaming songs at the top of her head when Michael Toomey’s funeral was going past, that she fleeced a beast-buyer inside in his own parlour; the she drank the black porter of the black butler that the Earl had; that she’d feck bottles around when she was pissed, that she brought Johnny Colum’s buck goat into the shop when she was totally scuttered and installed him behind the counter, and hoisted him up on the barrel of booze and started stroking his beard and plying him with drink; that she tried to grab Fireside Tom and jizz him up …” This is the sound and sense of most of Cré na Cille marvellously captured in English.
It should also be noted that Titley is every bit as successful in dealing with the elevated, even stilted, and oracular register used by the Trumpet of the Graveyard at the beginning of all but the first two and the last of the ten “interludes” into which the book is divided. In his review of Cré na Cille on its first appearance, David Greene dismissed these passages as “dreary fustian”, but they are central to Ó Cadhain’s vision for the novel, providing the linguistic and cultural context into which he places his modern-day native speakers, whose Irish is very different but far more immediate and alive than that of the portentous voice that insists it must be heard. To be sure, Caitriona and her neighbours have to listen to that voice and its message of the triumph of time and death, but they will not be silenced by it – nor give it the last word for that matter. At any rate, here is an example of Titley’s work in this register: “Here in the graveyard is the parchment whose weave of dreams is a feculent and enigmatic epigraphy; where the gauntlet of life’s gallantry is no more than a smear of faded ink; where the majesty of our best moments melds into mouldy pages …”
Even more than Patrick Kavanagh, Máirtín Ó Cadhain confirms and celebrates the universality of the parochial. In Cré na Cille, and now thanks to Alan Titley in The Dirty Dust, we meet the people of Ó Cadhain’s parish, people disconcertingly like ourselves – materialistic, greedy, status-seeking, envious, backbiting, sneaky, and no more honest than they have to be. But unlike too many of us, Ó Cadhain’s corpses are startlingly alive, speaking, shouting, singing, and whinging in a language shaped and polished by a master in full command of his medium. Readers of Irish may well resent Alan Titley for expanding membership in the previously exclusive club of those familiar with the work of Máirtín Ó Cadhain. They should, however, take their lead from Nell Paudeen, who as The Dirty Dust ends, utterly confounds her sister Caitriona by the simple act of sharing.
Philip O’Leary teaches Irish language, Irish literature and cultural studies at Boston College