The clinical term used to be hysterical dependency. Small Irish towns circle around the same old obsessions and gripes and perceived slights for months and years and decades unending, and it is these that unite us, and the sheer depth of the bitterness that sustains us: our neurotic systems are powered to near-bionic levels of happy outrage on the engines of our talk, our bitching and our gossip. Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s splendidly batty 1949 novel Cré na Cille, translated here by Alan Titley as The Dirty Dust, and from Irish into English for the first time, amounts essentially to 305 pages of such bitching, and in small doses it makes for evil fun.
In the whispering covens of Irish‑language scholarship, the novel has long been spoken of as a comic masterpiece. I would not until now have been able to dispense judgment, having the near-complete ignorance of the language that only 13 years’ daily instruction in the Irish schools system can engender. But thanks to Mr Titley’s labours and Yale University Press, here goes.
One is immediately taken with the sweet simplicity of the novel’s setup: the dead can talk, and they continue to do so, with cacophonous energy, beneath the clay of a graveyard in a townland somewhere in Connemara. The life of the townland thus persists even after death has waggled its bewitching fingers. The freshly buried Caitriona Paudeen is as close to a central character as the novel provides, and she’s a ferocious old weapon. Immediately, in the book’s first lines, she castigates the living for their cheapskatedness: “Don’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the 15 Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them.”
The novel is rendered almost entirely in dialogue: there are great skittering reams of the stuff as old feuds are rekindled, old enmities rejoined. The dead are eager for news of the living, and Caitriona voluminously provides it, sparking further storms of insult and dispute. Slivers of stories from the townland emerge, and sometimes they cohere into fuller narratives, but more often they disappear into the ether. As a writer, Ó Cadhain has the attention span of a gnat, and curiously this lends the book a fragmented and contemporary feel.
It’s useful to note that this novel was written in the mid-to-late 1940s, when Flann O’Brien, Ireland’s late-modernist godhead and the arch upsetter of our sacred literature, was writing daily in the Irish Times, and often in Irish, as Myles na gCopaleen, spraying his manic invention all over the innocent newsprint. It’s important to remember how pervasive O’Brien’s influence was at this time – he essentially defined for a couple of decades the humour of the Irish cognoscenti, and I think the shadow of his porter-spattered overcoat falls on every page of The Dirty Dust.
This is most evident in the novel’s brief “Interludes”. These are short lengths of prose used (mercifully, it feels at times) to break up the dialogue, and they are inked as a poetical pastiche, with Ó Cadhain lampooning the fine writing typically employed when the Swoonful Scribe is exposed to the noble Irish west and excited into a dazzle-burst of award-winning prose: “A tubercular tinge has crept into the crepuscular sky. Milk is indurating in the udders of the cow while she seeks shelter in the inglenook of the ditch. The voice of the young swain who tends the sheep on the hills is suffused with a sadness which cannot be silenced.”
And so forth. But it’s the insane babble of the dead that holds the true poetry, and Ó Cadhain’s great accomplishment, it seems to me, was to achieve a perfect synthesis of style and subject. It’s a lesson still being absorbed that small Irish towns are utterly unsuited to the conventions of literary realism, and in opting instead for this anarchic symphony – the book is a kind of wind machine blowing out gales of yammer and yap – he evolved a narrative structure capable of snagging the native genius of such places, which exists in their talk, in all the sweetly mouthed barbs and in the sour banter, and in the dark recesses of the Irish pause, too, that place of silent taunt and silent tussle. The conversation here is almost never about what’s being said.
Titley’s introduction provides context superbly and is notably feisty. He rages against the stage-Irishness of many translations that “make Irish speakers sound like peasants and idiots and simpletons”. He sounds instead a very fresh note – the talk in The Dirty Dust sounds like the talk of an Irish town now, and it is gloriously profane. Terms like “bonking”, “fuck me pink”, “scum bucket”, “slag bag”, “piss flaps” and “cunty gash” may not quite have been on the lips of Irish-speakers in Connemara in the 1940s but Titley’s rendition feels right, and that’s the best you can say of any translation.
So if you do find yourself some lost midnight in a graveyard in the west of Ireland, under a browsing moon, and if you think that beneath the breath of the wind you perceive voices, I believe they will sound very much like the voices in this book.