It seems rather apt that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger spent the years of World War II in Dublin. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously alive and dead might have been devised especially for Irish writing of the period. A kind of suspended animation, a state of being eternally undead, was constantly evoked. It was already present at the start of the war: Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece The Third Policeman, written in 1939 though not published until 1967, has a narrator who, though he does not know it, is both alive and dead, trapped in a banal Hell that he mistakes for an Irish village. But Ireland’s experience of neutrality in the war, holding its breath on the margins while the fate of the world was being decided, perhaps intensified the feeling that there is no great difference between life and afterlife.
It was in Dublin at the end of the war that Samuel Beckett had the idea that writing could itself exist as the afterlife of expression, with momentous consequences for the novel and for drama. Yet what is most remarkable is that something of the same notion was brewing in the minds of writers whose social, linguistic, and political backgrounds were completely different from Beckett’s. The most important of them was the Gaelic-language prose writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain (pronounced Marteen O’Kine), whose own masterpiece, Cré na Cille, first published in 1949, now appears for the first time in an English translation, by Alan Titley, under the title The Dirty Dust.
If Beckett’s revolution was partly shaped by his wartime experience of hiding out in an isolated French village, Ó Cadhain and some of his contemporaries had an even more intensive experience of confinement. The extreme nationalist Irish Republican Army allied itself with the Nazis on the timeworn principle that any enemy of England must be a friend of theirs. The prime minister, Eamon de Valera, seeing this as a direct challenge to his policy of trying to keep Ireland out of the war, cracked down on his former comrades in the IRA, eventually interning many of them without trial in the old Curragh military camp outside Dublin.
Strikingly, much of the most interesting writing in Ireland in the decade after the war came out of this group of prisoners. In their work, many of the things we might otherwise call Beckettian—the strange energy of entropy, the melding of life and death, the sense of entrapment, the intense gossip that fills the void of silence, above all the idea of waiting—had nothing to do with Beckett, who was then unknown to the vast majority of his compatriots. Those themes and devices seem to reflect, rather, the purgatorial realities of imprisonment. Two of the prisoners wrote plays actually set in jails: Seamus Byrne’s Design for a Headstone and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow. In both, the only real action is that of waiting for a death foretold. (In Behan’s play, as in Waiting for Godot, the title character never appears.)
But a third prisoner, Ó Cadhain, went much further. As if picking up on the similarity of internment to interment, he translated the prison entirely into a place of living death, a rural cemetery in which the dead live on forever beneath the ground, in a perpetual afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell but just an eternal, inescapable purgatory. The black joke is that it is a purgatory in which nothing ever gets purged. All the sins, all the slights, all the resentments of life carry on regardless. The title page of Cré na Cille says it all: “Time: For Ever; Place: The Graveyard.”
Ó Cadhain spent almost all of the war years behind bars, first in Arbour Hill prison in Dublin and then, from April 1940 to July 1944, in the internment camp at the Curragh. His political activism was rooted partly in nationalism but largely in his rage at the poverty of the Irish countryside. He was born in 1906 as the eldest survivor of thirteen children. His parents were typical natives of Connemara, the rugged area west of Galway city on Ireland’s Atlantic coast: Gaelic-speaking small farmers who eked a living from stony soil and the exposed seashore. Cré na Cille has its moments of rapture in which the defiant beauty of this landscape of rock and water are celebrated. The Trumpet of the Graveyard, a stentorian voice that from time to time breaks in through the cacophony of human chatter that forms the novel, evokes in biblical tones the wonders of life outside the graveyard:
Above the ground there is the light and lively lissom lap of air. The full tide is begotten with gusto in the pulse of the shore. The grass of the meadow is like unto that which had a vessel of fresh milk poured upon it.
A newly arrived corpse remembers a tryst: “The lights were glimmering on the headlands and on the darkling pastures on the other side of the bay.” But these evocations of the romance of the Connemara landscape serve largely to mock the poverty of the lives lived within it.
The Gaelic-speaking Atlantic fringe had long been mythologized as a place apart, the repository of a heroic, ancient, preliterate culture. After Irish independence in 1922, these so-called Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) areas were officially treasured as the living linguistic fossils from which a new Gaelic Ireland could be reconstructed. Gaelic, which was still the majority language well into the nineteenth century, had been gradually abandoned by its speakers, not least under the pressure of mass migration to English-speaking countries. In theory, places like Ó Cadhain’s native Cois Fharraige (a scattering of tiny Connemara villages) were to be the little springs from which a great national language revival would flow.
In practice, nothing actually changed for the Gaeltacht poor. The vast disjunction between rhetoric and reality might be said to be beyond satire, except that Flann O’Brien managed it superbly in his darkly hilarious pastiche of the autobiographies of Gaeltacht peasants that had become central to the revivalist movement. In The Poor Mouth, published in 1941, O’Brien has Gaelic scholars abandon the fictional town of Corkadoragha because “the putridity of the countryside was too putrid…. The poverty of the countryside was too poor…. The Gaelicism of the countryside was too Gaelic.”
The rage that animated Ó Cadhain as an activist and then as a writer came from being trapped inside this absurdity. It is a rage against the dying of a light. The poverty of the countryside from which he sprang was indeed too poor, not merely to accord with his sense of social justice, but to sustain a living linguistic community. For Irish officialdom, and for some scholars, the Gaeltacht was a kind of folkloric human zoo, a linguistic game reserve. In Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain relentlessly satirizes this whole approach. One character teaches an ambitious scholar from Dublin a word of Gaelic for every pint of porter he buys him, a rate of consumption that eventually kills the teacher. A Free French pilot, buried in the graveyard after his plane ditched in the Atlantic (such pilots who survived were interned along with Ó Cadhain in the Curragh camp), hatches a scheme for the cemetery and its garrulous inhabitants to become an ethnographic museum:
He also wants to collect every piss and piddle of folklore that he can, and save it so that every new generation of Gaelic corpses will know in what kind of republic former generations of Gaelic corpses lived…. He says it would be easy to make a Folklore Museum of the Cemetery, and that there’d be no problem getting a grant.
For Ó Cadhain, by contrast, the language could not be preserved while its native speakers struggled for survival on their small farms or, as many characters in Cré na Cille do, left them to find work in England or the United States. Gaelic for him was not an abstraction or a revivalist project. It was simply his own language: he later recalled that he never even heard a word of English spoken until he was six years old. His precocious intelligence earned him a scholarship to a teacher training college in Dublin but even as a student his social awkwardness seems to have been connected to a lack of full fluency in English.
He eventually became multilingual, with a command of English and French and a good knowledge of Welsh, Breton, and Russian, but on the rare occasions he wrote in English, his prose is notably stilted. For good and ill, he had no choice but to write in a language whose active readers of serious literature could be numbered only in the thousands. Politically, his membership of the IRA and his strident campaigns for the rights of the Gaeltacht poor left him on the margins: he had already been fired from his job as principal of a small primary school before he was interned. Linguistically, he was in an even stranger place—the greatest living user of a language whose revival was an article of faith for Irish governments but who himself despised those governments. The ambiguity is summed up in a telling incident. While Ó Cadhain was interned as a danger to the nation, the authorities brought into the prison camp a special desk and chair so he could write comfortably. Typically, he refused the offer with indignation.
Yet Ó Cadhain cannot have been unaware that he was at the end of something. Writing in Gaelic is the oldest indigenous (in the sense of non-classical) literature in Europe, stretching back to the early Christian monks who, rather audaciously, used the new tools of literacy to set down the myths and stories of their native culture. But Ó Cadhain is almost certainly the last person who will ever write major prose from entirely within that linguistic universe. While writing in Gaelic remains vigorous to this day, it is impossible to imagine anyone ever again coming to consciousness, as Ó Cadhain did, in an exclusively monoglot Gaelic world—today’s Gaelic speakers are all at least bilingual and English is everywhere, not just in spoken and written discourse but in the electronic and online worlds. When Cré na Cille was first published, even the memory of Gaelic (still colloquially known as Irish) as the majority language of Ireland was all but gone. As Barry McCrea puts it in his wonderfully illuminating new study of the relationship between minority languages and modernism, Languages of the Night:
The forties and fifties were the first decades in which Irish as a naturally spoken language seemed never to have been “general over Ireland” but to belong as a matter of innate identity to the Gaeltacht, the preserve of a handful of specific areas of the country. Outside the Gaeltacht, the last traces of its living memory had now finally faded, and the link to Irish became a notional, abstract, and even somewhat mystical thing. The language was fossilized in place-names, but alien to the people who lived there; it leaked, one might say, out of bodies and into the earth and air.
Cré na Cille is in essence a savage, uproarious, scabrous, obnoxious, and hilarious protest against precisely the notion that the language in which it is written is “a notional, abstract, and even somewhat mystical thing.” It is a smirking linguistic vampire, an apparently moribund language that declares: go ahead and kill me if you want; I’ll still come back and bite you on the neck. In Waiting for Godot, “all the dead voices” make “a noise like wings…. Like leaves…. Like sand.” In Cré na Cille, all the dead voices make a noise like nosy neighbors, like bitter sisters, like jealous husbands, like real people squabbling and scheming, grabbing and gossiping. Ó Cadhain plucks the notion of a dead language out of the air of abstraction and mysticism and places it, quite literally, back in bodies. The novel is made up, like the language itself, of dead bodies talking, always decomposing but never decomposed, reverently buried but irreverently nattering on. The dead know very well that they are dead, but so what? In the opening section the newly interred Caitriona Paudeen is surprised to find herself a human version of Schrödinger’s cat:
Christ’s cross protect me!—Am I alive or dead? Are the people here alive or dead? They are all rabbiting on the same way as they were above the ground!
In a sense, Ó Cadhain has one up on Beckett. Beckett dreamed of writing in a “dead language,” which is to say a language that continues to speak after it has lost the power to express anything. In his radio play All That Fall, Mr. Rooney tells his wife Maddy that “sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language” and she replies, “Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.” Ó Cadhain might well have agreed. That the idea of dead language, or perhaps more accurately of undead language, was not confined to the plight of poor, dear Gaelic is evident from his bleakly funny satiric novella, The Key (An Eochair), first published in 1953. A junior civil servant, a “paperkeeper,” gets locked in a windowless room where government files are stored. The mounds of paper are, nightmarishly, both dead and alive, entombed bureaucratic scribblings that come to life at night to continue their own squabbles:
Some of them, no matter how far back they were shoved into the darkest recesses, managed, somehow, to make their way back to the light. And those that were left out in the light weren’t happy unless they were in the dark. It was obvious that they held grudges and fought with each other as well. In the morning a file might be found dented, or the head of one might be butting another. There were even civil wars between files.
But Ó Cadhain’s main concern was with Gaelic, a language that for him was alive as a source of creation but also “dead” in the sense that it could no longer function as a fully public means of communication. Very few, even of his limited number of readers, could entirely enter into the nuances and intimacies of his uniquely rich Irish. When Cré na Cille was first published, even one of the leading scholars of the Gaelic language, David Greene (Ó Cadhain, shortly before his death in 1970, succeeded Greene in the chair of Irish at Trinity College Dublin), hailed it in The Irish Times as a triumph but noted that “there are few pages without at least one word unfamiliar to me. There would be nothing derogatory about supplying a glossary….”
Greene was not alone—few, even among those fluent in the language, find Cré na Cille entirely comprehensible. And this is quite deliberate: Ó Cadhain didn’t just use words current in Connemara speech, he searched out many that were forgotten or obsolete. His impulse in this was not antiquarian but decidedly modernist—words being used not just as referents but as objects in themselves.
The real wonder of Cré na Cille, though, is that it is so unheroic. Given its status as a kind of last will and testament of a 1,500-year-old tradition, it could be forgiven for lapsing into a mode of heroic defiance. The dead speakers, as holdouts of an ancient culture, must surely have something deep and soulful to impart from the grave. But on the contrary, they have little to say beyond backbiting and banality. Their worldview is utterly inward. The great questions of the war and of the Holocaust are reduced to the level of their own squabbles. At one point Caitriona Paudeen whines that “this graveyard is worse now than those places the Frenchie was yacking on about the other day: Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau.”
The petty snobbery of village society is fully reproduced in the cemetery—the inmates are segregated according to the cost of being buried in different plots and a fine marble cross is as desirable a status symbol as a new car is in the living world. Their interjections are repetitive loops of complaint: Caitriona Paudeen’s foul-tongued vituperation against her sister Nell who, she believes, stole the love of her life, Jack the Lad, and her increasing annoyance as fresh corpses gradually bring news of Nell’s good fortunes; Dotie, from the fertile plains of the east who pines incessantly for her native soil; the old schoolmaster who is embittered by Caitriona’s revelation that his young widow has taken up with the postman; an insurance salesman who still delights in the tricks of his trade; two football fans still arguing about the outcome of the 1941 championship; pro- and anti- Hitler pub orators; the victim of a stabbing still accusing his murderer; Nora, who has discovered “culture” in death; a member of a lay religious group whose offers of “spiritual succor” are generally rebuffed; a writer aggrieved that his masterpiece was rejected before his death.
Indeed, the sixty or so characters are much more easily identifiable than might be supposed in a text that simply moves from one fragment of monologue to another, like a dial being turned on a radio, precisely because each has a kind of signature tune on which he or she constantly harps. Cumulatively, these banalities create the dead-and-alive quality that Ó Cadhain is after—there is nothing to say but the verbosity through which it is expressed is astonishingly vivid.
Capturing that language in English is a formidable challenge. There could be no such thing as a neutral translation of a work so immersed in its own linguistic moment. Alan Titley’s version, indeed, is about as far from neutral as it is possible to go. Given that this is the first form in which most readers will encounter Ó Cadhain’s masterpiece, Titley is unusually insistent on imposing his own tone so heavily on it. That tone is both boldly vigorous and relentlessly vulgar. Caitriona Paudeen, the most prominent voice, is salty and sharp-tongued, but Titley always chooses to dial up her foul-mouthed rants to the highest possible volume. The pleasures and dangers of this approach are apparent if we consider his translation alongside the only previous English-language version, Joan Trodden Keefe’s unpublished Ph.D. thesis for the University of California in 1984. Here is the opening paragraph in Keefe’s relatively literal version:
I wonder is it in the Pound Plot or the Fifteen-Shilling Plot I am buried? They are gone to the devil if they dumped me in the Half-Guinea Plot, after all the cautions I gave them! The morning of the day I died I called up from the kitchen to Patrick: “My request to you, Patrick my child,” I said. “Bury me in the Pound Plot. In the Pound Plot. Some of us are buried in the Half-Guinea Plot, but even if we are….
And here is Titley’s take on the passage:
Don’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same…
It is immediately obvious that Titley’s approach is more colorful and more highly flavored but also that his favorite seasonings are strongly charged words like “fuck” and “cunt.” At every opportunity he translates ribald invective or Rabelaisian description into highly sexualized terms. Caitriona’s complaint about her sister, “I thought I would live for a couple of years more and bury the bitch before me,” becomes “I thought I’d live for another couple of years, and I’d bury her before me, the cunt.” Keefe’s “Let her have it below the belt!” becomes Titley’s “Give it to her up the arse!” “I let a spit out of me. It was as dry as bent-grass bramble” becomes “I spat out a glob. It was as stiff as a hard-on.” “Isn’t she an inquisitive brazen-face” becomes “Wasn’t she the cheeky cunt.” “Drone! Potbelly! Rattle-brain! Huckster!” becomes “The cunt! The bollocks! The knacker! The fucker!” “If you had a couple of well-set up girls in the office egging him on, maybe he would sign over the land to us. He has a great appetite for girls when he’s tipsy…” becomes “If you had a couple of hot broads in the office getting him turned on, maybe he’d sign over the land to us. He’s a whore for the young ones when he’s pissed…”
Titley’s versions are certainly direct and unfussy but the directness sometimes becomes bluntness and the unfussiness can also be a loss of verbal variety. Titley, moreover, mixes British and American slang indiscriminately (“hot broads” and “all over the bleedin’ gaff,” for example) and throws in apparently deliberate anachronisms. Caitriona, in the 1940s, uses “muppet” more than once as a term of abuse—the Muppets were created in 1954 and the abusive use of the word begins much later. These are presumably conscious dissonances but as such the effects are of Titley’s, not Ó Cadhain’s, creation.
Perhaps these idiosyncrasies point toward yet another form of afterlife, that of multiple translations. Indeed, Yale University Press will publish a second translation of Cré na Cille, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, next year. Toward the end of his life, Ó Cadhain somewhat despairingly bemoaned his fate as a writer in what he then felt was, after all, “no longer a living language.” Now it seems his greatest creation, disinterred at last, will walk the earth in many undead bodies.