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If the dead could talk, what would they say? The Dirty Dust gives voice to the buried

Alan Titley's translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille brings us a novel entirely in dialogue - and set in a graveyard.

The Dirty Dust/Cré na Cille
Máirtín Ó Cadhain; translated by Alan Titley
Yale University Press, 328pp, £16.99

The Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth once remarked that the novelist should decode truth through men’s “half-finished sentences”. This indicates something about the Irish novel in English, which used inaccurately to be seen as a rougher, more farouche, less “finished” development than contemporary English fiction. Only recently have the sophisticated, experimental and genre-busting traditions of Irish novels, from Edgeworth to John Banville, been given their due. The Irish novel in Irish has received less attention but this may change now that we have Alan Titley’s funny and inventive translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, an Irish-language novel first published in 1949. A more decorous translation of the title than The Dirty Dust would be “Churchyard Clay” but this version vindicates its chosen name by getting down and dirty with a vengeance.

Ó Cadhain, who died aged only 64 in 1970, was born in an Irish-speaking community in the country’s west, became a teacher and a republican activist and was interned by the Irish government during the Second World War. Already publishing stories, he claimed that it was this experience that made him a writer and the camp may have inspired the world depicted in Cré na Cille. He subsequently became an academic and ended his life as a professor of Irish at Trinity College, Dublin.

Obeying Edgeworth’s dictum, The Dirty Dust is written entirely in dialogue, much of it half-finished and most of it scabrously and brutally funny. Everyone in the novel is dead, crammed into one or another plot in a Connemara graveyard, usually to their dissatisfaction. But they talk all the time. Competitive malevolence and pure rage characterise most of the exchanges, especially those contributed by the recently buried Caitriona Paudeen, whose furious denunciations of her enemies, family and friends punctuate the conversations, inevitably ending in an incoherent splutter (“I’ll burst! I’m going to burst!”).

Certain themes wind through the exchanges: Caitriona’s vexed relations with her quondam suitor Blotchy Brian, her hatred of her sister, Nell, her expectations of an inheritance from America. There is also the saga of the schoolteacher (“the Master”) and his wife’s carry-on with the postman after his death; and the obsessions, jealousies and ambitions of a small community are cross-hatched through the hilariously scatological, angry and rebarbative conversations. The theft of a pile of seaweed or a mallet is raked over ad infinitum, as well as the circumstances of individual deaths and their inadequate commemoration by posterity (coffin envy features large).

But the wider world also breaks in. It is wartime and one of the dead is a bemused French airman who was shot down and buried locally. His plaintive inquiries in French interpose from time to time, often eliciting dismissive jeers. Hitler’s prospects of coming to England are bruited about optimistically (one character is tattooed with swastikas), counterpointing the pilot’s forlorn interjections about Monsieur Churchill’s promise to liberate France.

But immediate Irish concerns (Éamon de Valera’s career, quarrels over the treaty) impinge, too; and the reality of emigration is a constant theme, reflected in violent insults traded about each other’s children marrying Italians, Jews and blacks “in England”. Ó Cadhain, perhaps showing his colours as a contrarian academic, also allows himself a number of running jokes about Irish revival pieties and clichés: the Frenchman attempts to involve his neighbours in “a colloquium on les études celtiques”, which predictably degenerates into hilarious incoherence and vicious name-calling.

Characters wonder from time to time if the current international hostilities are “the War of the Two Foreigners” prophesied in Irish legend and cultural pretensions are frequently aired by Caitriona’s bête noire Nora Johnny (“Toejam Nora” from “Gort Ribbuck of the Puddles where they milk the ducks”). There are also running jokes about the government’s Irish-language publishing strategies; it is a fair bet that the pious civil servants of de Valera’s Ireland would have gagged at the world depicted in The Dirty Dust.

Creative insults apart, what actually happens in the novel is not very much. An occasional new arrival is interrogated, news is obsessively seized upon, old scores are paid off. After death, apparently, people behave no better than when they were alive; they also remain just as anxious for gossip, just as governed by the narcissism of small differences and just as ready to slag each other off. Ó Cadhain’s technique involves fracture, dissonance, implication, hearsay, delivered entirely through dialogues in which it is up to the reader to work out who is speaking. The effect resembles a scrambled radio programme.

This is an easier read than it may sound, partly because of the inventiveness of the language. The baroque accumulations of adjectives characteristic of Irish-language tropes are delivered with brio, along with fabulously imaginative flights of simile and metaphor and skeweringly inventive nicknames.

The translation, like all of the best translations, amounts to a work of collaboration rather than simple channelling. Besides homely epithets such as “poxy shitmonkey”, Titley has also used Americanisms (“goofball”, “asshole”, “totally off the wall”), which may seem surprising. Yet, given the importance of the US to any Connemara community, they appear appropriate. Modern demotic is employed, too (“You headbanger!”), and the imprecation “holy fuckaroni” has a certain rollicking aptness. Pretentious flights of fancy are introduced, notably from the traditional storyteller Coley, but even when St Columcille materialises in a tale, he is notably foul-mouthed. There is no space for decorum in this crowded graveyard.

The Dirty Dust anatomises a small community but in a manner very different from the English tradition of George Eliot, much less that of Barbara Pym. The tone owes a good deal to the ludic and satiric traditions of Gaelic literature and their Anglophone echoes in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent or even Somerville and Ross; above all the cacophony of voices (and a rich vein of etymological and linguistic jokes) nods to James Joyce, while the merciless critique of sentimental idealisations of “the west” echoes Flann O’Brien’s nearly contemporary An Béal Bocht/The Poor Mouth. But The Dirty Dust is to be savoured on its own terms, as an extraordinary one-off. After the voices fade out at the end, arguing about whether “my cross or your cross is made of Connemara marble”, the characters have become embedded in one’s mind – so much so that the reader is impelled to turn at once back to the first page and listen to them all over again.

Roy Foster’s most recent book is “Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.