The Dregs of the Day, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Yale, 127 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-0300242775
When the first published English translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille appeared in 2015 and 2016, readers of English were able to share what readers of Irish had long known – that Ó Cadhain had achieved world stature by drawing on his unparalleled mastery of his linguistic medium to express the life lived by the people of his own native Conamara Gaeltacht. Ó Cadhain himself was, however, never satisfied with that achievement, writing in his 1969 pamphlet Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca that having lived in Dublin longer than he had in the Gaeltacht he didn’t have the right “Baile Átha Cliath a fhágáil ina pháipéar bán”. The result of this guilty awareness was a series of groundbreaking stories of Irish urban life in the Irish language, of which the most important is the novella Fuíoll Fuine, here translated by Alan Titley as The Dregs of the Day, the final story in the final collection published in Ó Cadhain’s lifetime and thus an important indication of the direction in which his work might have gone had he not died in 1970.
Incidentally, in his introduction, Titley makes some interesting remarks about the difficulty of fitting literature in Irish into neat generic categories evolved for application to writing in other languages, questioning whether The Dregs of the Day is a short novel, a long short story, or a novella, and concluding that “Ó Cadhain was not a writer who was hemmed in by boundaries. The best of his work went on until it had said what it wanted to say, until its energy had been sapped, all breath spent, and then left it at that.” For convenience sake, however, the work will be called a novella here.
Ó Cadhain was widely and deeply read ‑ he had had plenty of time for books during the years he spent as a political internee on the Curragh of Kildare during World War II – so when he decided to write of the city he had a rich store of influences, particularly modernist ones, on which to draw. Worth noting, however, is that despite his admiration for James Joyce he seems to have felt that Joyce’s Dublin was not directly relevant to the city with which he wished to engage in Irish. Writing in Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca, he stated that Dublin had not really been a “community’ (comhthionól, Gemeinschaft) since the time of Joyce, when the city was “i bhfad ní ba lú agus ní ba chomh-dhlúite theanntásaí” than it had become. As a result he felt that Joyce had written the last as well as the first of what could be called novels of Dublin. Subsequent writers would have to do something quite different, and here modernist masters like Kafka and Beckett might be better guides.
In The Dregs of the Day, Ó Cadhain’s protagonist N. is, like Leopold Bloom, on a pilgrimage, but the city he moves through bears little resemblance to Joyce’s meticulously recreated Hibernian metropolis. Like Joyce, Ó Cadhain does provide us with a range of familiar if generic locations ‑ canals, pubs, churches, betting parlours, department stores, backstreet shops. Nor is there any shortage of cultural reference points – the civil service, Irish politics and media, the split between Dubliners and “culchies”, and above all the ubiquitous presence of the Catholic church with its priests, nuns, sacraments, expectations, and worldview. But Ó Cadhain presents all of these things askew, so that his Dublin offers a far more vague and indefinite landscape than does Joyce’s, not “the darkling city, bright as a jewel” but rather an appropriately paranoid “city of purse snatchers and pickpockets”. Indeed there is something eerily prescient in his picture of a city that seems to have more than a little in common with the Dublin of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath. Ó Cadhain gives us a Dublin that is increasingly materialistic, as is perhaps best indicated by N.’s focusing narrowly on the financial aspects of his wife’s death. He is, for example, obsessed with the idea of getting her laid out cheaply in a cut-rate coffin for a low-cost funeral Mass. And, of course, right at the start of the novella his problems are compounded when his wallet is stolen. Ó Cadhain also depicts the shallow, self-serving symbiosis of politicians and the media, and above all the hypocrisy and frequent greed of the Catholic clergy. That hypocrisy is not limited to financial dealings. Thus N. meets a watchman who tells how his job involves keeping student priests in a clerical college out of the nearby rooms of some apparently more than willing young women, many of whom, to make things worse, are Protestant! Actually, there is a good deal of sex in The Dregs of the Day, as with “the wide widow Waddell” (baintreach mhór Uí Shomacháin), whom he fantasises as “a woman wanting a hard squeeze from a horny man as much as anyone around this town”. More sexually voracious is the RTÉ secretary Squimsy (An Fáiscín Fionn, the Blond Squeeze), who would “shag any man she fancied without having a preference for one rather than another”.
Through this amoral and threatening cityscape wanders the Everyman N., “blown from one confused crisis to another since morning: no money, fear, contradictory advice, despair, ennui”. And it is in describing this series of random and usually absurd situations in which N. finds himself that Ó Cadhain doubtless felt closest to Joyce, having pointed out in Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca that Ulysses was a picaresque novel. Needless to say, however, both Ulysses and The Dregs of the Day are picaresque novels of an unmistakably modernist sort. Thus N. finds it difficult to distinguish between his life and the story of that life he sees himself composing: “N. sometimes thought of writing his life story. But he often admitted to himself that his story wasn’t worth telling. He had spent most of it messing around with insignificant details, with dross, with the flies that attach themselves to the bog wheel of fortune . . .” More than once he wonders if his life is hopelessly determined and seeks comfort in a surprisingly traditional search for a saviour, whether God the Father, Jesus Christ, or, more immediately, a man who buys him a drink, treats him kindly, and achieves mythic status in his eyes as what Titley translates as “the Do-Gooder” (an neach soilsíoch in the original Irish). N. sees this man as “like unto the helper . . . from the heroic stories who would tell you how to escape from all those scrapes and dangers you were ever in . . . the reincarnation without any reservation of the good man”. For N., who believes that “a person should be grateful for any kind of revelation, no matter how mean or minuscule”, the humble Do-Gooder thus becomes the saviour who will solve all his problems, and he forgets that “the worst thing about these revelations was that they could just as easily lead you astray as put you on the right path . . .”
Not surprisingly, in N.’s case they do when he meets a more charismatic incarnation of the Do-Gooder, the American sailor Ed, “a symbol of his liberation, like someone who had just been created especially for this occasion, as new, as clear, as freshly minted as a silver coin on its birthday”. Almost immediately, “despite the little bitty time they had spent together, N. thought that he had opened up, however faintly, a vein of humanity, friendship and camaraderie that never would be found outside of fantasy literature (finnscéalaíocht). Soon Ed’s offer to smuggle him onto a ship and off to America inspires N.’s own fantasy that “his own life from now on would be a tale of wonder and expectation”.
It won’t be, and N. should know better than to believe that salvations comes so easily in this world. Ed does indeed bring him to a ship anchored quayside, but he then leaves him to board alone, telling him that he will be back and that if caught N. should say nothing about him, adding: “Maybe you should give me those bottles ‑ the full one anyway. Remember this is your great adventure, the story of your life . . .” Ó Cadhain ends his novella with a subtle nod to Joyce and his stories “Eveline”, with its vision of the sea as a thrilling antidote to paralysis, and, more importantly, to “After the Race”, where the young Irish protagonist becomes aware of the futility of his life when a sailor on a yacht on which he has gambled away far more money then he can afford proclaims “Daybreak, gentlemen!” In The Dregs of the Day, N. isn’t even allowed the dubious comfort of epiphany, being left quite literally in the dark about what he has experienced as the sun sets on “the dregs of the day done down . . .”
Although the foregoing discussion might leave the impression that The Dregs of the Day is a rather joyless dissection of a botched life, it is also a very funny book. Ó Cadhain was certainly in tune with Beckett, and the influence of his countryman is obvious throughout the novella, perhaps most notably in the scene where N. applies his own brand of logic to the problem of burying his wife: “N. imagined the four garages as a kind of square and he set them down in this order: the corpse on the bottom left-hand corner, and then moving around clockwise to the undertaker, the coffin above that and on back returning to the grave at the left at the end. This arrangement satisfied him . . .” He also ponders some of the things he could do with either corpse or coffin, including “leave it . . . on the roof of Simon’s garage or outside the front door of someone who was trying to get a promotion before you”, but concludes that “it was against good convention and the dictates of good manners that a coffin would appear in any place without a corpse to be placed in it at the same time. If something without precedence like that should ever take place, a corpse would have to be provided, or obtained, for the coffin. Nobody ever heard of a coffin wandering about by itself for more than three or four days.” Elsewhere, he remembers the saying “There is a divinity that shapes our ends” and asks himself whether he first heard it from a fellow civil servant “who always wondered why God in his glory had expended so much trouble in inventing the arse, or why he gave so much importance to a part that you’d never imagine God had created, a shapeless, useless blemish apart from the fact that it had a waste pipe for an engine”.
So much for the novella itself, but what about the translation? In many ways, Titley, the finest writer of Irish prose since Ó Cadhain, is in his element with Fuíoll Fuíne, having shown in his early novel Stiall Fhial Fheola (1980) and in later short stories a kindred ability to create a Dublin that is both alien and weirdly like the “real” one. Moreover, he also shares Ó Cadhain’s extraordinary command of his linguistic medium and a sometimes anarchic willingness to expand his word hoard with borrowings, adaptations, puns, and outright creations. As a result, The Dregs of the Day reads very much like an original work, free of any touch of academic second thoughts or undue subservience to an esteemed original. The one aspect of the translation that may require comment involves the question of linguistic register. Titley’s English here is far slangier and raunchier than Ó Cadhain’s Irish. For example, in Fuíoll Fuine, the Little Sisters of the Poor will lay out a corpse “in aisce”, while in Dregs they will do it “for feck all”. Ó Cadhain’s “ag cur imní air” becomes Titley’s “bugging him”; “ar meisce” is translated “pisso blotto”; “céard ba chóir dhó a dhéanamh” as “what the fuck he should do”; “a dliteanas céileachais” as “her rightful amount of rumpy-pumpy”; “lucht na tuaithe” as “that bogger crowd”; “póilís” as ‘fuzz”; “lucht póite” as “piss artists from the boozers”; “duine dímheabhrach” as “total thicko”; “fear ab airde ná é” as “somebody higher up the food chain”; “an múnlach bréan móna seo” as “this fucking bogplace shithole here”; and “chuir sin scáth air” as “this put the shits on him”. And there is much more of the same.
Some of these earthier renderings are more successful than others, and there will doubtless be readers who know the original who will find some or many of them startling and/or objectionable. But that is just the point. In Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca, Ó Cadhain recalls a conversation he overheard on a Dublin bus in which a man called him “a right galoot if ever there was one. A Joycean smutmonger.” What this man was shocked by was not Ó Cadhain’s language, for having developed largely free of the absurdities and excesses of Latinate classism and Victorian respectability, Gaeltacht Irish never needed to develop separate registers of acceptable and “dirty” words to denote body parts and their functions. The simple fact that a writer of Irish like Ó Cadhain wrote about – perhaps even knew about ‑ such things – was enough to scandalise more than a few committed “Gaels” for whom the Gaeltacht was more holy ground than a place where people actually lived. Thus the simple fact that Ó Cadhain wrote of that life so naturally and honestly lent his Irish a certain frisson in his own time. To give his readers that same jolt now a translator must up the voltage in his search for English equivalents for what seem to be neutral Irish words and expressions. (One thinks here, for example, of Paul Muldoon’s translations of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.) Titley must have had great fun coming up with his rumpy-pumpys, and to a great extent if they bother us that’s our problem. Besides, should anyone be surprised to find more than a few fucks in a story set in Dublin?
Four decades after Ó Cadhain’s death, readers of English have been given a chance to read a sample of the work of a major Irish modernist and no longer have to rely on what they must often have felt were exaggerated estimates of the quality of his work from language enthusiasts. In 1981 Eoghan Ó Tuairisc published a selection of his early Gaeltacht stories as The Road to Brightcity. In 2006 appeared Dhá Scéal/Two Stories, jointly translated by Louis de Paor, Michael McCormack, and Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg, and in 2015, Ó Tuairisg and de Paor published the dual language An Eochair/The Key, Ó Cadhain’s comic novella of the appropriately bureaucratic death of a civil servant. And, of course, in 2015 and 2016 two versions of Ó Cadhain’s masterpiece Cré na Cille appeared, the first, The Dirty Dust, the work of Alan Titley, the second, Churchyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson. There is much more to be done before readers without Irish will be able to have a full understanding of Ó Cadhain’s enormous contribution to Irish literature regardless of language, but we should be grateful for what we have. Ó Cadhain has got the translators he deserves, not least of them Alan Titley, who in The Dregs of the Day has made available to readers of English worldwide a previously little known Irish classic.
Philip O’Leary teaches at Boston College.