The Dead Talk in Máirtín Cadhain’s ‘The Dirty Dust’

Recurring themes of discontent and rivalry in Cadhain's The Dirty Dust dominate whatever moments of tenderness and solidarity remain after Irish village life has given way to common death.

The most important prose work in Modern Irish, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille has never before been published in English. This 1949 novel, as Alan Titley introduces his blunt, bold rendering into our language as “The Dirty Dust, carries the flow of chatter you might hear outside a door when everyone inside is tearing themselves apart; or in a country churchyard in the light of day.” The title resists easy equivalence, although “churchyard clay” has long served as as its English echo for critics. Titley, a skilled writer and critic in Irish, prefers the biblical resonance of ashes and soil, for this narrative takes place entirely in a Connemara cemetery, as its interred bicker and boast among themselves.

It was inspired by a report in the author’s native West of Ireland where a woman was buried inadvertently atop her rival one day when it was too rainy for the gravediggers to bother with niceties. An onlooker mourned: “Oh holy cow, there’s going to be one almighty gabble!” Ó Cadhain set his novel, akin to what Titley calls switching channels between various conversations on a radio, in townlands he knew well in County Galway, near the Atlantic shore among its Irish-speaking community.

Then, that language was still connected to those in the 19th century who had spoken no other. The author did not hear English until the age of six. Rich in imagery, curt in tone, this dialect of Irish can be difficult for those who encounter it today. Titley prefers a conversational, casual tide of chat, cursing, and reverie to wash over Ó Cadhain’s characters. This eases the reader’s challenge. The author plunges us immediately into a fictional tale told in dialogue and interruption.

Yet, even if Caítríona Paudeen’s new arrival among the dead makes her by default the protagonist, the buried characters surrounding her six feet under crowd her out. Many of her neighbors resent her airs. It’s best to let this rattling narrative roll on, rather than resist its banter or weary of its nagging. As a downed French pilot now and then complains in his own native tongue (untranslated): these scolds bore him. He had hoped to find peace in death, but the tomb seems not to be dead at all. Rather, the foreigner, struggling to figure out the meaning of the babble around him, finds it betrays the same old ennui. Sympathizing with his plight, I found myself drifting along as the voices resounded and receded. It’s not hard to give way to them as background noise rather than scintillating exchanges.

The liveliest portions open most chapters. The “Trumpet of the Graveyard” summons souls to a reckoning. Ó Cadhain contrasts the joys of the living with the dread of the dead. He also here evokes the intricacy of Irish-language verse by departed bards: “But the flakes of foam on the fringe of a surge of a stream are slurping in towards the shallows of the river where they slobber on the rough sand.” The alliteration and end-rhyme give way as they ebb into brutal phrases, and a sudden stop.

Meanwhile, without fresh news to filter into the soil, insults and laments repeat. No effort at organization lasts long; a Rotary Club, an election, a cultural society all flounder. Jonathan Swift’s prediction of “a road on every track and English in every shack” threatens the isolation of the village. Its cadaverous inhabitants debate a medieval prophecy attributed to St. Colmcille about the signs of the world’s end.

This sense of doom deepens in the novel’s vague duration during the middle of the Second World War. The corpses debate, as did their real-life counterparts, the comparative merits of the Germans and the British as allies for officially neutral Ireland. The Antichrist’s return is rumored.

The dead are uncertain if D-Day has occurred. Only with the internment of the newest arrival, Billy the Postman, do the rest learn that none of their graveside crosses are made of Connemara marble. The dead had asserted this, each trying to put down the others, so as to boost their own status. That incident concludes this novel. Its recurring themes of discontent and rivalry dominate whatever moments of tenderness and solidarity remain after village life has given way to common death.

In this sobering depiction of a determined counter to the stereotypes of Irish rural relationships, native son Maírtín Ó Cadhain in his native language sought to correct myth with truth. As ably translated by Alan Titley, the results recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Martin McDonagh’s play, both of which feature this same milieu, as they include too the telling phrase of “a skull in Connemara”.

RATING 6 / 10