Since its publication in 1949, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille has been hailed as a masterpiece. Yet the novel has, in the words of John Banville, “remained locked away from non-Irish speakers”.
Only a few excerpts have ever been translated into English, meaning the book is largely unknown by much of the reading public. It is a cause for rejoicing so that Cré na Cille has finally appeared in an English language edition, under the title The Dirty Dust, translated by Alan Titley and published by Yale University Press.
Cré na Cille is set in a Connemara graveyard and commences with the burial of its formidably vituperative central character, Caitriona Paudeen. The novel consists almost entirely of the talking and arguing carried on by Caitriona and her fellow corpses. Dead though they may be, these graveyard inmates are still fiercely animated by all the cares they had when alive, and old feuds and resentments are vigourously sustained. The dead also eagerly interrogate each newly-buried arrival for updates on news and gossip from the world of the living. It is a merciless, yet raucously funny, portrayal of a close-bound community.
Born and raised in Cork, Alan Titley is a novelist, story writer, columnist, playwright, and Emeritus Professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork. In The Dirty Dust, he has rendered Ó Cadhain’s great novel with terrific zest and his translation will surely win the book many more admirers. In a few weeks’ time Titley will deliver the Anne Kennedy Memorial Lecture at Cúirt, in An Taibhdhearc, where he will talk about translating Ó Cadhain’s masterwork.
‘Cré na Cille blew my mind’
It was while training to be a primary teacher in St Patrick’s College in the 1960s, that Titley first encountered Cré na Cille. “The Christmas of my first year there I took two books home from the library, one was Cré na Cille and the other was An Béal Bocht,” he tells me. “I read them over the holidays and both of them blew my mind. At the time I wouldn’t have understood everything in Cré na Cille, there were a lot of strange words and turns of phrase that I didn’t get, not being from Connemara. But I did get its drive and energy and that attracted me.
“I read it again while I was in St Pats and then again as a student in UCD. When I took up lecturing, I taught it in an MA module called Literary Translations. I used to give the first page of Cré na Cille to students and we’d spend an hour and a half wrestling with the opening lines. There are so many ways those lines can be translated.”
Despite those hours of wrestling with Ó Cadhain’s prose, Titley never envisaged translating Cré na Cille himself until he was approached by Micheál Ó Conghaile from Cló Iar Chonnacht.
“Micheál asked several people to have a go at translating about 20 pages,” he reveals. “He came back to me later having sent the pages out to a panel of readers and said some of them – not all of them mind you! - liked my translation. He then asked me ‘Will you do it?’ I thought ‘Oh my God’. I groaned inwardly but then I thought ‘Ah sure, why not?’ and I went at it. It took me a year and a bit to do it. I’d sit down and do two or three pages every day. I am happy with it.”
Several conversations going on at once
Cló Iar Chonnacht has a relationship with Yale University Press - two years ago they collaborated on an English-language selection of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s poems - which is how The Dirty Dust is being published by the American company. Titley reflects on previous efforts to translate the novel and outlines his own approach to the task.
“There were attempts made in the 1950s by Sáirseál agus Dill, but they weren’t happy with them. In the 1980’s The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing had a translation of the first chapter. However, they put it into a Synge-like Anglo-Irish and that style of speech is virtually dead. So what do you do when you’re translating it?
“The language of Ó Cadhain’s novel is full of life and verve and passion, so you have to get that across. English has fantastic slang and demotic, and you couldn’t do the book in standard English. Part of me was recalling my mother’s sisters; they were scattered, some went to England, a couple to the States, and a few stayed in Cork. They gathered together every summer and they’d be sitting in the kitchen smoking fags, sipping sherry, and they’d all be talking. There’d be several conversations going on at the same time and there’d be American slang, English slang, Cork slang, but they all understood each other.
“This was somewhere in the back of my head, this gaggle of women talking, and that’s what Cré na Cille is; people talking to one another in all kinds of idiolects. Ó Cadhain used his own native Irish of Cois Fharraige, but he knew the Irish of everywhere; he taught all over west Connemara and in east Galway and Galway city, and he was also quite happy to take phrases from literature so his language was very rich. I was trying to match that by using things I had heard and read, and give them the same energy and brio Ó’Cadhain has.”
‘Caitriona is a total bitch’
When Cré na Cille was first published not only did it impress the critics but it was widely read aloud by the people of the Connemara Gaeltacht.
“When Ó Cadhain wrote his novel there was a tradition of people gathering around to read to one another simply because not everyone was literate,” Titley notes. “Ó Cadhain was talking about his own people, and the kind of people in Cré na Cille are very recognisable because even though they are characters they are also types; you have the stingy barman, the grabbing shopkeeper, the snotty schoolmaster, they’re all there. The characters are fantastic and readers would have recognised what these people were like, and of course it was in their own Irish which didn’t appear in other books. Cré na Cille is a hymn to the Irish of Connemara.”
While The Dirty Dust features scores of characters, the central figure is Caitriona Paudeen, whose unflagging hatred of her still-living sister and ceaseless bickering with her dead rival ‘Toejam Nora’ drives the novel along. Titley concludes with his thoughts on Ó Cadhain’s daunting anti-heorine.
“Caitriona is a total bitch,” he declares emphatically, “but Ó’Cadhain also wrote stories about women who had lost children or weren’t able to have children. His wonderful story, translated as The Road to Bright City, and partly based on his mother, is about a woman who has to walk 12 miles into Galway to sell eggs, and then walk home again, and it dawns on her she is going to have to be doing this for the rest of her life. Caitriona is not meant to be an emblem of Connemara women, but you need a strong character to hold the book together, think of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment; Caitriona does that for Cré na Cille.”
The Dirty Dust is available from all good bookshops. Alan Titley’s Cúirt lecture takes place at 3.30pm on Saturday April 23 in An Taibhdhearc. Tickets are €6. For more information contact 091 - 562024 or email [email protected].