Finding a Lost Ireland

The Key/An Eochair

by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Louis de Paor and Lochlainn Ó Tuairisg
Dalkey Archive, 109 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Connemara, Ireland, 1972; photograph by Thomas Hoepker
Magnum Photos
Connemara, Ireland, 1972; photograph by Thomas Hoepker

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.