I can’t speak or read Irish, so when I read that Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille was “the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language,” as Colm Tóibín wrote, I regarded the accolade as impressive but practically untestable: the same way I would regard a statement like “the best gelato shop in Mongolia.” I have no reason to think that Mongolians are bad at making gelato, nor do I have reason to think that Irish speakers are lousy novelists, but it was really the second part of Tóibín’s appraisal that caught my eye: the novel was “amongst the best books to come out of Ireland in the twentieth century.” The thought that I had missed out on a work comparable to the modernist masterpieces of Joyce and Beckett left me feeling estranged from my Irish heritage, and like a provincial monoglot. It’s only now, more than sixty-five years after Cré na Cille’s 1949 debut, that the novel is available an English translation, Alan Titley’s The Dirty Dust.
The book shares some of Joyce's and Beckett’s narrative experimentation, melancholy humor, and occasional incomprehensibility. The Dirty Dust begins moments after the main character, Caitriona Paudeen, a woman singularly possessed by pettiness, is buried. Like the other members of the graveyard, her ability to speak is unaltered, as are her concerns: She spends the first minutes of eternity worrying aloud about whether she has been placed in the respectable “Pound grave” or the lesser “Fifteen Shilling grave,” and thereafter complaining about her sister Nell, “the bitch," who survived her.
Ó Cadhain’s decision to dispense with narration in favor of naked dialogue is striking; it evokes the experience of blindness, as if the reader was just another body in the graveyard listening to the idle chatter. The many unattributed and unconnected voices––there are more than a dozen principal characters and many more secondary ones––can be disorienting and occasionally frustrating: like reading a Dostoyevsky novel pared down to contextless quotations. But the narrative choice does more than mimic the experience of the dead for the reader; it comments on the possibilities and limits of oral histories, and of talk, which played a central role in the Gaeltachts, the small Irish-speaking communities that formed in a larger English-speaking country. Talk is not only the “principal character in this book,” as Titley writes in his translator’s note, it is the book.
Isolated from the living, the dead socially reconstitute their world through speech, disputing particular details that no one in their grave can verify—a process not unlike the continual revisions of oral histories. Their world is fluid. Caitriona’s sister-in-law Nora, for example, who was apparently something of a philistine above ground, reinvents herself as a cultured, literary woman in the Dirty Dust (to Caitriona’s great frustration). Even when packets of information about the world above fall from the sky in the form of freshly dead bodies, it becomes clear that every truth in that world of conjecture and gossip is compromised by ignorance and desire. The newly dead often tell the others what they want to hear: Caitriona is informed of multiple, contradictory stories about the things most important to her, like the fortunes of her living son Patrick, her funeral, and the dubious installation of a cross of marble to mark her grave. “Having a cross here,” it is said, “is like having a big slate house aboveground."
There’s a symmetry of life and death in Ó Cadhain’s novel. “The people here […],” remarks Caitriona, “are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground!” The Christian idea that the soul rises above the body after death is refuted forcefully. The souls of Ó Cadhain’s characters are not tethered to material concerns incidentally, but essentially, unalterably. When the characters aspire to something higher, they are overcome with trivialities. Even the Old Master, a cultured, or at least literate, school teacher, spends his time instructing Nora until he is consumed by paralyzing suspicions that his widow is having an affair.
Against the backdrop of eternity, though, efforts to better oneself appear as comic and meaningless as concerns over the composition of one’s gravestone. A French pilot who chanced to crash to his death in Connemara spends his time nobly studying the Irish language and is eventually able to translate phrases into the local dialect: “Qu’est-ce c’est que jobbers? What the fuck are jobbers?” he asks. There is also a disastrous attempt to hold an “Interred Election.” And cataclysmic world events are assimilated into the petty disputes of the grave. When Caitriona hears that her living sister supports Churchill in the “War of the Two Foreigners” she allies herself with his enemy: “Up Hitler!” she exclaims. “Do you think there’s a chance . . . that he’ll flatten her new house down to the ground?” The war may have been similarly unreal for many members of the living Gaeltacht, who remained largely uninvested in global politics, save for how they related to nationalist movements.
The characters in The Dirty Dust may be confined to a remote, immaterial world, but their interactions are lively and complex. Their world is a pure social construction. The Dirty Dust seems to have captured some of the purported social vibrancy, humor, and strangeness of the original. Titley’s translation has rescued an Irish classic from what might as well be the grave––for provincial monoglots like me, that is.