“Wake Up, I Tell You”: The Vibrant Afterlife of Irish Writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain
By Mark HarmanMay 27, 2016
How to describe this corrosively satirical and darkly comic book? A tour de force of a gabfest.
It takes place entirely in a cemetery in the West of Ireland, six feet under, during World War II — “the Emergency,” as the period was euphemistically known in supposedly neutral Ireland. How inventively these Gaelic corpses curse! Filled to the boiling point with bilious resentments stored up during hardscrabble lives in a village in an Irish-speaking Gaeltacht, the loquacious stiffs stew and spew about status symbols such as the number of priests who officiated at their funeral masses and the quality of the stone crosses standing above them. They offer satirical comments along the way about hackneyed writing and conflicting opinions about the war, with occasional contributions from a downed French aviator, who vents his existentialism-tinged ennui.
While the novel has been likened to a radio play, it lacks the usual tags identifying individual speakers. But fear not: Although Ó Cadhain lets us figure out certain things for ourselves in good modernist fashion, he makes each of the characters speak so distinctively that they are easy enough to identify. Although the subterranean narrative conceit does not allow for much action, the corpses are remarkably full of life, always “about to explode” — to use a phrase frequently on the lips of Catríona Phaídín, his unforgettable main character, who in her unquenchable curiosity waylays each newly arrived corpse for the latest news from the “old country.”
What in lesser hands could be a recipe for morbid stagnation Ó Cadhain transforms into a full-throated postmortem celebration of the power of language. Indeed, the novel can be seen as a never-ending wake, a rejoicing and bewailing over the life and possible death of a resourceful culture long rumored to be in terminal decline. Moreover, the combination of dark humor and claustrophobic intensity in Cré na Cille, which won the Oireachtas literary prize in 1947 and was soon hailed as a modern classic, is rather Beckett-like. It is worth noting, though, that Ó Cadhain’s depiction of limbo-like existences, stalled between life and death, antedates Beckett’s excavation of comparable terrain in his novel trilogy, beginning with Molloy (1951). Like Beckett, Ó Cadhain is fond of gallows humor. For instance, when one of his corpses insists that the ongoing conflict on the Continent must be World War I, another responds tartly: “Wake up, I tell you. Aren’t you nearly thirty years dead?”
Born in Connemara just outside Spiddal (An Spidéal) in 1906, Ó Cadhain was saved by his literary and scholarly promise from the otherwise inevitable fate of the emigrant’s boat to America. After qualifying as a teacher in Dublin, he taught at various schools in Connemara before membership in the IRA led to his being fired from his teaching post in 1936. By his own account, he joined the proscribed IRA “to fight for the emancipation of my own people, the rural poor.” Although for a time the commander of the IRA in Galway and, later, Dublin, he broke with the organization over a bombing campaign in Britain during the late ’30s. His internment as a political prisoner during World War II in the Curragh Camp, which he dubbed “Ireland’s Siberia,” spurred his growth as a writer, allowing him to read widely in European literature and to write short stories, which were considerably more innovative than his somewhat conventional previous work. Barred from teaching, he was obliged to eke out a living with a variety of menial jobs before becoming a translator of parliamentary documents into Irish, then a lecturer, and, finally, in 1969, a year before his death, professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. A lifelong political activist, he spearheaded organizations dedicated to safeguarding language rights and improving the lot of the impoverished Gaeltacht. Partly as a result, his literary output was sporadic, with one fallow period lasting from 1953 to 1967. In addition to Cré na Cille, the work published during his lifetime included five collections of short stories; a sixth collection as well as two novels appeared posthumously.
While Ó Cadhain’s enforced isolation in the Curragh internment camp may have contributed something to the cramped netherworld of Cré na Cille, the novel also owes a great deal to the Connemara version of “caint na ndaoine” (speech of the people): “The best literary device I got from my people was their talk, earthy, clayey, polished speech.” He also traced a germ of the novel to an incident after his release from the prison camp when he had to help dig the grave of a Connemara woman:
We dug up two graves but didn’t find the right coffins. The map of the graves was sent for but it was like a child doing sums in the ashes on the hearth. It was late in the day and the funeral would soon be upon us. We said we’d dig one more grave and that would be it. On our way home one of my neighbours said: “Do you know where we sneaked her in eventually,” he said, “down of top of a person whom I will call Micil Rua.” “Oho!,” said another, “there will be some grammar there alright!”
By the English word “grammar” the villager evidently meant a heated discussion, perhaps like the ones we get to overhear in Cré na Cille.
Ó Cadhain’s creative work is not so politically charged as his impassioned social engagement might lead one to expect. However, his dystopian depiction of rural existence in Cré na Cille can be seen as a barbed rejoinder to the vision of a pastoral paradise propagated by leading figures in post-independence Ireland such as the wily politician Éamon de Valera, whose American citizenship spared him from a British firing squad after the Easter Rising of 1916. In a famous speech on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, “Dev” spoke of “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens.” More mercilessly than Flann O’ Brien in his 1941 satire, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), Ó Cadhain pokes fun at such rhapsodies of rural bliss.
Like many writers in bilingual or multilingual countries, Ó Cadhain had to make a decision as to which language to use:
I had a choice at some point. But I feel a satisfaction in handling my native language, the speech handled by generations of my ancestors. I feel I can add something to that speech, make it a little better than it was when I got it. In dealing with Irish I feel I am as old as New Grange, the old Hag of Beare, the great Elk.
Here one can hear Ó Cadhain’s pride in what is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe, its manuscript tradition dating back to the 6th century. At the same time, he was quite aware of the psychological and artistic cost of persisting with Irish, which he described as follows in a wide-ranging essay written the year before he died: “It is hard for a writer to do his best in a language which seems set to die before he does, if he lives a few years longer. This despair ignites a fierce desire to fight for its survival; but neither despair nor fighting are to his advantage as a writer.”
The beginnings of the slow decline of Irish can be traced back as far as the defeat of Gaelic forces at the Battle of Kinsale (1601) and the subsequent “Flight of the Earls,” when leading chieftains set sail for the Continent. After that partial downfall of the Gaelic order many of the fiercely proud poets, who as the bearers of traditional learning had long enjoyed high status, lost their aristocratic patrons and were at times reduced to making ends meet through manual labor. Gaelic culture was, however, remarkably resilient, and bursts of political resurgence and literary creativity periodically interrupted this story of decline.
The number of Irish speakers decreased dramatically after the Great Famine of the 1840s when the language became associated with backwardness, poverty, and despair. Whereas there were still four million speakers of Irish on the eve of the famine in 1841, by 1891 the figure had fallen to 680,000. In the “national schools,” introduced by the British in 1831, Irish was proscribed, both as medium of instruction and subject of study. Accelerating the decline was the fact that large numbers of Irish-speaking parents — believing that the language would hold back their children, who would mostly have to emigrate to America, Britain, or Australia — ceased speaking to them in Irish. In cases where they themselves had no English, they barely spoke to their children at all, leading to what is known as “the great silence.” That evocative phrase alludes not only to the silence within families and to the decline of Irish, but also to a breakdown in the transmission of the country’s exceptionally rich oral lore.
Máirtín Ó’Cadhain would probably not be entirely surprised that the long-delayed first English versions of his chef d’oeuvre were preceded by translations into Danish, Norwegian, and forthcoming in 2017, Czech. Keenly aware of his linguistic and cultural marginality, he had an affinity for Continental artistic innovators: “We are a kind of ghetto, perhaps. Both Kafka and Heine were from the ghetto, to mention only two writers whose work I know.” Though he was primarily speaking in those lines in a 1969 essay about the breakdown of Joyce’s still fairly unitary Dublin into various “ghettos,” he was also acutely conscious of the ghettoization of the Gaeltacht.
As if to make up for the long delay in resuscitating the greatest modern Irish-language novel, Yale University Press, in cooperation with the Connemara publisher Cló Iar-Chonnacht, has issued not one but two English versions of Cré na Cille: The Dirty Dust (2015), translated by Alan Titley, and The Graveyard Clay (2016), by Connemara native and broadcaster Liam Mac Con Iomaire and English-born cartographer Tim Robinson, author of Stones of Aran. On the flyleaf of Graveyard Clay, the publisher states that the publication of the two translations is “intended to stir debate.” Readers interested in the lengthy struggle to get this novel into English may wish to read a detailed (yet by no means exhaustive!) account of this publishing saga in William Brennan’s recent piece in The New Yorker.
While there is nothing unprecedented about the near simultaneous appearance of two translations of the same novel, the fact that the translators of Cré na Cille take radically different approaches to this fascinatingly multifaceted novel justifies the publishers’ decision to bring out both versions. While Titley, emeritus professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork and an imaginative and versatile Irish-language writer in his own right, can technically claim to have authored the first-ever English version, there is at least one complete prior translation, Joan Keefe’s hitherto unpublished Berkeley PhD dissertation (1984).
The appearance of two very different translations of this modern classic, 65 years after its original publication, raises a number of questions beyond the practical one as to which is preferable. What kind of English do the translators use to recreate the virtuoso language of the original? To what extent do they capture the literary qualities of the mold-breaking Cré na Cille, e.g. its novel take on Ó Cadhain’s Connemara Irish, its rejection of conventional narrative form, and, last but not least, its often scathing humor?
In his introduction, Titley claims that he wishes to convey the “tone, and feel, and echo” of Ó Cadhain’s prose, with the significant qualification that he strives to do so without “seeming too bizarre.” He also concedes that he has taken liberties, though “not too many.” Robinson writes that the “first commandment” of Mac Con Iomaire and himself — whom I shall henceforth call M & R — was to be “faithful to Ó Cadhain,” and that they searched arduously for the English words that would “most clearly convey Ó Cadhain’s meaning.”
Since the very first sentences often set the tone for a novel, it is worth looking closely at the opening lines of Cré na Cille, both in the original and in translation. Ó Cadhain immerses us right away in the characteristically disgruntled monologue of his formidable central character, Caitríona Pháidín, who is furious that her new abode six feet under isn’t as upmarket as the one she requested of her son Pádraig, who suspects that her hated sister and archrival, Nell, may have been responsible for foiling her wishes: “Ní mé an ar áit an Phúint nó na Cúig Déag atá me curtha? D’imigh an diabhal orthu dhá mba in Áit na Leathghine a chaithfidís mé, th’éis ar chuir mé d’fhaniceachaí orthu! Maidin an lae ar bhásaigh mé ghlaoigh mé aníos ón gcisteanach ar Phádraig.”
To give a sense of the gap between Irish and English and of the challenges it poses to translators, I will give a literal rendering of the first sentence: “Not I in the place of the Pound or the Fifteen am I buried.” The syntax mirrors Catríona’s jumbled thoughts as she struggles to comprehend her lot. Odd though the literal meaning of such sentences may sound in English, Ó Cadhain has an unerring ear for dialogue, and the speech of these characters must therefore also sound convincing in translation.
The strength of Titley’s version lies in his ability to capture the Rabelaisian gusto, broad humor, verbal inventiveness, uninhibited vulgarity, and sheer energy of Cré na Cille. Ó Cadhain, who read a good deal of Rabelais during his years of internment, also draws on the Gaelic tradition of grotesque exaggeration exemplified by ribald parodies like the 12th-century Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (Vision of Mac Conglinne). Titley renders the beginning of Catríona’s monologue with characteristic irreverence:
Don’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen.
So as to recreate the sound of Catríona thinking aloud, Titley drops the subject of the first phrase (“Don’t know”). His decision to render her invocation of the devil as “Fuck them” may take some readers aback, a point to which I shall return. The moves that Titley makes in this opening passage are characteristic of his approach throughout this translation or — as Brian Ó Conchubhair characterizes it in a jacket blurb — adaptation.
Let us now look at M & R:
I wonder am I buried in the Pound Plot or the Fifteen-Shilling Plot? Or did the devil possess them to dump me in the Half-Guinea Plot, after all my warnings? The morning of the day I died I called Pádraig up from the kitchen.
M & R insert an initial subject and verb (“I wonder”), using diction that is slightly more formal than that in the Irish. Following Ó Cadhain, and in marked contrast to Titley, they have Catríona curse her survivors by invoking the devil. Although the Hiberno-English that M & R use is a plausible choice for mid-20th-century Connemara speech, their sentences do not always sound entirely convincing as oral speech. To my ears at least, Catríona’s rhetorical question with its odd mixture of high and low diction — “did the devil possess them to dump me” — does not exactly roll off the lips.
When M & R specify that Catríona calls her son Pádraig “up” (aníos) from the kitchen, they retain a telling socio-cultural detail. Catríona is no doubt referring to her deathbed in the loft space often used as a bedroom in the typical small mid-20th-century West of Ireland cottage. Titley smoothes out his English sentence by making Catríona call Pádraig “in” from the kitchen, but at the cost of discarding this not insignificant nuance. Another phrase that stands out in M & R’s version is “the morning of the day I died,” a literal rendering of “maidin an lae ar bhásaigh mé.” The expression is humorous precisely because of the way it draws attention to its own incongruity. Here M & R’s phrasing sounds natural in Hiberno-English, which borrows much of its diction and syntax from Irish. Titley, who renders the phrase in standard English as “the morning I died,” weakens the comic effect of O Cadhain’s witty wording. Moreover, by switching abruptly from standard English to a dialectal expression — “I calls” — Titley makes Catríona sound less articulate than she is in the original.
In his introduction, Titley lays out his rationale for the torrent of four-letter words that he is about to unleash: “If one objects to some of the crudity from a linguistically puritanical point of view, it should be remembered that the most common curses in Irish derived from the ‘Devil’ himself, and to those who believed in him and his works and pomps, this was far worse than any ‘fuck’ or ‘shit.’” He subsequently regales us not only with those four-letter words, and more besides, but also inventive variants upon them.
Thus we get the alliterative “fuck the fucking fruitcake,” and the colorful “fuck me pink.” Then, in an exception to Titley’s notion that every “deabhal” (devil) should be replaced with a good ol’ Anglo-Saxon “fuck,” he gives us both in one phrase with “the devil can fuck her too.” It would be remiss to conclude this partial list without mentioning the pseudo-Italianate, “Holy Fuckaroni”; moving on to the shits, we get: “diddly shit”; “scum shit”; “drizzling shit”; and, since Titley is so enamored of alliteration, “sly shy shift shit”; things become graphic with “quicker than shit through a goose”; and, to conclude with a little upbeat scatology, “happy as a pig in shit.” The sheer quantity of these swear words, which of course bear no relation to Ó Cadhain’s wording, makes Catríona sound like a female version of the expletive-sputtering Father Jack in the 1990s Irish/British TV comedy series, Father Ted.
In his search for vibrant phrasing, Titley allows himself to “mix and mash” — as he puts it — expressions and slang from the United States, Britain, and Ireland. The resulting word salad often looks inconsistent and anachronistic. Without looking at the original, I found it easy to spot many of the phrases that Titley either translated loosely or invented altogether. These postmodern “Titleyisms” stand out from those passages in which he recreates Ó Cadhain’s masterfully oblique phrasing with the patience that is one of the hallmarks of responsible translation.
When, for instance, we hear one corpse calling another a “muppet,” we may be forgiven for wondering how American TV shows fit into the recollections of these impoverished Gaelic corpses from the 1940s. TV was not accessible in the West of Ireland until some years after 1961, when the national broadcaster Teilifís Éireann first began its service, and Sesame Street, which popularized the term “muppet” — a coinage of Jim Henson’s — was first broadcast in the United States in 1969. (Only within the last two decades has muppet morphed in urban slang into a synonym for idiot.) Similarly, Titley’s use of hillbillies to render “dream na sléibhe” — literally, the crowd from the hills — likely derives from a popular ’60s TV show, the Beverly Hillbillies. Moreover, his use of the phrase “hook up,” which began to acquire its sexual connotations around the year 2000, can make it sound as though Ó Cadhain’s corpses have been relocated to early 21st-century Ireland.
Although the corpses dwell in poisonous intimacy, their vituperative gossip is accompanied by an almost complete lack of self-awareness and an unwillingness to ponder their enigmatic limbo-like existence. Like Kafka in The Metamorphosis, Ó Cadhain frequently winks to the reader over the heads of his self-obsessed characters, who usually fail to get the joke. These corpses resemble Gregor Samsa in that they refuse to acknowledge the absurd dilemma with which they are faced. Just as Samsa ignores the reality of his newly transformed, bug-like body, the characters in Cré na Cille obsess about petty rivalries, as though they were still alive. There can be no doubt of Ó Cadhain’s affinity for Kafka: In 1953, three years after the appearance of Cré na Cille, he published a Kafkaesque novella about an impossibly bureaucratic Civil Service, featuring a hero who is identified only by an initial, J. Dalkey Archive recently released that satirical story in a dual-language edition entitled The Key/An Eochair.
One of the rare occasions in which Ó Cadhain’s corpses pause to ponder their surreal predicament occurs within the first few pages. Disclosing a vulnerability that she usually keeps hidden, Catríona reflects on her neighbors’ garrulousness in a revealing passage, which calls for a comparison of the two versions:
Are the people here alive or dead? They are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground! I thought that when I died that I could rest in peace, that I wouldn’t have to work, or worry about the house, or the weather, that I would be able to relax … But why all this racket in the dirty dust?
M & R:
Are these here alive or dead? They’re all giving out as much as they did above ground! I thought that once I was laid in the grave, free from chores and household cares and fear of wind or weather, there’d be some peace in store for me … but why all this squabbling in the graveyard clay?
When M & R have Catríona complain about all the “giving out” (“cur díobh”) in the cemetery they not only recreate the tone of the original phrase but also capture Ó Cadhain’s dig at his character’s obtuseness. Titley’s fondness for unduly attention-grabbing phrases — “rabbiting on” — obscures the humor. Moreover, M & R underscore Catríona’s comic self-absorption when they render her final complaint about all the “cathaíocht” (battling) with the gerund “squabbling.” After all, her indefatigably cantankerous mouth makes her the cemetery’s chief squabbler — an irony that Titley dilutes by rendering “cathaoíacht” simply as “racket.”
Although Ó Cadhain pokes fun at the often-superstitious folklore on which early 20th-century Irish-language fiction often drew uncritically, he makes use of certain features of oral storytelling. For instance, Catríona’s detested former suitor is always characterized with the same epithet (“scollachán gránna”). Whereas M & R always render that phrase aptly, tonally as well as semantically, as “ugly streak of misery,” Titley resorts to what one might call inelegant variation, replacing that often repeated epithet with an assortment of pejorative phrases: “ugly git”; “ugly gom”; “rotten poop”; “dirty fucker.” If Titley believes that he is thereby doing Ó Cadhain a favor, he is quite mistaken.
Some of the word play in Cré na Cille is admittedly untranslatable. At one point, the graveyard hosts an underground Celtic Studies Colloquium — a spot-on send-up of academic conferences — featuring various erudite or pseudo-learned speakers including the French aviator, who generally speaks Irish or French but can now show off his Breton. Snaidhm ar Bundún — Stitched Arse (Titley) or Knotted Bottom (M & R) — contributes a tongue twister involving similar-sounding words in Irish and Breton, the Celtic language spoken in Brittany in northwestern France. The resulting Joycean wordplay pivots on the different sexual meanings of the word “gast”: “A ghast na ngast i ngast ag gast atáim.” Fortunately, Graveyard Clay includes not only a useful introduction about Ó Cadhain but also informative footnotes elucidating such exchanges. Their raciness — at least by the standards of midcentury Ireland — gave rise to the charge that the author of Cré na Cille was a pornographer or, as a fellow-passenger overheard by Ó Cadhain on a Dublin bus put it, a “Joycean scutmonger.”
So which should you read? Alan Titley’s free and exuberant version will no doubt encourage English-speaking readers around the world to persist with this challenging but rewarding novel. Though this will scarcely come as a surprise, my own preference is for Graveyard Clay since M & R succeed in carrying across more of the literary qualities of Cré na Cille than does Titley, with his overemphasis on the Rabelaisian Ó Cadhain. Those who wish to get as close to the original as possible will undoubtedly favor The Graveyard Clay. Aficionados may wish to read and compare both versions, since such comparisons can take us closer to the original than could any single translation. Finally, there is an imaginative film adaptation of Cré na Cille, directed by Robert Quinn (2007); the DVD version comes with subtitles in six languages, including Irish and English.
If Cré na Cille is among other things a satirical celebration of the life and death of a language, it is — to borrow an image from a New York Times essay about writing in Irish by poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill — a wake in which the corpse “sits up and talks back.”
This piece draws on a paper presented at the 2016 national meeting of the American Conference on Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
A native of Dublin, Mark Harman is professor of English and German at Elizabethtown College, where he also holds the College Chair of International Studies. He has translated various German-language authors, including Kafka — Harman’s rendering of The Castle (Schocken) won the first Lois Roth Award of the Modern Language Association — Rilke, Hesse, Robert Walser, and is currently completing a volume of annotated Kafka translations. His writing on Irish and German literature has appeared in publications ranging from The Irish Times, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer to The Times Literary Supplement, Sewanee Review, New Hibernia Review, and Sinn und Form (Berlin).
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