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We’re No Angels

Philip O’Leary

Graveyard Clay: Cré na Cille, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, Yale University Press, 326 pp., €16.99, ISBN:

If the same rules apply in Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery as in the Conamara graveyard of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain should soon be hearing that a second English translation of his classic novel has appeared ‑ a little over a year after the first. There is, of course, nothing unusual about multiple versions of significant works of literature hitting the market at the same time. What is unusual, however, is how long it took for Cré na Cille to be made available to the wide audience with an interest in Irish writing but without a knowledge of the Irish language. After all, readers of Danish and Norwegian were able to enjoy Ó Cadhain’s novel in their own languages for more than decade at a time when readers of English could not share that experience unless they had access to Joan Trodden Keefe’s unpublished translation in her PhD dissertation. The frustration of such readers and scholars can only have been exacerbated by having to listen for nearly seven decades while those with Irish smugly told them what they were missing.

This lack of an easily accessible English version of the novel has created several significant problems. Those unable to read Cré na Cille really were missing something, both a great work of literature and an essential statement about the continuing importance of the Irish language and its speakers in the evolution of a modern Irish culture. In its own time and place, Cré na Cille was more than a sui generis comic masterpiece; it was also Ó Cadhain’s zestfully successful attempt to subvert what was then and still is now an influential but pernicious view of the language and its speakers – the idea that the Gaeltacht was a site of stasis, sclerotic fixation on the past, impending silence and linguistic and cultural demise. In Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain allowed the proponents of this view the playing field of their choice. If they insisted on seeing the Gaeltacht as moribund, he would go a step further and set his novel in a graveyard, with all its characters dead and buried. If they wanted to lament the encroaching silence as emigration drained the Gaeltacht of its population, in particular its youth, he would repopulate it with characters unheard by those above ground but in their own subterranean realm creating a cacophony of distinctive wrangling voices as fundamentally real and generative as the roiling quantum flux beneath the apparent vacuum of interstellar space. Indeed virtually the whole novel is dialogue in the richest and most rambunctious of Ó Cadhain’s native Cois Fhairrge Irish.

Ó Cadhain was also aware that friends of the language could be just as blind and dangerous as its enemies. Many in the language movement from its very beginning – one thinks here of Patrick Pearse for example - wanted to put native speakers of Irish on a lofty ideological pedestal, seeing them as all but otherworldly beings out of place in a fallen Anglophone Ireland. Far from being elevated above their countrymen, Ó Cadhain’s characters are quite literally earthy, shoved indiscriminately under ground, not isolated in some prelapsarian Gaelic paradise or reservation for colourful residual aborigines but rather involved with unedifying enthusiasm in all the muck and mire of contemporary Irish life in the 1940s.

From its initial appearance, Cré na Cille has had a reputation for being a difficult book, with the extraordinary fecundity and allusive richness of Ó Cadhain’s Irish being seen as a problem rather than welcomed as the treasure-house it is and would have been seen as had it been written in English. The damaging misconception that Ó Cadhain’s Irish is particularly, even uniquely, difficult, a misconception that has probably put readers off enjoying him in the original, has since been effectively addressed by scholars like Róisín Ní Ghairbhigh. The language in Cré na Cille may be challenging, but it is certainly no more so than that in many modernist classics in which the linguistic medium is also a significant element of the thematic message. Less remarked on when the novel appeared was a problem that has only grown with time. As Ó Cadhain himself wrote in 1950: “I myself was wrung out of folklore. It was the only kind of ‘learning’ most of my neighbours had.” (As an mbéaloideas a fáisceadh mé féin. Ba é an t-aon chineál ‘léinn’ é a bhí ag formhór mo chomharsana). Only a small minority of Irish people at the time could have made such a statement, and that minority has all but vanished by now. As a result, if Cré na Cille depicted a world that was alien to most of Ó Cadhain’s countrymen in 1949, that world might well seem all but incomprehensible to readers today. References to folktales, Gaelic literary texts, traditional songs, superstitions, prophecies, cures, curses, and popular religious and cultural practices are everywhere in Cré na Cille. Thus a belief in both the evil eye and the malevolent power of Leabhar Eoin (John’s book), a text borrowed from a priest that allows the one who has it to spare someone from death by substituting another victim, are central to the novel’s admittedly disconnected plot. Nor was Ó Cadhain above creating his own parodic “folklore”, thus again subverting traditional pieties and their champions. Interwoven with these allusions to the traditional and pseudo-traditional are references to very real events in Conamara, Ireland, and the wider world – the explosion of a mine that kills several local men during World War II, a national politics still haunted by memories of the Civil War, GAA loyalties, an inchoate awareness of Nazi genocide, and different attitudes to the warring parties in the global conflict.

Obviously then, translators taking on Cré na Cille face the considerable challenge of bringing into an appropriate kind of English a rich and colourful Irish shaped by very different experiences and outlooks, while at the same time not losing touch with the assumptions and values of Gaelic culture – all while trying to convey a sense of the anarchic and Rabelaisian comedy at the heart of the original. In Graveyard Clay, Liam Mac Con Ionmaire and Tim Robinson prove themselves up to the task. Robinson is, of course, already well-known to readers of English for his superb work as a cartographer of Conamara and the Aran Islands and is the author of a series of books on the Galway Gaeltacht that draw on his long and intimate experience as a resident of the islands. Mac Con Iomaire was actually born in Conamara only thirty years after Ó Cadhain and was thus coming of age at precisely the time and place Ó Cadhain was recreating in his novel. According to their introductory note, “On Translating Cré na Cille”, it was Mac Con Iomaire who produced “the basis of our translation”, which was then worked through ... repeatedly, almost phrase by phrase” by the two of them. Their insiders’ familiarity with the language and worldview of their source is evident throughout the translation, both in the fluid ease with which the text reads and the subtle ways in which essential information is unobtrusively conveyed. Moreover, they provide an excellent introductory piece on both Ó Cadhain himself and Cré na Cille as well as, when necessary and never intrusively, concise and informative notes to bring readers more fully into the world of the novel.

Unavoidably, given the appearance of Graveyard Clay so soon after Alan Titley’s The Dirty Dust, many will wonder which of the two should be read by someone seeking a satisfying encounter with what had become in its inaccessibility a legendary novel, one probably praised more than it was read. The answer to this question is simple – both. There has been a tendency in modern Irish language literary studies to assume that there is only room for a single definitive work in any particular area – one definitive biography, one definitive critical study, one definitive history, one definitive translation. Thus it is hardly surprising that the arrival of two translations of the same work in such short order would raise the question of which should be seen as standard and which judged a less successful effort. But surely it is hard to imagine anyone arguing that there is room for only one translation of Moby Dick or one Ulysses, particularly when the different versions are indeed different, inspired by diverse ideas about translation itself. And The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay are indeed quite distinctive takes on Cré na Cille.

It is, of course, a truism that the two principal approaches to translation are to reproduce the original as closely, even literally, as possible, and to freely recreate the “spirit” of the original given the very different resources of the target language. Thus we have “faithful” and “free” translations. However simplistic this dichotomous view may be in theory, it works very well with our two translations. Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson’s Graveyard Clay offers a brilliantly faithful rendering of Ó Cadhain’s Irish. Indeed its fidelity to Cré na Cille goes well beyond its linguistic accuracy. Graveyard Clay uses meticulous reproductions by Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh of Charles Lamb’s original cover art and portraits of the novel’s main characters as they appeared in the first edition. Titley, on the other hand, takes a much looser approach to the text, an approach made immediately clear by his decision to reject the literal translation of the title used by MacCon Iomaire and Robinson in favour of The Dirty Dust, which he feels conveys “some sense of the rhythm of the original, along with the biblical echoes that dust we are and ‘unto dust we shall return’”. His is the credo of the free translator: “There is no easy equivalence between languages. It is not the meaning itself which is the problem but the tone, and feel, and echo.” Still, while willing to acknowledge that “I have taken some liberties with this translation”, he is quick to add “but not many”.

The liberties to which he refers and which most obviously distinguish his translation from that of Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson concern linguistic register more than anything else. Specifically, this difference concerns the question of how to render into English the demotic language of the villagers. In fact, both translations take a similar approach with the deliberately stilted and baroque passages spoken by the “Trump(et) of the Graveyard”, using an orotund and intimidating English to separate this oracular and timeless voice from the speech of mere mortals. Irish is a language that is by no means deficient in curses and other terms of abuse and opprobrium, and one could think that Ó Cadhain knew them all and used most of them in Cré na Cille. Of course there is nothing surprising here given that most of the dialogue – and the book is virtually all dialogue – consists of arguments, accusations, innuendos and insults involving people who know each other (and each other’s peculiarities and shortcomings) with a fierce intimacy after long experience going back generations. There can be no doubt that Ó Cadhain intended their incessant and scurrilous wrangling over trivialities to be shocking to those with an idealised image of the native speaker. These are the sort of childish zero-sum games for status played by actual people rather than by Gaelic angels. Certainly much of the humour in the novel comes from the over-the-top virulence with which his characters engage in debates of paltry significance above ground and none whatsoever in the grave. Far more often than not, the two translations diverge widely in how such passages are translated, with Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson favouring a literal translation – although often the Irish word is a generic term of abuse whose specific meaning is not entirely obvious or relevant – and Titley opting for a more joltingly crude or modern expression. A handful of examples will have to suffice here. Where in Graveyard Clay we find “your goose is cooked” for Ó Cadhain’s “tá a chaiscín meilte”, literally “his meal is ground”), The Dirty Dust has “you’re fucked”. “I won’t give you a red cent” (“Ní thiúrfaidh mé comhaireamh na sop dhuit”, literally “I won’t count the bundles of straw for you”) in Graveyard Clay is “I wouldn’t give you the steam of my piss” in Dirty Dust. Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson’s “Sure, there’s no pep in him! He’s an impotent old thing.” (“Ar ndó’ dheamhan preab ar bith ann! Sean-phlúithid é sin.” literally “Of course there’s no kick in him! That one is an impotent old man.”) is Titley’s “There’s no jizz in him! He’s only a wimp and a wanker.” Various Irish terms and expressions translated as “streak of misery” in Graveyard Clay become “scumbag”, “nasty bitch”, “ugly turkey”, “snotty shithead”, “slitty slut” and more in The Dirty Dust. The frequently used curse “Go ropa an diabhal thú” (literally “May the devil stab you”) is usually rendered “May the devil pierce you” by Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson, but is “may the devil fuck you” in Titley’s version. (The relevant pronouns vary as necessary in this curse.) Indeed even “ababúna”, the protagonist Caitríona Pháidín’s untranslatable favourite expression of outrage, regularly left as is in Graveyard Clay and spelled “abuboona” in The Dirty Dust is at one point turned by Titley into “Holy fuckaroni”. And there are dozens of such examples.

Some may find this language problematic in the mouths of rural Irish speakers in the 1940s, but in fact there is a good deal of crude sexual talk in the original novel. For example, one hardly needs a corrupted Cork mind to read “go ropa an diabhal thú” as Titley does. Moreover, as he makes clear in his “Translator’s Introduction”, “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” or their attendant pards.” In effect it was easier in Ó Cadhain’s day – and still is – to shock readers of Irish than readers of English. An unexpected word or phrase, a neologism, a borrowing from English, all of these can be jolting when encountered in Irish. To have the same effect in English requires raising the stakes with a bit of slang or an ever reliable “fuck”. Think, for example, of Paul Muldoon’s translations of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Thus Titley’s linguistic choices make sense given his aim of capturing the spirit of his original for a jaded modern Anglophone audience, of letting twenty-first century readers experience the surprise and excitement (and perhaps dismay) that Ó Cadhain’s original readers felt seventy years ago.

On the other hand, it should be stressed that the commitment to linguistic fidelity of Mac Con Iomaire and Robinson by no means leaves their translation either stodgy or prim. Abuse is, after all, abuse, and Ó Cadhain was a master at it. While lacking the obvious pyrotechnics of Titley’s approach, their impressively faithful version loses little of Ó Cadhain’s Rabelaisian vitality. Indeed at times they actually go (a bit) further than Titley himself, as when they translate “pictiúr” as “flick” where Titley has “film”, “raicleach” as “bitch” where Titley has “harridan”, “slut” for Titley’s “hag”, “giodáinín de ghearrchaile” as “young little rump of a woman” for Titley’s “little slip of a thing”, or “M’anam muise go raibh tú dhá cláradh” as “you were screwing her” where Titley has “you were having it off with her”.

Ultimately, preference for one or the other of these translations will be a matter of personal taste. Each is a superb example of its chosen approach to translation, and neither is unduly limited by that approach. If Graveyard Clay is a masterfully faithful version of its original, it is also a rollicking recreation of a comic classic and a damn good read. If The Dirty Dust takes liberties with Cré na Cille, it does so for reasons that make good sense and that help give modern readers a more immediate sense of how it was experienced by those who read it in Irish hot off the presses. With regard to these two fine books, more is without a doubt better. Máirtín Ó Cadhain has been nobly served by his translators. Someone should tell him.


Philip O’Leary teaches at Boston College.