Eoin Ó Murchú reviews Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, translated from the Irish as The Dirty Dust by Alan Titley, Yale University Press 2015
Cré na Cille is regarded as the greatest modern prose work written in the Irish language. Its depiction of the reality and context of peasant life is often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, and has had an equal impact on those who speak or read Irish.
The action – or rather dialogue – takes place in the graveyard as the dead speak to each other, remembering only the events before their deaths but continuing the squabbles and differences that were their mark when alive. Over all there lurks the voice of authority, an authority that is rightly comparable to that of the Catholic Church over rural Ireland.
Ó Cadhain was a revolutionary Republican, a senior member of the IRA who was imprisoned during the Second World War, writing this book in the internment camp. A native of the Irish-speaking district of Conamara in the West of Ireland (one of the Irish districts known as the Gaeltacht), he saw the degradation of the community who lived there and recognised that as that community dies so did its language and culture. As he later wrote, the Irish language revival is the revival of the people who speak the language.
He was strongly influenced by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, and many of his short stories have a strong socialist realist character. Chief among these is An Bóthar go dtí an Ghealchathair (translated, along with other short stories, as Road to Brightcity in the collection of that name by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Poolbeg 1981). This story, while depicting the harshness of life for a peasant woman, shows that huge resilience of spirit of the poor striving for a better world, if not for themselves, then for their children at least.
But it would be wrong to see Cré na Cille in exactly the same light. Cré na Cille is not a social criticism that gives us a manifesto for resistance. Rather it is a description of a society that immerses itself in the trivia of its existence. It is an accurate depiction of the state of Gaeltacht society at this time, if society is the right word in any case: a society that was dying as its people emigrated, leaving behind grinding poverty and backwardness.
For this people, authority is something external. A central part of the book is the parody of the church’s teaching of eternity, and the need for total obedience to that authority comes across immediately as something ridiculous but real at the same time. These declarations of authority and the revelations of what we might call the dialectics of nature so presented mark off the ten interludes of the book.
These interlude beginnings recast eternity as a process of ripening and decay, of birth and real death, which have to be set against the Church’s teaching of eternity as a progress ever upwards (except for the damned) to the paradise of being with god after death. Here, death is a natural end of a natural cycle. Meanwhile, in the graveyard the real dead continue their trivial squabbles – squabbles which depict the reality of the way people in that community – the Conamara Gaeltacht – interacted: alienated from the outside world, and unable to be part of it. And the fact that eternal life is shown as a carrying-on of the aimlessness of then existing life (where the only future was in emigration, in exile) is in contrast to the Church’s promise of being happy with God in the next world.
The world Ó Cadhain describes is really an unacceptable world.
Cré na Cille is rightly compared to Joyce’s Ulysses. This is the great work of English-language fiction in Ireland, because it depicts the real nature of Irish and Dublin lower middle class life. Its final message though is that of silence, exile and cunning.
Cré na Cille depicts the reality of Irish-speaking peasant life – its ineffectiveness and irrelevance, but its final message is that the promises of authority are false. “Ní de ghlaschloich an Oileáin do chrois-sa ná mo chrois-sa”. (Neither your cross nor mine are made from Conamara marble).
Cré na Cille has also to be understood in the context of an idealised depiction of the Gaeltacht as one peopled by comely maidens and rosy-cheeked children, which was a creation of the middle class Irish-language revival movement. This movement was an important part of the national revival which brought about the War of Independence and the truncated, neo-colonially subservient semi-independence which ultimately emerged. It emerged in this way of course because the class forces who wanted no change in the existing system of social relations but wanted to claim their share of the spoils managed to take leadership of the national struggle – and recast an analysis that suited their class aims.
Ó Cadhain shared the view of James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist leader in the 1916 Rising, who declared that the Irish working class – unsullied by property interests – were the only incorruptible inheritors of the fight for Irish freedom. Ó Cadhain saw his own people, the impoverished agricultural labourers of the West as being of that class, but without the organisation that capitalism imposed in the cities.
The idealised version of what Irish society before the Conquest had been and could again be was essentially created by middle class city intellectuals. It was a version that was far removed from the reality of the lives of Gaeltacht people and with which they could not identify at all, and had at its core the idea that if the British went we would seamlessly fall back into a glorious world of harmony and plenty that supposedly had existed in the past.
But real then-existing Irish Ireland was not an ideal. It was the remnant of a defeated world, and the reality of people’s lives was far from the idealised version put out.
In this, Cré na Cille is at one with Flann O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht, published in 1941, eight years before Cré na Cille. Ó Cadhain, of course, wrote it during his incarceration in the Curragh camp during the war.
O’Brien’s is a parody of unrelenting misery. The Gaeltacht is called Corca Dorcha (the dark land), and where some writers glorified the Gaeltacht, O’Brien took the opposite course. Or again Séosamh MacGrianna’s An Druma Mór, which brings up the real divisions in Irish-speaking society – not a parody but an unwelcome look at a real world.
Ó Cadhain instead rooted his parody in the Conamara Gaeltacht that actually existed, and that he knew. His aim was to show that this was not the ideal world for which we should be striving, and reflected his campaigns for economic development, (including his campaign for relocation of the Gaeltacht community to richer land in the east, in Meath, where a people with an assured economic future could really revitalise their language and their culture).
These ideas had first been put forward by the Republican Congress in the 1930s, as they fought for the national question to be understood as essentially a social question for a change of class rule: a struggle for recasting the Gaeltacht and rebuilding it anew throughout Ireland. And all through Cré na Cille, the voice of authority was the voice that ignored all the protestations of the people. It was a voice that had to be listened to, that had to be obeyed. This Catholic voice did not want change – it wanted obedience.
Translation is always difficult, and Titley has done a good job on the conversations. But I don’t think his title or major references explain properly what is involved. Cré na Cille literally means Churchyard Clay – a title which references the religious context for all the non-religious chatter of the dead.
Again, the great clarion cry “Is mise Stoc na Cille. Éistear lemo ghlór! Caithfear éisteacht …” is rendered as “I am the Trumpet of the Graveyard. Hearken unto my voice. You must hearken to what I have to say”.
First of all, the word Stoc. The famous Irish lexicographer, Patrick Dinneen, as was his wont, gives several possible meanings for this in English: the root or trunk of a tree; a trumpet; livestock; seed or race; a war trumpet; or a true breed bloodline. For me, and I think for Conamara people, Stoc here means “I am the Root-stock of the Church. Listen to my voice! You must listen ...”
Such a translation captures better, I think, the brooding authority that ruled the lives of the people, and left them trivialised and marginal – an authority before which they trembled but which they were not part of.
Cré na Cille proclaims no salvation. But the people who had it read out to them in Conamara pubs recognised the characters, the context and nodded their heads to the need for something different. And for those outside, who struggled to undo the English Conquest, and to regain the essence of Irish nationality through the language revival and other political projects, Cré na Cille was a cruel reminder that salvation did not lie in a narrow-minded past.
“Tá ceisniú agus ceasacht dhá dtabhairt ar aoibheall agus ar aeríl. Tá laige ag cur droim díbeartha ar an neart. Tá éadóchas ag sárú an ghrá.”
“Questions and querulousness nibble at joy and the carefree spirit. Weakness is beginning to banish strength. Despair is overwhelming love.”
I would translate this differently, more literally: “Questioning and complaining are taking on joyful play and happiness. Weakness is evicting strength. Despair is defeating love.”
Cré na Cille is not a manifesto for change, but a bald statement of what is unacceptable. That is its power; that is its appeal. But throughout it is a comedy, because the foibles of real people and their interactions are amusing. Black humour if you like, but very funny nevertheless.