Máirtín Ó Cadhain - In this merciless yet comical portrayal of a closely bound community, Ó Cadhain remains keenly attuned to the absurdity of human behavior, the lilt of Irish gab, and the nasty, deceptive magic of human connection


Máirtín Ó Cadhain, The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille, Trans. by Alan Titley. Yale University Press, 2015.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s irresistible and infamous novel The Dirty Dust is consistently ranked as the most important prose work in modern Irish, yet no translation for English-language readers has ever before been published. Alan Titley’s vigorous new translation, full of the brio and guts of Ó Cadhain’s original, at last brings the pleasures of this great satiric novel to the far wider audience it deserves.
In The Dirty Dust all characters lie dead in their graves. This, however, does not impair their banter or their appetite for news of aboveground happenings from the recently arrived. Told entirely in dialogue, Ó Cadhain’s daring novel listens in on the gossip, rumors, backbiting, complaining, and obsessing of the local community. In the afterlife, it seems, the same old life goes on beneath the sod. Only nothing can be done about it—apart from talk. In this merciless yet comical portrayal of a closely bound community, Ó Cadhain remains keenly attuned to the absurdity of human behavior, the lilt of Irish gab, and the nasty, deceptive magic of human connection.

All of the characters in “The Dirty Dust” (Yale University) are six feet under. Lying in a graveyard in Connemara, Ireland, in the early 1940s, they have not a moment of rest. They’re always squabbling, gossiping, complaining, joking, or telling stories. This is the first English translation — by Irish Times columnist Alan Titley — of Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s satiric Irish novel in dialogue. Like Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood,” “Dirty” is a cacophony of voices that reveal a place and its people. Its world is sad and beautiful, and the talk is endlessly entertaining. - JAN GARDNER

 "The blessed itch" is how one character in Mairtin O Cadhain's The Dirty Dust (translated by Alan Titley, Yale, £16.99) describes the urge to write. You would have expected the characters' desires and opinions to be behind them, buried as they are in the clay of a Connemara graveyard. However, their gossip and backbiting is the lifeblood of this novel, which consists almost entirely of dialogue. Published in Irish in 1949, set during the 1940s with war in the background, Colm Tóibín considers it "among the best books to come out of Ireland in the 20th century." Titley says in his introduction he wanted "to get some of the tone and vivacity of the original across without sounding too bizarre". He succeeds and, while there's little plot, it bristles with black comedy: "I wonder what kind of funeral I had? I won't know that until the next corpse comes." - Max Liu

From Yale University Press comes the first-ever English translation of “the most important prose work in modern Irish.” A deeply satirical novel, The Dirty Dust is reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, in that Cadhain’s characters are all already dead, yet they speak to us about their lives and the lives of their fellow townspeople. Written entirely in dialogue form, The Dirty Dust imagines a world in which the dead continue to take an interest in the living and one another. - bookriot.com/2015/03/07/translation-march-fiction/


If, by some fluke of fate, you managed to dodge your Irish language requirement in high school, fail to visit rural western Ireland or even, heaven forbid, forget the great mass of Gaelic you surely had to have learned as a youngster, you'd be forgiven for not having heard of Máirtín Ó Cadhain. Sadder still, you're likely never to have read his best-known novel, The Dirty Dust. That is, I must admit: I hadn't.
That's because, despite Ó Cadhain's stature in Ireland — and even his popular success there — most of his books still haven't been translated into English, even more than four decades after his death. He wrote exclusively in modern Irish. And though he engaged in much the same leaps of language, formal invention and plain-old ambition of his countrymen and contemporaries, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, his works have been left to, well, gather dust — in the English-speaking world, at least. The Dirty Dust stands as the first English translation for Cré Na Cille — which has also been called "The Churchyard Dust," or "Graveyard Clay."
Perhaps Ó Cadhain, in spite of himself, might have found some grim pleasure in this confusion of tongues. He certainly seems to relish the flapping of gums: the petty chatter that gives this novel its shape and substance. Frankly, with a handful of exceptions, there isn't anything in the novel but chatter, as the book consists of nothing more than dialogue — no narration, no exposition, no stage directions, even.
And nobody alive, either.
I'll let a corpse explain the predicament: "Christ's cross protect me!" raves Caitriona, the newly deceased, early on in the book. "Am I alive or dead? Are the people here alive or dead? They are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground!"
The gaggle of characters who step into and out of The Dirty Dust's driving conversation have nowhere to go, as they've already been tucked into caskets in the local graveyard. But death hasn't deprived them of their voices; they've still got plenty to say, bickering over the cost of their plots, slandering their families, even running (so to speak) in elections — and stewing on their favorite topic of all, life. As each body gets buried, the newly dead becomes something of an emissary from the world above, plied with questions about the latest developments in years-old grievances.
Death, in Ó Cadhain's telling, is just life distilled into its purest elements: gossip, jealousy, resentment and speculation — and the complex phenomenon those elements make up, a community of neighbors who care (perhaps too much) about each other.
A word to the wise, though: The comparison to Joyce and Beckett is a useful one, not just in style and era, but often in difficulty too. By stripping away many of the conventions of the typical novel — neglecting dialogue tags, interrupting narratives, burying important details beneath ellipses, robbing the graveyard of vital visual clues — Ó Cadhain doesn't lay a whole lot of mile markers behind himself as he goes. In effect, it feels at first like getting tossed into a crowd of strangers jostling each other in a pitch-black room. From the din of shouts and mutterings, a voice or two will surface for a speech, only to subside all too soon.
The title to Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cre na Cille has been previously translated as "The Churchyard Dust," or "Graveyard Clay" — as it was in this recent film adaptation. i

But out of this racket, strangely, an orchestra emerges, in which each voice acts as an instrument. Absent any explicit labels, the voices instead take on the timbre of their own complaints and pet causes, so that a casual reaction or even a single word can become a kind of verbal signature — an unmistakable sign of that person's presence in the conversation. In this way, monologues become solos, discussions whole movements. In repetition, interruption and echo, they cobble together a different kind of plot, shaped less like an arc than a guttering flame.
As trivial as it might seem, I'd be remiss not to mention the impressive variety and innovation of the insults slung between our not-so-friendly corpses. Ó Cadhain, and in turn his translator, Alan Titley, have dredged up more names for one's fellow beings than Adam himself, just about all of them unfit for the Bible — or a family publication like NPR. Somewhere between a "gnat's fart" and a "sailor's bicycle," you'd find the rest of Ó Cadhain's countless invectives beneath a censor's stripe. And that's a shame, because this grotesque and creative lexicon isn't simply an adolescent's dream; it's a kind of a linguistic play that's constant throughout the book, a joyful disrespect for "decency" that allows its author an unvarnished look at those who'd otherwise hide behind it.
This, then, is perhaps Ó Cadhain and Titley's great feat: By breaking with conventions and trying to invent their own, they diminish the distance between ideas, like decency and disrespect, we often think of as opposites. Pride and shame; care and loathing; and yes, even life and death — divvied as they are among many different voices, these oppositions become meaningless, mere fodder for more hearsay. Somewhere between Sartre's famous adage, "hell is other people," and the hell that was middle-school gossip, The Dirty Dust imagines an afterlife still filled thick with words — and one well worth prying open. - Colin Dwyer

The Dirty Dust is a different kind of underground-tale: it is set entirely in 'The Graveyard' and its characters are all dead and buried. Technically lifeless, the deceased nevertheless retain considerable consciousness -- as well as the ability to communicate amongst themselves. As Caitriona Paudeen, the newest arrival in the graveyard when the novel opens and more or less the central character, wonders when she finds herself down under: 
Am I alive or dead ? Are the people here alive or dead ? They are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground ! I thought that when I died that I could rest in peace, that I wouldn't have to work, or worry about the hopuse, or the weather, that I would be able to relax ... But why all this racket in the dirty dust ?
       Of course, Caitriona soon realizes what's clear to many of the others assembled here: 
I'm not a blabbermouth. Anything that's my own business, anything that I saw or heard, I took it into the clay with me. But there's no harm talking about it now when we are gone the way of all flesh ...
       Old rivalries and arguments flourish here eternally, as everyone has all the time in the world to make their case and claim again. Whether about how Peter the Publican and his daughter handily ripped off some of their clientele, that one pound that Caitriona borrowed from neighbor Kitty but never got back, or the refusal to believe that Galway could have lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland football final in 1941 ("But you were dead. And I was looking at the match" one dead man tells the other, but the other refuses to believe it), the debates, complaints, and recriminations continue endlessly.
       Initially, Caitriona's main concerns are to determine just how fine her funeral was -- the novel opens with her wondering whether she's in: "the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave" (or whether, god forbid, she was plonked in the Ten Shilling plot) -- and how good a cross they'll raise on her grave. Eagerly she asks each new arrival about her own funeral -- after the initial disappointment of finding that the latest arrival is, yet again, not her daughter-in-law, who she is rather overeagerly expecting to join her much sooner, rather than later.
       Not everyone can oblige Caitriona, as Ó Cadhain fills up the graveyard with a colorful cast of characters who remain lifelike in their own quirks and interests. There are some efforts at getting things organized too, though not everyone is on board:
     -- All that vile vituperation will only vulgarize your mind. I will have to establish a relationship with you. I am the cultural relations officer for the cemetery. I will give you some lectures on "The Art of Living."
     -- You, son of a bloody gun, ... "The Art of Living" ? ... What next ? 
     -- A progressive section of us thought we had a duty to our fellow corpses, and so we set up a Rotary ...
       The mix of dead -- many finding themselves again far too close for comfort to those they thought they could keep their distance from -- makes for lively (if also often obsessive) conversation.
       Politics intrude, too, including concerns about Hitler ("The postmistress is all up for Hitler. She says that Postmistress is a highly valued position in Germany"). And there's a foreign presence too, the Frenchman with little command of the language -- not that that keeps him taking part ("C'est l'histoires des poules, n'est-ce pas ?").
       Some of the nine chapters include a sort of prelude-section, the 'Trumpet of the Graveyard' providing a bit of background and overview of this unusual situation, but almost all the novel consists of the wide-ranging (if often also circling back on themselves) exchanges among the dead, with things livened up by new additions bringing the latest news (and disappointments). And despite the seemingly ceaseless blabbering, even here there are plaintive cries: 
Let me speak ! Let me get a word in, please ! ...   
 A classic Irish novel, the translation of The Dirty Dust was long overdue. Alan Titley's vigorous translation fits the dialogue-intense work well, and Ó Cadhain's creative use of language comes across well in the English too.
       Certainly an unusual work, with relatively little 'action', The Dirty Dust does a great deal within the limits of its inspired premise. Good -- and surprisingly not in the least morbid -- entertainment.
- M.A.Orthofer

The most important prose work in Modern Irish, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille has never before been published in English. This 1949 novel, as Alan Titley introduces his blunt, bold rendering into our language as “The Dirty Dust, carries the flow of chatter you might hear outside a door when everyone inside is tearing themselves apart; or in a country churchyard in the light of day.” The title resists easy equivalence, although “churchyard clay” has long served as as its English echo for critics. Titley, a skilled writer and critic in Irish, prefers the biblical resonance of ashes and soil, for this narrative takes place entirely in a Connemara cemetery, as its interred bicker and boast among themselves.

It was inspired by a report in the author’s native West of Ireland where a woman was buried inadvertently atop her rival one day when it was too rainy for the gravediggers to bother with niceties. An onlooker mourned: “Oh holy cow, there’s going to be one almighty gabble!” Ó Cadhain set his novel, akin to what Titley calls switching channels between various conversations on a radio, in townlands he knew well in County Galway, near the Atlantic shore among its Irish-speaking community.
Then, that language was still connected to those in the 19th century who had spoken no other. The author did not hear English until the age of six. Rich in imagery, curt in tone, this dialect of Irish can be difficult for those who encounter it today. Titley prefers a conversational, casual tide of chat, cursing, and reverie to wash over Ó Cadhain’s characters. This eases the reader’s challenge. The author plunges us immediately into a fictional tale told in dialogue and interruption.
Yet, even if Caítríona Paudeen’s new arrival among the dead makes her by default the protagonist, the buried characters surrounding her six feet under crowd her out. Many of her neighbors resent her airs. It’s best to let this rattling narrative roll on, rather than resist its banter or weary of its nagging. As a downed French pilot now and then complains in his own native tongue (untranslated): these scolds bore him. He had hoped to find peace in death, but the tomb seems not to be dead at all. Rather, the foreigner, struggling to figure out the meaning of the babble around him, finds it betrays the same old ennui. Sympathizing with his plight, I found myself drifting along as the voices resounded and receded. It’s not hard to give way to them as background noise rather than scintillating exchanges.
The liveliest portions open most chapters. The “Trumpet of the Graveyard” summons souls to a reckoning. Ó Cadhain contrasts the joys of the living with the dread of the dead. He also here evokes the intricacy of Irish-language verse by departed bards: “But the flakes of foam on the fringe of a surge of a stream are slurping in towards the shallows of the river where they slobber on the rough sand.” The alliteration and end-rhyme give way as they ebb into brutal phrases, and a sudden stop.
Meanwhile, without fresh news to filter into the soil, insults and laments repeat. No effort at organization lasts long; a Rotary Club, an election, a cultural society all flounder. Jonathan Swift’s prediction of “a road on every track and English in every shack” threatens the isolation of the village. Its cadaverous inhabitants debate a medieval prophecy attributed to St. Colmcille about the signs of the world’s end.

This sense of doom deepens in the novel’s vague duration during the middle of the Second World War. The corpses debate, as did their real-life counterparts, the comparative merits of the Germans and the British as allies for officially neutral Ireland. The Antichrist’s return is rumored.

The dead are uncertain if D-Day has occurred. Only with the internment of the newest arrival, Billy the Postman, do the rest learn that none of their graveside crosses are made of Connemara marble. The dead had asserted this, each trying to put down the others, so as to boost their own status. That incident concludes this novel. Its recurring themes of discontent and rivalry dominate whatever moments of tenderness and solidarity remain after village life has given way to common death.

In this sobering depiction of a determined counter to the stereotypes of Irish rural relationships, native son Maírtín Ó Cadhain in his native language sought to correct myth with truth. As ably translated by Alan Titley, the results recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Martin McDonagh’s play, both of which feature this same milieu, as they include too the telling phrase of “a skull in Connemara”. - John L. Murphy

I can’t speak or read Irish, so when I read that Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille was “the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language,” as Colm Tóibín wrote, I regarded the accolade as impressive but practically untestable: the same way I would regard a statement like “the best gelato shop in Mongolia.” I have no reason to think that Mongolians are bad at making gelato, nor do I have reason to think that Irish speakers are lousy novelists, but it was really the second part of Tóibín’s appraisal that caught my eye: the novel was “amongst the best books to come out of Ireland in the twentieth century.” The thought that I had missed out on a work comparable to the modernist masterpieces of Joyce and Beckett left me feeling estranged from my Irish heritage, and like a provincial monoglot. It’s only now, more than sixty-five years after Cré na Cille’s 1949 debut, that the novel is available an English translation, Alan Titley’s The Dirty Dust.
The book shares some of Joyce's and Beckett’s narrative experimentation, melancholy humor, and occasional incomprehensibility. The Dirty Dust begins moments after the main character, Caitriona Paudeen, a woman singularly possessed by pettiness, is buried. Like the other members of the graveyard, her ability to speak is unaltered, as are her concerns: She spends the first minutes of eternity worrying aloud about whether she has been placed in the respectable “Pound grave” or the lesser “Fifteen Shilling grave,” and thereafter complaining about her sister Nell, “the bitch," who survived her.
Ó Cadhain’s decision to dispense with narration in favor of naked dialogue is striking; it evokes the experience of blindness, as if the reader was just another body in the graveyard listening to the idle chatter. The many unattributed and unconnected voices––there are more than a dozen principal characters and many more secondary ones––can be disorienting and occasionally frustrating: like reading a Dostoyevsky novel pared down to contextless quotations. But the narrative choice does more than mimic the experience of the dead for the reader; it comments on the possibilities and limits of oral histories, and of talk, which played a central role in the Gaeltachts, the small Irish-speaking communities that formed in a larger English-speaking country. Talk is not only the “principal character in this book,” as Titley writes in his translator’s note, it is the book.
Isolated from the living, the dead socially reconstitute their world through speech, disputing particular details that no one in their grave can verify—a process not unlike the continual revisions of oral histories. Their world is fluid. Caitriona’s sister-in-law Nora, for example, who was apparently something of a philistine above ground, reinvents herself as a cultured, literary woman in the Dirty Dust (to Caitriona’s great frustration). Even when packets of information about the world above fall from the sky in the form of freshly dead bodies, it becomes clear that every truth in that world of conjecture and gossip is compromised by ignorance and desire. The newly dead often tell the others what they want to hear: Caitriona is informed of multiple, contradictory stories about the things most important to her, like the fortunes of her living son Patrick, her funeral, and the dubious installation of a cross of marble to mark her grave. “Having a cross here,” it is said, “is like having a big slate house aboveground."
There’s a symmetry of life and death in Ó Cadhain’s novel. “The people here […],” remarks Caitriona, “are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground!” The Christian idea that the soul rises above the body after death is refuted forcefully. The souls of Ó Cadhain’s characters are not tethered to material concerns incidentally, but essentially, unalterably. When the characters aspire to something higher, they are overcome with trivialities. Even the Old Master, a cultured, or at least literate, school teacher, spends his time instructing Nora until he is consumed by paralyzing suspicions that his widow is having an affair.
Against the backdrop of eternity, though, efforts to better oneself appear as comic and meaningless as concerns over the composition of one’s gravestone. A French pilot who chanced to crash to his death in Connemara spends his time nobly studying the Irish language and is eventually able to translate phrases into the local dialect: “Qu’est-ce c’est que jobbers? What the fuck are jobbers?” he asks. There is also a disastrous attempt to hold an “Interred Election.” And cataclysmic world events are assimilated into the petty disputes of the grave. When Caitriona hears that her living sister supports Churchill in the “War of the Two Foreigners” she allies herself with his enemy: “Up Hitler!” she exclaims. “Do you think there’s a chance . . . that he’ll flatten her new house down to the ground?” The war may have been similarly unreal for many members of the living Gaeltacht, who remained largely uninvested in global politics, save for how they related to nationalist movements.
The characters in The Dirty Dust may be confined to a remote, immaterial world, but their interactions are lively and complex. Their world is a pure social construction. The Dirty Dust seems to have captured some of the purported social vibrancy, humor, and strangeness of the original. Titley’s translation has rescued an Irish classic from what might as well be the grave––for provincial monoglots like me, that is. - Darragh Mcnicholas

This book is considered as the classic novel written in Irish. It has been made into a radio play, a stage play and a film (which I can highly recommend - it has English sub-titles.) Ó Cadhain apparently was not keen on having it translated into English. However, it was first translated into English in 1984 by Professor Joan Keefe of University of California, Berkeley as her Ph.D. thesis but never published. It now appears in English sixty-six year after its first publication in Irish. It is a most interesting work in many ways. Firstly, all the characters in the book are dead. Secondly, the Irish used is very colourful, both by being rich in colloquial expressions as well as by using the rich array of swear words Irish has. I suspect their translation, with the standard English obscenities, is less colourful though just as blunt. Keefe translated the title literary - Churchyard Clay. Alan Titley, in this version, admits in his introduction, that he struggled with the title and lists a whole host of possibilities that he considered but chose Dirty Dust, so as to conform with Ó Cadhain's alliteration. Personally, I prefer Churchyard Clay, which, alliteration apart, conforms more with Ó Cadhain's intent. Though he makes it clear that he is not going to anglicise Ó Cadhain's name, he does anglicise the names of the characters. The main character, for example, is Caitríona Phaidín in the original but Caitriona Paudeen in this translation, while her friend Muraed Phroinsias become Maggie Francis. Bríd Thoirdhealbhaigh gets reduced to Breed Terry. Some of the names are translated into English, which makes some sense but means that they lose their Irish resonance.
As I mentioned all the characters are dead. The action takes place in an Irish country graveyard, actually inside the grave, where the dead arrive and seem to more or less carry on the way they did, when they were living, in the sense that they talk and gossip and bad-mouth all and sundry. At the start of the novel Caitriona Paudeen has just died and entered the grave. Caitriona has a bad word for virtually everyone but there are two people in her life she has had a particularly dislike for, her younger sister, Nell, and her daughter-in-law, called only Nora Johnny's daughter. Her mother, Nora Johnny, is in the grave, having predeceased Caitriona.
Caitriona's dislike of Nell seems to be long-standing (Caitriona was seventy-one when she died) but primarily dates from when Jack the Lad preferred Nell to Caitriona. Caitriona had her heart set on Jack and was bitterly disappointed when he chose Nell. She has taken some satisfaction in the fact that Jack was a poor provider and Nell and Jack did not live well. Indeed, Caitriona, so she claims, helped to look after their son, Peter. Another source of contention is their elder sister, Baba. Baba moved to the United States and never married. However, she did work for a rich lady and, apparently, when this lady died, she left her money to Baba who is therefore now rich. When Baba came back to visit Ireland, she initially stayed with Caitriona but then move out and stayed with Nell, when Patrick did not marry the woman she wanted him to marry, and left from Nell's house. The two sisters have been waiting for their sister to die, in the hope that she, rather than her sister, will inherit. Caitriona is now very bitter that Nell will now inherit.
Caitriona did marry but we know little about him. They had one son, Patrick, (though three daughters died) and Caitriona had high hopes for him and so she was very disappointed when he married Nora Johnny's daughter, as was her sister The couple and their young daughter, Maureen, have been living with Caitriona. She feels that she came from a poor family and has slovenly ways. She is now even more bitter, as she feels that it is her fault that she, Caitriona, is only buried in the fifteen shilling grave and not in the one pound one. Indeed, during the course of the book, she will learn what has not happened at her funeral and on her grave site, for example, the promised marble cross or, indeed, any cross, has not materialised. She is also concerned about the land owned by Fireside Tom, a first cousin once removed, which she hoped to get her hands on before Nell.
While the focus is certainly on Caitriona, there is a whole host of characters residing in this grave. We hear many of their stories as well. Often their issues are trivial. Kitty, for example, is determined that she is owed a pound by Caitriona (who denies it) and makes something of an issue out of it. Indeed, many of the issues seem trivial. Several people feel that Peter the Publican had cheated them, overcharging them for drinks. They were afraid to raise the matter then but are not afraid to mention it now. Nor are they afraid to now mention the fact that the postmistress made a habit of opening people's letters and, allegedly, not sending or delivering of ones she did not approve of. There is even an (illiterate) storyteller whose stories start but do not always finish and are often off colour. There is also a Frenchman, who speaks French (though he is trying to learn Irish - he stumbles somewhat over their slang) and keeps mentioning Winston Churchill's promise to liberate France. Local gossip is to the fore but they also talk about politics (there are one or two who favour Hitler, presumably because of their hatred of the English), sport, agriculture and going to England. They eagerly seek news from new arrivals, with Caitriona, in particular, hoping for bad news for her sister and daughter-in-law. When Jack the Lad dies and arrives, she is particularly gratified.. However, oneupmanship is the game they mainly play, how their funeral was better than the next person's or how their child has gone on to do better than their neighbour's.
The book works very well because Ó Cadhain is a superb storyteller. The novel consists entirely of dialogue and we have to follow a series of different conversations and remarks, though it is generally not too difficult to get an idea of who is talking. This is definitely one of those books that you wish that you could read in the original, as I have no doubt that the Irish is rich and colourful, something that must be very difficult to convey in translation. It is not just a good story but a very bitchy satire, mocking the rural Irish and all their foibles. From Swift via Synge and Flann O'Brien, satire has played a key part in Irish literature and this book is certainly a worthwhile addition to the tradition. - www.themodernnovel.com/irish/ocadhain/cre.htm

I never intended to translate Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille. Nor can I say that it was imposed upon me. It was in my ears for years and yonks because I first read it unbidden as a first-year undergraduate and it blew my mind, and because later I taught it to graduates and to postgraduates as an Irish classic.
Ireland will have heard of it. It has been flagged as the greatest Irish novel, just as Ulysses is recognised as the greatest Anglo-Irish novel. These positions are not incontrovertible, but it would take a lot of argumentation and some prejudice to dislodge them. League-table renderings of merit in literature are always crass and stupid, but it is unlikely that both Cré na Cille and Ulysses would not figure in any list that any bilingual Irish person would read.
It is a novel in which all the characters are dead. They are buried in a graveyard in Connemara and continue with venom the disputes that sustained them in their previous lives. Their only sustenance is when a new corpse arrives to tell them about the latest tittle-tattle, scandals, suppositions, rumours and even occasionally the truth about what is happening “up there”.
It is a great novel because it is both traditional and modernist, old-fashioned and experimental. It is traditional and old-fashioned in that it deals with a settled “organic” community who care little or nothing about the outside world, and it is modernist and experimental because it breaks with all the easy and accessible conventions of a single narrator and lets the talking do the telling.
It also has, at its core, one of the great characters in Irish fiction. Catriona Paudeen is a harridan, a horror, a hag and a harpy and much more, and if she has any saving graces at all they are kept well- hidden. But around her in her grave are gathered her erstwhile neighbours, and just about everyone has something bad to say about everybody else.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain believed that talk was the best way to reveal character, and while there are so many people in this novel that it’s difficult to get a rounded picture of any, some become more prominent that others.
There is the huckster shopkeeper who will do anything to turn a few shillings; the bar owner who waters the whiskey; the schoolteacher who rails against his wife, who may be having a good time while he is dead; the guy who steals seaweed; the insurance salesman with the silver tongue who will turn any situation to his own advantage; the woman who discovers “culture” in the graveyard; and the men who argue about football.
It is a living conversation among the dead and it appears to be interminable. This gabble could go on forever, and maybe it will, but we will never escape from the narrow and the petty things that keep us alive.
The main challenge in translating this was how to render Ó Cadhain’s vivid and untempered idiom into something that might approximate its energy in English. Ó Cadhain’s language was largely from his own place, and this is particularly so in this novel, unlike some later stories. But like all writers, he was inventive. He borrowed and stole and pillaged from all Irish dialects, from Scottish Gaelic, from new inventions, from more than 1,000 years of Irish literature, and he also just made words up to suit the occasion.
I decided to do the same. If we are willing to forgo the tired official and journalistic English, which is as banal as a speech by some European bureaucrat and as dull as the prose of a hired public-relations plonker, then English has a rich and mad and savage demotic base. I tried to make use of this, while being mindful that the use of slang is a trap that can shut you up in less than half a generation.
I wanted to avoid the awful slop of bog Anglo-Irish gobs**tegook that nobody speaks any more, but to draw on more inventive Englishes, which are all around us.
Although much was against it, Irish had the advantage of not being squeezed into the corset of linguistic respectability, which gave it wings to fly, and it was a matter of accessing English of a similar freedom, which was certainly available but had to be sought out.
While I was working on this translation I was conscious of the spirit of Ó Cadhain growling somewhere near me. On the one hand he did want it translated, and on the other he was doubtful it could be done. I have no idea if he would be happy with this translation, but I like to think that he would, although I have no doubt that he would rail against a thousand phrases.
His own theory of translation, if he had one, which I doubt, was probably free-wheeling and creative. The interesting thing is that there will be another translation of the same book (published, also by Yale, next year) by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson under the title of Graveyard Clay, and I have heard that this will take a very different approach to mine.
The thing is that no one paragraph from one language into another will be translated in the same way by any two people. Different approaches tell us that we see different things and hear different echoes from the words on the page.
I hope that these translations will introduce people to a great Irish classic and make them aware that we have a modern literature in Irish that is a worthy continuation of our 1,500 years of unbroken writing. - Alan Titley




Long have I labored in the temples of translation, if not as a cleric, then let us say as a graying vestal. In those drop-ceiling’d holy sites, papered with grant applications and hung with the leathered hides of forgotten interns, rumors have long persisted of the great untranslated Irish-language novel Cré na Cille, its title traditionally English’d as “Graveyard Clay.” Now called The Dirty Dust (the better to retain author Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s alliterative original, says its introduction), it has at last been made available to Anglophones thanks to translator Alan Titley and the Yale Margellos World Republic of Letters.
“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.
They’ve brought all their squabbles with them, you see. They tease and fulminate at one another, they leave no grudge unaired, and are all entirely impotent, trapped in their little boxes, rotting away, as unable to plug their ears and shut out the words of their neighbor dead as they are to put a cork in their own streams of palaver. There’s no story, as such, or rather there’s a plenitude of them, as new arrival Catriona Paudeen pursues her niggling vendettas among the upper-, middle-, and lower-class deceased (one’s position is determined by how much money your survivors spent to bury you), and these deceased in turn pursue their own feuds, mocking and revising the plaints of their coevals, setting them to verse, and—best of all—lying through their bleaching teeth to pass the time. After all, nothing can ever happen to these characters. The only action, so to call it, in the book, in this world, is the arrival of fresh corpses bringing fresh news of the land of the living.
It’s a killer concept, and in this could indeed be a throwaway fished from some heretofore unremarked eddy of the Wake, could easily be a sketch by the ever-eschatological Flann, could easily be an early warm-up for The Unnamable or name-your-favorite “I am but a voice in the void” Beckett. There, however, is the rub: having “read” the book Bayardically so many times, having poured over the snips and blips of translated Cré na Cille that have already appeared in academic volumes and the like, having compared it (without having read it) to the masterpieces of Irish modernism, when I was finally confronted this year not with the “Graveyard Clay” of my Hibernian reveries but Mr. Titley’s Dust, it was decidedly, perhaps unfairly, anticlimactic. Enough so that it warranted a reevaluation not only of the readerly expectations I’d larded away concerning Ó Cadhain’s reputed masterpiece but of the very possibility I’d taken for granted, as a true believer in world literature, that we with no Irish (language) in us were, all these years, only a few steps away—a willing rights holder, an advance on royalties, and a brave translator, to name three—from finally being able to see, as they say, “what all the fuss was about.”
So imagine, friends, an afterlife not of harps and angels, not of devils and Don Juans, but a twilight beyond or below or beside our world here in the daylight, a plane putatively free of the petty concerns of the sublunary world, a region we’ve been led to believe will be loftier, purer, better than the circumstances to which we are condemned by birth, a realm in which our spirits might communicate effortlessly, unreservedly, freed of the constraints of language, of the impediments of class, culture, and nationality set upon us by waking life, of the anxieties that make us injure and malign one another; a place where our better selves might pursue their ideals unfettered. Imagine it, and believe in it, only to find, upon your annunciation into this wondrous realm, that all the rules to which you’d become accustomed back on Earth still, in fact, apply: this paradise is just more of the same, not a better place at all, only a clammy sub-basement to our accustomed grinds, a phantom zone in which all the misunderstandings, antipathies, preoccupations, and mendacities we were hoping to escape instead rage on in perpetuity. We may be unencumbered here, yes, but not of the pettifoggery to which the flesh is heir: only of the restraints our accustomed condemnation to a tactile, social universe had, all along (who knew?), been putting on our capacities for spite and self-delusion. It turns out that those we’ve left behind actually have it pretty good: in a realm of pure spirit, there can be no checks upon our egocentrism, you see, because there are no bodies, sights, sounds, smells, sandwiches to distract us from our grievances. All we have now are opinions, and ours can barely be heard over a million others, each equally convinced of its rectitude.
But the astute reader will have guessed by now that I am speaking not of the comically nightmarish afterlife depicted in The Dirty Dust but of the world of literary translation. Not for nothing did I begin by referring to the practice in religious terms: aside, perhaps, from that ultimate question of quality—otherwise known as “Is the damn thing any good?”—no other component of our day-in, day-out literary practice is as tangled up as translation in what might be termed an applied science, while nonetheless shading off into the impossible or mystical. Not only reviewers and publishers and writers but lawyers and international treaties and rights contracts—they all refer to books not as agglomerations of words in this or that tongue but as disembodied, Ideal Forms: “works” floating in a sort of limbo, waiting for a medium to reach out and siphon them out of the ether and into a new vessel, a vessel that in no tangible way resembles its original, pre-ascension shape, but which retains—by common agreement—the name, the “essence,” and the reputation of body from which this airy spirit fled. What is it but pure and beautiful faith on the parts of we readers, consumers, acolytes when we succeed in navigating the cognitive dissonance of believing despite the evidence of our senses and intelligence that a product entitled, say, Hopscotch, is in fact a product entitled Rayuela—the consumption of which will endow an (in this case) Anglophone with all the rights and privileges accorded a reader of the words actually set down by its author? It’s absurd, no?—but then that’s never stopped any true believer. It’s never stopped me for a moment.
All of literature, you’ll say, runs on faith—which I grant, but I’d still make the claim that translation comes closest to a sort of practical eschatology for the Work of Literature, requiring of us the unusual conviction that nothing—not even the loss of every single word making up an original text—can truly stop a Great Work from being Great. A novel is born, lives through a publicity cycle or two, dies, is memorialized, and on its journey toward eternity becomes a wordless quiddity in the heaven-cum-purgatory of translation, shedding everything that made it itself save the pomps of its identity. We who await its arrival, craving access to its bounty, deploy our table-rappers and haruspices to make contact, and then welcome it with much fanfare—hosanna! we can read That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, we can read The Empty Book, we can read Trobadora Beatrice, we can read The Dirty Dust!—briefly according this version of the newcomer a special status as the Real Thing, our best hope of assimilating a toothsome text. Before, that is, by and by, forgetfulness, mixed reviews, and competing translations of the same novel (if we’re lucky!) all conspire to make the work into just another gray, undifferentiated, infinitely transposable and expendable citizen of the world republic of letters.
Have I mentioned that a second, annotated translation of Cré na Cille, reverting to the title Graveyard Clay, has already been announced by Yale for 2016?
You may well ask, What crime The Dirty Dust has committed to provoke these lucubrations in someone who ought by now to have a confessor or VD specialist’s purportedly disinterested eye where it comes to the ugly and unmentionable processes of (literary) reproduction? What’s wrong with this book, anyway? And I’d have to answer, Nothing much. There are minor concerns, yes: the book itself, if I can speak of its migrating soul independent of its new body (or bodies), strikes me as a series of not terribly elegant changes rung on its however-clever theme: some sections deliver the goods, are as pungent and funny as advertised; others smack of laziness, as though the weight of the necessity that each character in a novel sans narrator continually identify him- or herself through verbal tics alone hit Ó Cadhain’s logorrheic genius like the proverbial ton. Semi-protagonist Catriona’s recapitulations of “Abooboona/Abuboona/Ababoona/Aboo boona [etc.]! I’m going to burst! I will burst!” whenever she feels traduced by one or another bag of bones are quickly wearying, as are so many other such tags—and book is chockablock with them. Even those more slyly deployed, such as the manifold and misapplied “de grâce”s of the despised Toejam Nora, a woman who has developed new intellectual pretensions post mortem, come to irritate rather than amuse. And while there is a progression to the novel, while it does have a beginning and an end, a reader could be forgiven for being unable to keep these in sight during those longeurs where the author’s ingenuity flagged, where the gabble seems to be treading water (treading dust?), and the book comes to feel as though there’s no better reason for it to continue for another fifty or hundred pages save that this is how many pages you see are left to read.
Such misgivings can’t be laid at the feet of the translation process, but with that said, Titley’s Dust is a strange chimera made to seem stranger still by the knowledge that it will have a sibling/competitor on the market so very soon. Often, mind you, Mr. Titley soars: there are eye-watering squibs on the order of “What she said was like a plague of stoats buzzing back and forth through my brain spitting out venomous snots,” which—never mind that stoats do not, to my knowledge, buzz—is funny enough that it drowns out any anxieties about harmony or fidelity. Likewise, we have the uproarious and perfectly rendered pronouncements of the force or entity or ancient of days who terms him- or itself the “Trumpet of the Graveyard,” and whose portentous prologues—“States of the Union” meant to give the other dead, who aren’t listening, a more holistic or cosmic view of time passing both above and below ground—open many of the novel’s ten “interludes.” The Trumpet’s lines range from the prickly poetic (“The unturned sod is unwelcoming and sour with its lining of ice”) to the positively florid (“Aboveground life is putting on the raiment of Spring. The pert peek of serendipitous stalks and the fresh smile which breaks on the bare earth are the basting thread of this suit of clothes . . .”), and usually within a sentence or two. These are triumphs of bad-good and good-good and bad-wink-bad writing, deserving of applause.
And yet, and yet . . . The Dirty Dust is speckled throughout with other expressions this reader can’t believe have likely equivalents—no matter how broad the equivalence—in Irish, let alone in Irish circa the 1940s. “Holy fuckaroni” is a particular stand-out, but there are also lashings of “total asshole”s “scumbag”s, “clueless”es, and other locutions that—whether or not they might appear (and it’s possible!) to the informed bilingual as legitimate readings of the author’s original and to-me inaccessible profanity—feel cacophonously contemporary in this context: alien artifacts of the dreaded now, or maybe of some other novel altogether. Titley’s admission in his excellent introduction that his translation, following Ó Cadhain’s lead, took whatever liberties he saw fit—his reminder that “languages are not algebraic equations”—could never entirely ameliorate my sense that what we might have gained in fuckaroni was nonetheless a loss for the unity and substantiality of Dust. A loss for the delightful (if, I’ll readily admit, largely illusory and impermanent) sense our greatest translations give us: that this version is, for all that it will never contain even approximations of its author’s words, working on us in a way similar to which the original would have aspired. In the absence of the protective shell of this illusion, the apparent lags in Ó Cadhain’s verbal resourcefulness are compounded by Titley’s apparent excess of resourcefulness in such a way as to hobble the whole. The reader—or this reader—is never able to settle in and simply enjoy.
So, what is The Dirty Dust’s crime? Nothing much, save this: it came first, after years of anticipation, and moreover came booby-trapped with the information that a presumably less modernized, more “faithful” translation is on the way. Nothing much, save this—which may also happen to be this edition’s most valuable distinction: it is, therefore, internally and externally, in its content and the manner of its composition and the manner of its translation, the manner of its publication and soon-to-be republication, a perfect if unintended cameo of the Babel that’s given it birth in English: a fractal portrait of translation with all its glorious compromises glaring. Yes, The Dirty Dust disappointed me—but disappointment and the backbiting that follows disappointment are precisely what the book is about. We hope for heaven, for the ideal, and wind up with decomposition. That’s life, innit; or, that’s afterlife. And one is reminded of how perhaps the most productive concept in Western, twentieth-century eschatology—fiction-wise, I mean—was the reawakening of the pre-Christian notion of the World to Come as nothing more than an infinite slog: there’s something out there, all right, beyond human ken, but once you get there, it’s just the same old shit in a spookier package (cf. The Third Policeman, Lanark, Sweet Dreams, and so forth).
So, what is The Dirty Dust’s crime? Only this, that the next time I see, on a shelf, multiple Quixotes, multiple Borgeses and Bovarys and Ó Cadhains, I will remember the dead of Dust lying bound up in their graves, some in hardcover (the Pound Plot), some in soft (the Ten Shilling Plot), speaking their pieces rather than resting in peace, and all wrong about themselves and about the world in various strident measures. I will for a moment question one of the basic tenets of my religion—that where translations are concerned, the more is always the merrier—before I lapse into my accustomed, mountain-moving faith, and determine yet again that this eternal argument is the only heaven we deserve. -


Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust is not exactly well-known to Anglophone readers, though the novel is surely of a piece with the great literary works that emerged from Ireland in the 20th Century. It has Joyce’s linguistic ingenuity, O’Brien’s surrealism, and Beckett’s comic philosophy. But it is written in Irish Gaelic, and it has had to wait until last year to be published in English, by Yale University Press.
Translated by Alan Titley, The Dirty Dust is peculiar in many ways. For one, there are no characters in this novel. All of the voices in the novel are dead. There is also no plot—other than the one the corpses are interred in: the book is set beneath an anonymous graveyard in Connemara, a small rural community on Ireland’s west coast, during World War II, and unfolds through the conversations of comically ensnared voices of corpses in coffins.
If anything drives this story forward, it is the gossip from the arrival of new corpses, with the latest half-truths, trivia, innuendo, speculation, and scandal that is taking place in the land of the living. Countless voices speak, shout, reminisce, interject and argue about their life above ground, and it is often difficult to identify who is who. Some voices do emerge more clearly as the novel progresses. There is the Old Master, a teacher lamenting his wife’s eternal infidelity; a French pilot who crashed during the war; a nosy Postmistress; a conman salesmen who manipulates people from the community; the Trumpet of the Graveyard, the oldest and most portentous corpse; and Billy, a good natured postman who has a relationship with the Old Master’s wife.
Despite the cacophony of voices, the novel holds many consistent preoccupations. The Dirty Dust is a novel obsessed with questions of survival, both personal and collective, asking questions about the consequences of transition from an oral culture to a textual one, as well as the capacity of a people to communicate their values and anxieties across generations (as evidenced by the litany of miscommunications between older and newer corpses).
In a lovely paradox, Ó Cadhain makes the dead very lively indeed, as they inhabit the life of the living, and their thoughts, anxieties, and reputations survive in a dull and haphazard way, with immortal life unbearably proximate to mortal life. All these dead voices are hopelessly petty, obsessed with the most banal issues of life, such as whom has the biggest farm, who is the nosiest neighbour, a publican watering down drinks, mallets, donkeys, seaweed, fences and a whole array of the most mundane concerns.
The novel, however, is not so much a paean to competing voices, as some critics have suggested, but a celebration of the ghostly silence implicit in all speech—with a forcefully ethical edge: the book is marked by a weird egalitarianism. Nobody seems to have the ability to elevate his voice over others; even the loudest are quietened and cannot assert their dominance for very long. The Dirty Dust gleefully grinds and churns all thought and aspirations into the material mulch of the graveyard clay.
As with many modernist texts, the form is partly the message. The narrative consists solely of conversations. Whether we can even call the exchanges conversations is unclear, as the babbling corpses’ sentences often are incomplete, starting in the middle without beginning; intended meanings are undisclosed; voices overlap; and often, conversations are repeated to no avail. Indeed, to what the extent characters can even hear each other is never certain. One gets the impression that Ó Cadhain is giving expression not just to vernacular speech, but to something subtler, the hidden and indirect meanings present in everyday communication. Which is to say, his literary achievement involves a very endearing and peculiarly Irish existentialism: a mix, if you like, of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Purgatory. Though Ó Cadhain is rightly placed in the pantheon of Irish literature, alongside Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien, a more pertinent forebear might well be the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Ó Cadhain revels in what Kierkegaard called ‘indirect communication,’ a way of confronting the reader with the necessity of paradox and contradiction, using multiple voices and pseudonyms to disrupt the authority of the author. After all, even the author himself is ultimately subject to the dirty dust.
Interestingly, because the novel consists purely of voices, there is a dearth of the usual visual description that comprises the bulk of most novels. This has the effect of profoundly dimming—disembodying—the lived world, which makes sense for a bunch of corpses. However, this belies Ó Cadhain’s injunction for a passionate commitment to the life of the material world. An unrelenting, unspoken theme of the novel is embodied life, or more accurately, the manner in which decay inhabits our biological life, and thus undermines our capacity for survival. The worst insults in Ó Cadhain’s shallow underworld are those that draw comparison with animality, sex, and bodily organs. No such insult is more succinctly expressed than through the voice of harridan-in-chief Catriona Paudeen: ‘I wouldn’t marry you, you rotten poop, even if cobwebs grew out of me for want of a man.’ Or: ‘You did in your arse. My daughters wouldn’t give you a whiff of a puff of a half-nostril of the air that was in the same room as my body.’ Even a cursory flick through the novel will reveal a stabbing ‘through the walls of your liver,’ along with gluttonous guts and ‘evil enemas’.
This, coupled with Titley’s joyous translation of Ó Cadhain’s ever-present sexual profanity and expletives, bringing us such linguistic delights as ‘piss flaps’, ‘cuntish gash,’ the traditional Irish favourite ‘fuck me pink,’ and a sprinkling of good old fashioned ‘cunt,’ all reminding the reader of the intermingling of the body and its drive for material survival. The disembodied voices miss the thing they forgot most when they were alive, and that is the corporeal frame of the human body.
It is impossible to read this novel without incessantly being reminded that, for Ó Cadhain’s, all bodies are existential bodies, with decomposition as their inevitable destiny, but bodies nonetheless that are barely repressible in their impulse for life. The suspension of the corpses in the graveyard offers direct criticism of the ethereal and immaterial. We find in the talking corpses a reversal of a lived life. In The Dirty Dust, rather than death haunting life, life haunts death. There is nothing resplendent in the next world for Ó Cadhain’s cadavers. In fact, their afterlife is remarkably similar to the life they have lived: the babbling of anxieties, grudges and grievances, misdirects, half-truths, gossip and passive aggression, cowardice, failure, and the pursuit of petty economic status – in other words, the basic social glue of rural Irish life when alive.
While Ó Cadhain does not offer an unquestioning celebration of the living world, he does show a great sensitivity to the formation of a community, an identity that draws sustenance and survival from nothing other than itself, via the narration of its own stories, and shared, inchoate attempts to make sense of the world. The whole novel offers the slenderest of metaphors, as the dead offer each other little solidarity, representing a small and closed community of silence. However, it is a community nonetheless, tenacious and resilient in its attempt to persist.
For all the solemn gravitas of loss and mourning, The Dirty Dust is a profoundly funny book. This is evident in Ó Cadhain’s singular mix of bathos and pathos. One of the most carnivalesque voices in the book is the Trumpet of the Graveyard, the oldest corpse, who heralds the arrival of each new corpse in the most pompous terms, which is usually met with bawdy cackling from his fellow cadavers. By the end of the novel, the Trumpet is left with nothing to say. It is impossible to escape the searing levelling and humorous debunking that comes from the mirth and bonhomie of Irish gallows humour. Consider the figure of the Old Master, who speaks of his romance with his wife as ‘of a piece with eternity’ and boasts of her promise to mourn him for the rest of her life. That the dead, however, should subordinate the living is anathema to Ó Cadhain: the denizens of the graveyard gleefully disrupt the Old Master’s peaceful afterlife, informing him that very briefly after he died, his wife gets together with Billy the Postman.
There are ethical points to be drawn from The Dirty Dust. The attempt to remove a living future is condemned, and the idea that someone could hold sway over mortal life after death is shown to be laughable. It should be kept in mind that the lived reality of Ireland in the 1940s was a place with little future. Ó Cadhain himself was subject to internment during this period. Secondly, the novel gives voice to equality, as there is nothing that the chattering corpses can rely on to prove they exist except, as befits a closed community, the interaction and testimony which comes from fresh immigrants from above the ground, bringing further claims, counter-claims, disputes and untruths. (There is also an undermining of the class system at play within the graveyard, as life always interrupts any fragile hierarchy that asserts itself.)
Ó Cadhain is prescient in his way, as the voices of the novel resemble nothing so much as an average Twitter feed. Heidegger called such nattering idle chatter, meaningless conversation without any significance, purpose and direction, where the most trivial matters of dining, fashion, gossip and what ‘they’ say rests alongside the gravest matters of life and death. The litany of the babbling corpses bring an equality to all things, and the only sense that this can be transcended for them is retrospectively; their great loss is in remembering, looking to past versions of themselves that might have been. Ó Cadhain is of a piece with Heidegger: death is very much a part of life, and though this is something that we prefer to forget, Ó Cadhain goes to extraordinary lengths to remind us of the invigorating possibility of the seriousness and frivolity of life, or the mix of gravity and hilarity typical of Irish waking culture. (Another one of Ó Cadhain’s books was called Idir Shúgradh agus Dháiríre –roughly Between Play and Seriousness, or Gravity and Play).
For Ó Cadhain, in a Heideggerean way, there is immense possibility embedded in the everyday life of all potential cadavers, that is, all of us: ‘…If I had lived another while! If I had lived another while, for jay’s sake! What else would I have done? What would I have done, that is the question. A wise man might be able to deal with that…’ The residents of this Connemara graveyard are just like us, frightened, vulnerable, status-obsessed and hopelessly self-involved, and the novel shows that we are all living corpses. Ó Cadhain’s achievement is to show how the local is transcended into the universal. The jabbering voices beneath the ground can come from anywhere, place or time. In the end, what is this strangely brilliant book really about? The ultimate question The Dirty Dust asks is how are we to survive, and the ultimate crime is not to let the dead bury the dead. - Patrick O’Connor


TheKey1
Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Key, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.


In The Key/ An Eochair, one of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s most kafkaesque novellas, J., a “paper Keeper,” accidentally traps himself in his office when his key breaks in the lock. The Key a mixture of satire, farce, black comedy, and ultimately, tragedy – describes the attempts of J. and various other characters including his wife, civil service colleagues, and superiors to extricate J. from his confinement. Yet all efforts to free J. must be in accordance with civil service protocols, and no such protocol exists for J.’s unique dilemma.


It is perhaps surprising that the stultifying conformism of mid-century Ireland – to church and to state – has not been the focus of more satire in the tradition of Kafka. But if Myles na Gopaleen was the court jester of the era, Máirtín Ó Cadhain might be seen as the more serious vivisector of Irish society.
Ó Cadhain’s The Key (An Eochair in the original Irish) follows the travails of J., a menial paper keeper in some unspecified Civil Service department. J diligently absorbs the wisdom of his objectionable superior S., who instils in him a fearful respect for paper and the order of things. When J gets trapped in his windowless office – his only key snaps off in the lock – the weight of Irish society is thrown against the door to free him. Priests are called, party politicians grandstand and bicker, journalists scribble away, while officials from the Office of Public Works trudge through protocol to no avail. As no precedent exists, all are paralysed until orders come from the top of the Civil Service’s byzantine chain of command. All the while J. is haunted by thoughts of female hands stroking trouser legs, and an unspeakable act committed in a pub laneway during his dissolute youth.
With his broken key, Ó Cadhain draws great humour from the depths of one of Ireland’s most creatively repressive periods. - Ruairi Casey


‘J was a paperkeeper.” The first sentence of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s hilarious novella is a satiric statement of intent; J’s function is revealed but not his name. It is an opening gambit that could have come from the pages of the 19th-century Russian master Nikolai Gogol or his heirs, writers such as Andrey Platonov or Evgeny Popov. The Key possesses all the subversive linguistic energy of the finest absurdist comedy, and, true to that tradition, it is also very serious. It could be a political polemic. Instead it ridicules the petty mindlessness of bureaucracy and office politics everywhere. It has a specific target: the Civil Service, that bastion of illogical logic.
J is a tragic hero, and Kafka has already paved the way for characters so reduced as to be known by an initial instead of a name. Yet although he doesn’t have a name, J does perform a role recognised by “any honest person” as “the most responsible and difficult position in the Civil Service”. Cue the enemy: paper. Ó Cadhain describes it in its various forms as “huge bulky memos that cast long shadows, taking up space like slabs in an old cemetery. Thin tattered receipts like slime on a rainswept rock, a sign that a snail or something like it had slid past and left a trail in its wake. Acts, Orders, statutory instruments side by side, armed and numbered, ready for the fray.”
An atmosphere of surrealist near-terror is established, files are both menacing and vulnerable. “There were even civil wars between files . . . People swore they heard squealing, battering, thumping and wailing of files in the cabinets. Files were found crumpled, stabbed, torn, tattered. The old files couldn’t stand the new ones and vice versa. To preserve the peace, they had to be kept apart. No one knew when a file, a particular file and not just any old file, might be sent for . . . Every file, with its own unique label . . . was a living thing . . . A label could be murdered, too, thrown out a window or up a chimney . . . But accidents will happen. A label might be mysteriously abducted or something equally terrible. It might end up on the wrong file.”
Linguistic flair
Ó Cadhain (1906-70), who was born in Spiddal, in Co Galway, shares the inventiveness of Lewis Carroll and the defiant panache of Flann O’Brien. Most importantly, his linguistic flair pushes his fiction into daunting arabesques, as readers of Cré na Cille (1949) will agree.

Written in Connemara Irish, that novel, the only one published in his lifetime, has a dense richness compounded by his flamboyant use of the versatility of the language. Alan Titley’s new translation of Cré na Cille draws the diverse linguistic strands, nuances and stylistic flourishes together. It seems to me that the difficulties of translating Cré na Cille are comparable to those of translating the daring fiction of the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, which is also firmly rooted in the rural, oral literary tradition and draws on dialect and colloquialism. Cré na Cille, although the story of Caitríona and her testy relations with the local community, has a chorus of voices, the loudly vocal dead, none of whom has forgotten or forgiven the slights of life. It predates Dylan Thomas’s radio verse play, Under Milk Wood (1953), and Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo (1955).
The Key/An Eochair, published in Irish in 1953 and now available for the first time in English in this bilingual edition, is very different, if equally original. It is written in a tight, snappy mock-jargon, deadpan prose brilliantly handled by its translators, Louis De Paor and Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg.
It is clear that the hapless J, with stumpy legs, a nervous disposition, a domineering wife and his possible fondness for alcohol, is frightened of his immediate boss, the Senior, a low class of bully who holidays on the Isle of Man and believes air travel is the preserve of higher beings. In the absence of his boss J is almost in charge; he mulls over his many tedious instructions, consisting mainly of being on time, answering the phone and noting the date and time of the calls and the number of the caller.
Working for S means being constantly aware of the office mantra, which also involves reciting it: “Who made the Civil Service? God. What does the Civil Service make? Civil Servants. What are you? A Civil Servant. Why were you created? To be in this office. What is the purpose of this office? To serve paper. What is the purpose of paper, and memoranda? To serve the Civil Service. What is the purpose of the Civil Service? To serve the State. What is the purpose of the State? To serve the Civil Service . . .”
Accused of drinking
Alone in his locked office-within-an-office, and deliberating the possibility of having his visits to the toilet monitored or of being accused of drinking even when he isn’t, J suffers a most cruel twist of fate. He breaks a key in the locked door. It is no ordinary key; it is a Civil Service key. Just as the door is no ordinary door, it may belong to the Office of Public Works and therefore must be protected at all costs. J is trapped, but beyond his hunger, thirst and exhaustion are the towering issues of a broken key and a door, the rights of which may not be violated. “J shouldn’t be thinking about breaking down Civil Service doors, any more than he would think of ripping up its papers. Imagine the consequences of tearing up a single page. Such an evil deed was probably unforgivable. It would be as bad as murder, maybe worse.”

Time passes, and news of J’s dilemma spreads. No help is forthcoming, because “There’s no precedent for that.” Precedent? J recognises the word; he had often heard it, “but he never quite understood it the way he understood what a rule or an injunction was . . .” Anyone who have experienced the no-man’sland of bureaucratic intransigence will howl with laughter. Self-serving politicians arrive, all eager to make the most of J’s situation as an excuse to attack each other. It is all very black, very funny and ultimately tragic.
The frenetic fluency of the satire is sustained throughout. It is a literary performance piece that would be exciting to stage. The Key is closer to Flann O’Brien than to Samuel Beckett, yet it could also claim its place within the European theatre of the absurd. Eugène Ionesco would have approved of it. Contemporary satirists would be pleased to claim it as their own.
More than 60 years old, it seems as fresh as if it had been written today. Ó Cadhain, one of the defining modernists of Irish literature, knew his society as well as the tones and cadences of his language. As a feat of storytelling it moves through a range of emotions, all skilfully evoked; its triumph rests in the tone, the inner rhythms, doublespeak and consummate wordplay. This helpful bilingual edition juxtaposes both texts.
The sting is left to the final line; both pieces of the broken key are salvaged, leaving no doubt as to the askew logic of those wielding power. - Eileen Battersby


The Key / An Eochair -- a bilingual edition in Dalkey Archive Press' Irish Literature Series that has the original Irish text facing the English translation -- is a substantial short story. Its protagonist is civil servant J. -- a paperkeeper, "the most responsible and difficult position in the Civil Service. Because the Civil Service is paper". His boss, S., has just started his two-week vacation, leaving J. in charge, but things could not start out worse: J. finds himself locked in his office. On site, S. is the man with the key, the one who locks up every evening, and then opens the doors again in the morning, but something has gone wrong in the passing on of responsibility when he set off on vacation and J. finds himself still in his office when it's locked. J. had been entrusted with the key to lock everything up but his first problem is finding it -- and then disaster truly strikes when he does, and tries unlocking the door.
       The situation flummoxes one and all. As one old-time clerical officer notes as they consider the possible courses of action:
I've never heard of any precedent for such an eventuality, and if there was a precedent, I would have heard of it.
       The problem is that this is not just bureaucracy at work, but the ultimate bureaucracy, the Civil Service, where everything has to be done just so:
Whatever else happened, nothing out of the ordinary could happen in the Civil Service.
       This, alas, proves very much out of the ordinary, and despite the potential easy fixes -- it's just a locked door, after all, that's in the way -- it necessarily becomes a far more complicated situation, with ramifications far and wide. It is potentially catastrophic -- or so anyway they work themselves up into believing:
A scandal in the public service, a service the public thought of as efficient and considerate. The story had already travelled the length and breadth of the country. The English papers would have it tomorrow. The Opposition would exploit it.
       Ó Cadhain's sharply written absurdist tale is tragically amusing, a clever spin on bureaucracy (and some Irish idiosyncrasies) taken to extremes, with J. a very hapless hero who tries to be dutiful but is overwhelmed by the demands of what proves to be a very rigid system.
       An enjoyable little entertainment. - M.A.Orthofer




Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–1970) is considered one of the most significant writers in the Irish language and among all writers of the twentieth century. A lifelong language-rights activist, he invigorated the Irish language and Irish literature as well as modernist literature at large. Alan Titley, a novelist, story writer, playwright, and scholar, writes a weekly column for The Irish Times on current and cultural matters.

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