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Máirtín Ó Cadhain: Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

This book is considered as the classic novel written in Irish. It has been made into a radio play, a stage play and a film (which I can highly recommend – it has English sub-titles.) Ó Cadhain apparently was not keen on having it translated into English. However, it was first translated into English in 1984 by Professor Joan Keefe of University of California, Berkeley as her Ph.D. thesis but never published. It now appears in English sixty-six year after its first publication in Irish. It is a most interesting work in many ways. Firstly, all the characters in the book are dead. Secondly, the Irish used is very colourful, both by being rich in colloquial expressions as well as by using the rich array of swear words Irish has. I suspect their translation, with the standard English obscenities, is less colourful though just as blunt. Keefe translated the title literary – Churchyard Clay. Alan Titley, in this version, admits in his introduction, that he struggled with the title and lists a whole host of possibilities that he considered but chose Dirty Dust, so as to conform with Ó Cadhain’s alliteration. Personally, I prefer Churchyard Clay, which, alliteration apart, conforms more with Ó Cadhain’s intent. Though he makes it clear that he is not going to anglicise Ó Cadhain’s name, he does anglicise the names of the characters. The main character, for example, is Caitríona Phaidín in the original but Caitriona Paudeen in this translation, while her friend Muraed Phroinsias become Maggie Francis. Bríd Thoirdhealbhaigh gets reduced to Breed Terry. Some of the names are translated into English, which makes some sense but means that they lose their Irish resonance.

As I mentioned all the characters are dead. The action takes place in an Irish country graveyard, actually inside the grave, where the dead arrive and seem to more or less carry on the way they did, when they were living, in the sense that they talk and gossip and bad-mouth all and sundry. At the start of the novel Caitriona Paudeen has just died and entered the grave. Caitriona has a bad word for virtually everyone but there are two people in her life she has had a particularly dislike for, her younger sister, Nell, and her daughter-in-law, called only Nora Johnny’s daughter. Her mother, Nora Johnny, is in the grave, having predeceased Caitriona.

Caitriona’s dislike of Nell seems to be long-standing (Caitriona was seventy-one when she died) but primarily dates from when Jack the Lad preferred Nell to Caitriona. Caitriona had her heart set on Jack and was bitterly disappointed when he chose Nell. She has taken some satisfaction in the fact that Jack was a poor provider and Nell and Jack did not live well. Indeed, Caitriona, so she claims, helped to look after their son, Peter. Another source of contention is their elder sister, Baba. Baba moved to the United States and never married. However, she did work for a rich lady and, apparently, when this lady died, she left her money to Baba who is therefore now rich. When Baba came back to visit Ireland, she initially stayed with Caitriona but then move out and stayed with Nell, when Patrick did not marry the woman she wanted him to marry, and left from Nell’s house. The two sisters have been waiting for their sister to die, in the hope that she, rather than her sister, will inherit. Caitriona is now very bitter that Nell will now inherit.

Caitriona did marry but we know little about him. They had one son, Patrick, (though three daughters died) and Caitriona had high hopes for him and so she was very disappointed when he married Nora Johnny’s daughter, as was her sister The couple and their young daughter, Maureen, have been living with Caitriona. She feels that she came from a poor family and has slovenly ways. She is now even more bitter, as she feels that it is her fault that she, Caitriona, is only buried in the fifteen shilling grave and not in the one pound one. Indeed, during the course of the book, she will learn what has not happened at her funeral and on her grave site, for example, the promised marble cross or, indeed, any cross, has not materialised. She is also concerned about the land owned by Fireside Tom, a first cousin once removed, which she hoped to get her hands on before Nell.

While the focus is certainly on Caitriona, there is a whole host of characters residing in this grave. We hear many of their stories as well. Often their issues are trivial. Kitty, for example, is determined that she is owed a pound by Caitriona (who denies it) and makes something of an issue out of it. Indeed, many of the issues seem trivial. Several people feel that Peter the Publican had cheated them, overcharging them for drinks. They were afraid to raise the matter then but are not afraid to mention it now. Nor are they afraid to now mention the fact that the postmistress made a habit of opening people’s letters and, allegedly, not sending or delivering of ones she did not approve of. There is even an (illiterate) storyteller whose stories start but do not always finish and are often off colour. There is also a Frenchman, who speaks French (though he is trying to learn Irish – he stumbles somewhat over their slang) and keeps mentioning Winston Churchill’s promise to liberate France. Local gossip is to the fore but they also talk about politics (there are one or two who favour Hitler, presumably because of their hatred of the English), sport, agriculture and going to England. They eagerly seek news from new arrivals, with Caitriona, in particular, hoping for bad news for her sister and daughter-in-law. When Jack the Lad dies and arrives, she is particularly gratified.. However, oneupmanship is the game they mainly play, how their funeral was better than the next person’s or how their child has gone on to do better than their neighbour’s.

The book works very well because Ó Cadhain is a superb storyteller. The novel consists entirely of dialogue and we have to follow a series of different conversations and remarks, though it is generally not too difficult to get an idea of who is talking. This is definitely one of those books that you wish that you could read in the original, as I have no doubt that the Irish is rich and colourful, something that must be very difficult to convey in translation. It is not just a good story but a very bitchy satire, mocking the rural Irish and all their foibles. From Swift via Synge and Flann O’Brien, satire has played a key part in Irish literature and this book is certainly a worthwhile addition to the tradition.

Publishing history

First published in 1949 by Sáirséal agus Dill
First English translation by Yale University Press in 2015