Hell is Other Irish People
The Dirty Dust, Mártin Ó Cadhain translated by Alan Titley. Yale University Press. 2015. 328pp.. 16.99 (hardcover
- rick Kavanagh in The Great Hunger, parodying the Irish revival’s cult of rural life. The cast in The Dirty Dust of the twentieth century was preoccupied with the very stuff of the land, who owned it and what it meant, Mártín Ó’Cadhain takes this urge to its ultimate conclusion, thrusting his characters deep down into the soil, where they continue their existence much as they did up above: gossiping, backbiting, mocking, joking and arguing (above all arguing). Hell is other peo for the gate to this particular underworld.
Bringing up the don of French existentialism in a review of a book originally published in the Irish language might seem odd, but as many commentators have pointed out, this is a resolutely modern, perhaps even postmodern, novel. Written almost completely in dialogue, the book constantly alternates between voices, dipping in and out of a multitude of conversa Inferno set in book has a logic of its own, which is easily picked up, so that one soon recognises the characters through trademark obsessions and turns of phrase. Like Flann O’Brien then, Ó’Cadhain must be seen in the tradition of Joyce other echt Gaels that O’Brien sent up so gleefully in An Béal Bocht.
In this sense Ó’Cadhain’s strange and marvellous novel belongs alongside a raft of other European novels that have relatively recently emerged from
outside the boundaries, linguistic and otherwise, normally associated with European modernism. I am thinking here of Witold Gombriwicz or Bruno that modernism had set rolling and ran with it in their own languages, often portraying small town or provincial scenes, but doing so with a kind of feverish, macabre, sometimes obscene brio. Far from being an anachronism more directly than does the rural realism of his contemporaries like Seán Ó’Faoláin or Frank O’Connor.
Irish politics and society in the twentieth century, conditions that sometimes echo those endured by the writers mentioned earlier on the other side of Europe, though the situation there was many magnitudes more complex minority in a fragile newly-independent polity overshadowed by a dominant neighbour. Heavily involved in underground and dissident politics, he soon sacked from his job as a schoolteacher and then later, in 1939, was imprisoned for the duration of WWII. It was while in prison that he really started writing, and it was in the period immediately after the war that he wrote Cré na Cille.
The short distance between interment and internment is not only orthographic. Reading the novel, with its cacophony of voices contending in the dark, it is hard not to imagine what it was like after lights-out in the ramshackle conditions he endured. Death is a kind of prison, the book implies, and Ireland itself a vast internment camp populated by the living dead. And yet having said this there is a strongly utopian element to the novel. Despite the often cantankerous, combative tone of the exchanges, it is always a community on which we are eavesdropping, not simply a collection of individuals. As the translator Alan Titley points out in his excel phrases begun by someone else, or throwing out fragmentary lines from -
ton. It is in language above all that Ó’Cadhain sees the collective energies of his spectral population expressed. Titley contrasts the ribald vitality of Ó’Cadhain’s original text with what he sees as the parlous current state of the English language, whether spoken in Ireland or the UK. And yet part of the charm of his wonderful translation is the way he is not afraid to raid fact that the characters of The Dirty Dust are able to constantly refer to each other as muppets or cheapskate dickheads suggests that the popular, vernacular passions into which Ó’Cadhain tapped are present in our own language still.