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.

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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 appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?