Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain
One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.
After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.
The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.
Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.