Perhaps not a Nobel novel

Cré na Cille / The Dirty Dust

by Máirtín Ó Cadhain; translated from the Irish by Alan Titley

(Yale University Press, £16.99)

John Wyse Jackson

For many years I have owned a copy of this book in the original Irish, but despite several attempts, I failed to actually read very much of it. Its author, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, was a native of An Spidéal in Galway, spent time in the Curragh Camp during World War II for IRA activities, became an unlikely Professor of Irish at Trinity College, Dublin, and was at one time, it is rumoured, tipped for the Nobel Prize by his TCD colleague Prof. David Greene. 

People assured me that Cré na Cille was the most important novel ever written in the Irish language, but very few of them convinced me that they had actually got all the way through it to the end. It was said to be impossible to translate. Of course, it wasn’t, and it was with delight that I fell upon Alan Titley’s handsome rendition.

The translator has tackled his difficult task with gusto. The more obscure or ephemeral a word or expression in Irish was, the more it appealed to Ó Cadhain, and as Titley has commented elsewhere, there are many words in the original which were absent from any dictionary. 

These he simply guessed at according to context: in most cases he has guessed convincingly. Thankfully, the prose avoids ‘translationese’, and rightly shies away from the stilted Kiltartan English of Synge and Lady Gregory. 


The action of the book, if it can be called action, takes place below ground, in the graveyard of a west of Ireland parish. 

Lying in their coffins, the dead converse, bicker and tease one another incessantly. They are intensely interested in what may be happening in the parish above ground, but get tidings of their families only whenever a new corpse is buried among them. God and the Devil are frequently mentioned, but only in colloquial expressions of hope or invective: there is, it appears, no theology in the grave. 

Though this is still not an easy book to read, even in English, it is worth persevering. A modernist work written paradoxically in a dying language, it reminded me sometimes of the dark, earthbound monologue that forms the whole of Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable, which was published four years after Cré Na Cille appeared in 1949.

Unlike Beckett’s gloomy protagonist, however, Ó Cadhain’s Connemara characters are as lively, jealous, embittered and foul-mouthed as they evidently were in life, perhaps more so, and there is a good deal of fun to be had from their torrential spates of pungent abuse. 

This is truly an extraordinary book. Still and all, even if the members of the Swedish Academy had been able to read it, I doubt that they would have awarded its author the Nobel Prize, though one never knows, given some of their past choices. 

(I have always wondered about the genesis of the novel. Was it by any chance inspired by an earlier reading of that piece of popular Americana Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 collection The Spoon River Anthology, inspired by the poet’s childhood home of Lewistown, Illinois? In the poem over 200 of the dead in the local graveyard speak their own epitaphs, narrating the history of the locality and its people, much as in Cré na Cille. Now there is a mystery for an Irish academic to investigate.)