Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s magnificent novel, Cré na cille, was published in 1949 and is consistently ranked as the most important prose work in modern Irish; until recently no translation for English-language readers has been available. Alan Titley’s vigorous new translation, Dirty Dust (Yale University Press), full of the guts of Ó Cadhain’s original, at last brings the pleasures of this great satiric novel to wider audience it deserves.
The fact that all the novel’s characters lie dead in their graves does not impair their appetite for news from the recently deceased, about their neighbours above ground. Told entirely in dialogue, Ó Cadhain’s daring novel listens in on the gossip, rumours, backbiting, complaining, and obsessing of the local community. The ‘after’ life, it seems, is very like the ‘before’ life – mostly talk, much of it petty, often vindictive. In this merciless yet comical portrayal of a closely-bound community, Ó Cadhain remains keenly attuned to the absurdity of human behaviour and delivers a stridently unromantic view of rural Ireland.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970) worked as a primary school-teacher in his native Galway; he was dismissed from his post, and interned, for his republican activities. He was not the first writer to find his period of incarceration key to his creative work. While in the Curragh camp Ó Cadhain learned Russian and French and read widely in world literature. His republicanism was informed by his awareness of the need to improve the lot of the rural poor, and of the parlous condition of the Irish language. In 1969 he was appointed to the chair of Irish in TCD, and was elected to fellowship of TCD in 1970. As a lecturer he exercised a profound influence on many of his students. He married, in 1945, Máirín Ní Rodaigh who was a teacher in an all-Irish school, and they lived in Dublin. An extensive literary archive was presented by the Ó Cadhain family to Trinity College Library. (Dictionary of Irish Biography).
While no doubt nothing can replace the experience of reading Cré na cille in its original Irish, there is another way for the interested party to experience this excoriating work. Robert Quinn’s film version, which was made to mark the centenary of the author’s birth, was screened on TG4 on 26 December 2006. It is well worth seeking out.