Among the many soothing stories we craft around death, most of us harbor a core belief that it will, at the very least, be peaceful. Even those with no residual belief in an afterlife can find some solace in the idea of an eternal quiet nothingness. No pain, no suffering, no obnoxious neighbors or megalomaniacal bank clerks.
But what if it’s all a lie? What if, instead of peace or rest, what awaits us after death is a continuation of exactly the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest?
These are the questions at the heart of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist classic Cré na Cille. Originally published in Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) in 1949, it’s now available in English for the first time, translated by Alan Titley under the title The Dirty Dust. Often mentioned in the same breath as works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ó Cadhain’s novel is, in some ways, even more radically experimental. For starters, all the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.
We begin with Catriona Paudeen, a bitter, foul-mouthed, recently deceased local woman, frantically wondering whether her family has provided her with an appropriate funeral and buried her in the well-to-do section of the cemetery. Within a few pages, she’s absorbed into a chorus of competing voices as she realizes she’s surrounded by her old neighbors, some friends but mostly enemies, “all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they did above the ground!” The conversation mostly circles around everyday grievances — unpaid debts, unfaithful wives, contentious football games — although political disputes occasionally crop up, mostly related to the Irish Civil War and the Second World War (certain corpses are so nationalistic that they eagerly ask new arrivals whether Adolf Hitler has successfully destroyed England yet). As Titley writes in his thoughtful introduction, the novel is “a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial matters of life, which are often the same thing.”
There are similarities between The Dirty Dust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, in which three sinners are condemned to spend eternity in a small room together, acting as one another’s torturers (“hell is other people”). However, while Sartre’s play is full of heavy-handed moral and religious overtones, The Dirty Dust is remarkable for its lack of philosophy or theology. The idea of retaining consciousness while the body decomposes seems dark to the point of hellishness, but the text itself is so mundane, irreverent, and raucously funny that the grisly context slides into insignificance. One might surmise that the characters are in purgatory, but since they’re too busy arguing to reflect on their existential state, the theory lacks a foothold.
Essentially, this novel is all talk, and the historical and literary significance of the original lies in the richness of the spoken language, the warts-and-all reproduction of a dialect that, just 70 years later, has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, while Titley’s translation is sensitive and vibrant, it occasionally and inevitably feels stilted or overwrought. The narrow, uninspiring register of English curse words, for example, simply cannot capture the diversity of Irish language insults. Although Titley valiantly conjures terms like “sailor’s bicycle,” “shitehawk,” and “slut of the small spuds,” he also over-relies on shag, shit, bugger, bitch, and other less quotable English perennials. This danger — that the effusive, flowing text of the author may, at times, be reduced to generic translates — is fundamental to the translator’s work. However, as Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” “to defer action until the production of the utopian translator, is impractical.” For decades, Irish language purists (we might also call them snobs) have rejected even the possibility of translating Cré na Cille, condemning it to irrelevance outside the walls of university libraries. Titley’s effort to translate the untranslatable, with full knowledge of its inevitable imperfections, is courageous and timely.
For hundreds of years, Irish has been battling the hegemonic language next door and, despite a partial revival in the last century, it continues to decline. Connemara, the setting for The Dirty Dust, is a designated “Gaeltacht” region, where Irish remained the primary spoken language long after it fell out of everyday usage elsewhere. Despite government subsidies intended to protect their linguistic identity, a recent report suggests that within 10 years Irish will no longer be the primary language even in these small enclaves.
Sad though this decline is, The Dirty Dust dispels any misplaced nostalgia for Connemara’s over-idealized past. The humor is very dark indeed, reflecting the reality that that Irish survived in these communities partly as a result of deprivation, isolation, and lack of opportunity. Accusations of theft, fraud, alcoholism, and violence rise above the chatter, before being quickly, desperately denied; ubiquitous nationalism, racism, and misogyny almost blend into the cacophony; and when the voices reflect on what they would have done with a little more time above ground, the overwhelming focus is on settling petty scores, chasing trifling debts, and suing neighbours over imaginary infractions. By the final pages, it’s clear that long before their deaths, the characters lived in a dark, narrow, airless world, where grinding poverty and religious conservatism gave rise to bitter hatreds between secretive, jealous, spiritually stale people.
It’s no surprise, then, that the cemetery’s new arrivals report the departure of waves of young people for England and America. Since the 1840s, mass migration from the Gaeltacht areas has been central to the decline of the language. And who could blame those who left in search of opportunity and relative freedom? While we may regret the loss of the language — and resent its suppression through force and economic coercion — native speakers can’t be expected to make vast personal sacrifices for the sake of a vague notion of cultural heritage. What’s more, Ireland’s current austerity government shows no willingness to make the kind of investment that might draw younger populations back.
All of this emphasises the significance of the translated edition. By exhuming Ó Cadhain’s zany chorus of cadavers, Titley has opened this masterpiece to the wider audience it so richly deserves.
May it not rest in peace.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain is probably the most famous Irish writer you haven’t heard of, if only because he wrote all his masterworks in Irish rather than English. His best novel, Cre na Cille, has a simple and arresting premise: a town in Connemara has a graveyard in which the dead can speak. In The Guardian, Kevin Barry (who we interviewed) reads the novel for the first time.