The Dirty Dust, Mártín Ó’Cadhain, translated by Alan Titley, Yale University Press, 2015, 328pp., £16.99 (hardcover)
‘Unless the clay is in the mouth the singer’s singing is useless,’ writes Patrick Kavanagh in The Great Hunger, parodying the Irish revival’s cult of rural life. The cast in The Dirty Dust certainly qualify, speaking to us as they do from six feet under. If much Irish art and writing of the first half of the twentieth century was preoccupied with the very stuff of the land, who owned it and what it meant, Mártín Ó’Cadhain takes this urge to its ultimate conclusion, thrusting his characters deep down into the soil, where they continue their existence much as they did up above: gossiping, backbiting, mocking, joking and arguing (above all arguing). Hell is other people, said Sartre, and a locally specific variation on this would be entirely apt for the gate to this particular underworld.
Bringing up the don of French existentialism in a review of a book originally published in the Irish language might seem odd, but as many commentators have pointed out, this is a resolutely modern, perhaps even postmodern, novel. Written almost completely in dialogue, the book constantly alternates between voices, dipping in and out of a multitude of conversations, quarrels and semi-psychotic episodes. Think of Dante’s Inferno set in a shebeen in darkest Mayo. Yet as with other experimental narratives, the book has a logic of its own, which is easily picked up, so that one soon recognises the characters through trademark obsessions and turns of phrase. Like Flann O’Brien then, Ó’Cadhain must be seen in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett rather than of Peig Sayers or Tomás O’Crohan or one of those other echt Gaels that O’Brien sent up so gleefully in An Béal Bocht.
In this sense Ó’Cadhain’s strange and marvellous novel belongs alongside a raft of other European novels that have relatively recently emerged from outside the boundaries, linguistic and otherwise, normally associated with European modernism. I am thinking here of Witold Gombriwicz or Bruno Schulz, Karel Čapek or Gyula Krúdy. All of these writers took up the ball that modernism had set rolling and ran with it in their own languages, often portraying small town or provincial scenes, but doing so with a kind of feverish, macabre, sometimes obscene brio. Far from being an anachronism then, Ó’Cadhain’s book connects Irish writing with European fiction much more directly than does the rural realism of his contemporaries like Seán Ó’Faoláin or Frank O’Connor.
Ó’Cadhain’s life reflects something of the paradoxes and difficulties of Irish politics and society in the twentieth century, conditions that sometimes echo those endured by the writers mentioned earlier on the other side of Europe, though the situation there was many magnitudes more complex and difficult. Born in 1906, O’Cadhain grew up as part of an Irish-speaking minority in a fragile newly-independent polity overshadowed by a dominant neighbour. Heavily involved in underground and dissident politics, he soon fell foul of a vicious and paranoid state apparatus and was first sacked from his job as a schoolteacher and then later, in 1939, was imprisoned for the duration of WWII. It was while in prison that he really started writing, and it was in the period immediately after the war that he wrote Cré na Cille.
The experience of prison clearly had some sort of influence on the book. The short distance between interment and internment is not only orthographic. Reading the novel, with its cacophony of voices contending in the dark, it is hard not to imagine what it was like after lights-out in the ramshackle conditions he endured. Death is a kind of prison, the book implies, and Ireland itself a vast internment camp populated by the living dead. And yet having said this there is a strongly utopian element to the novel. Despite the often cantankerous, combative tone of the exchanges, it is always a community on which we are eavesdropping, not simply a collection of individuals. As the translator Alan Titley points out in his excellent introduction, the characters often take up each other’s words, finishing phrases begun by someone else, or throwing out fragmentary lines from songs in the confident knowledge that someone else will take up the baton. It is in language above all that Ó’Cadhain sees the collective energies of his spectral population expressed. Titley contrasts the ribald vitality of Ó’Cadhain’s original text with what he sees as the parlous current state of the English language, whether spoken in Ireland or the UK. And yet part of the charm of his wonderful translation is the way he is not afraid to raid the current argot for equivalents to the Gaelic imprecations of the past. The fact that the characters of The Dirty Dust are able to constantly refer to each other as muppets or cheapskate dickheads suggests that the popular, vernacular passions into which Ó’Cadhain tapped are present in our own language still.
Conor Carville was born in Armagh City. Educated at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University, he is currently Associate Professor in English and Creative Writing at the University of Reading. His critical work on cultural theory and Irish writing, The Ends of Ireland: Criticism, History, Subjectivity, was published in 2012. In 2007 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. He lives in London with his wife and daughter. Harm’s Way is his debut collection of poems and is published by the Dedalus Press in February 2013.