book cover imageGraveyard Clay (Cré na Cille): A Narrative in Ten Interludes
by Máirtín Ó Cadhain,
translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson.
Yale University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 368 pp., $25.

Last year around this same time, an edition of this Irish novel appeared in English as The Dirty Dust, translated by Alan Titley of University College Cork in Ireland. This year the paperback edition of Titley’s translation is coming out in March as well as this new version of the comic masterpiece of Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–1970)—his name is pronounced Mairteen O’Kine—by Liam Mac Con Iomaire, “lecturer, broadcaster, translator, and biographer,” and Tim Robinson, “writer, artist, and cartographer.” The present writer, having a very rudimentary knowledge of Irish, is not qualified to comment on the relative merits of both translations—Fintan O’Toole’s review of the Titley translation in The New York Review of Books (December 17, 2015), “Finding a Lost Ireland,” covers that aspect knowledgeably, at least in regards to Titley’s work—but it can be said, just by reading the translations, that Titley’s is much more profane, but also rollicking right along, whereas the Iomaire–Robinson appears to be more literal and rich.

The first difference between the translations comes in their respective introductions. Titley’s is quirky and personal. He devotes space to discussing how he chose to translate his title, acknowledging the possibility of Graveyard Clay but saying that what it came down to was he just liked The Dirty Dust better. The introduction to Graveyard Clay, by Iomaire, is more scholarly and traditional. It begins with a short biography of Ó Cadhain, who grew up in “the south Conamara Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region).” A teacher who was fired for IRA involvement in 1939, he came across a magazine in Dublin that included a French translation of Gorky’s story, “Harvest Day among the Cossacks of the Don.” Ó Cadhain later wrote:

I jumped off the bed where I was lying down reading it. I hadn’t read the like of it before. Why didn’t anybody tell me there were such stories? “I would be able to write that,” I said to myself. “That’s work my people do, except that they have different names.” A sort of hunger came over me, a hunger that was much more unbearable than the sort that was in my stomach at times.

Then in that same year, 1939, the Irish government did the best thing a government—at least one that allows a prisoner paper, pencils, and books—can do for a writer: it put him in jail. There he studied languages and wrote. Released in 1944, Ó Cadhain went back to teaching and continued writing. Graveyard Clay was published in serial form in 1949 and was widely read; Irish speakers either loved it or hated it.

The story, such as it is, consists of dialogues spoken between the dead in an Irish village’s graveyard. The people in the graveyard are just as feisty, crude, mean, generous, sentimentally religious or cultured, jealous, and spiteful as they were above ground, only more so because they have nothing else to do but talk. As the main character Caitríona Pháidín says, “… there’s no harm in talking about it [life above] now, as we are on the way of truth.” Iomaire notes in the introduction: “(Being ‘on the way oftruth,’ ar shlí na fírinne in Irish, is a common expression for being dead.)”

The big event is when a new corpse is lowered down among them, usually on top of someone he or she despised in life. There are classes in the graveyard clay: there is the Pound Plot, the Fifteen-Shilling, and the Half-Guinea Plots. Much time is spent amongst the inhabitants in arguing about who should be in which plot. They rake over the coals of the past: two men argue about who won a football match; a murdered man keeps lashing out at the man who stabbed him on the edge of his liver; everyone complains about the pub owner whose daughter would sit on the laps of newly wealthy men and get them to drink all of their money away on increasingly watered-down whiskey; they despise as well the shop owner who doled out tea and cigarettes more cheaply to big wigs and whose shoddy leaky shoes many have died from wearing.

But mostly Graveyard Clay is about the recently dead woman, Caitríona Pháidín, who has hated her sister, Nell, ever since Nell was able to land the most eligible bachelor in town, Jack the Scológ (more helpfully, “Jack the Lad,” in Titley’s version) as her groom, and had the audacity, while sitting on Jack’s lap, to tease Caitríona by saying now Caitríona will have to marry Big Brian (“Blotchy Brian” in Titley). For this, Caitríona never forgives Nell. In the graveyard she continually laments that she died before Nell and nags every newcomer to the clay about news—she hopes bad—about her sister. She also wants to know if her son has put up the cross of “Island limestone” he promised he would erect over her grave. This image of “Island limestone,” by novel’s end, functions as a sort of image of yearning, reminiscent of Gatsby’s green light.

The bitingly sarcastic, and hilarious, drumbeat of dialogue—one has to figure out who is speaking by context and the sound of the voice—is counterpointed by lyrical sections limned by the Trump of the Graveyard. In the introduction, Iomaire writes of how critics have understood these interludes differently: some have seen them as an artistic failure, “an extraneous romantic affectation,” or “Rather purple punctuation marks.” Iomaire and Robinson disagree: “The present translation of these high-flown passages reflects our conviction that, as invocations of the great cycles of life and death, they are to be read with extreme seriousness.”

As an example of the Trump of the Graveyard (which, by the way, the inhabitants of the graveyard never seem to hear or at least never pay attention to—but perhaps the Trump is meant for the living) here is a passage wherein the Trump introduces itself:

For I am every voice that was, that is, and that will be. I was the first voice in the formlessness of the universe. I am the last voice that will be heard in the dust of Armageddon. I was the muffled voice of the first embryo in the first womb. When the golden harvest is stacked in the haggard, I am the voice that will summon home the last gleaner from the Grain-field of Time. For I am the firstborn son of Time and Life, and steward of their household. I am reaper, stack-builder, and thresher of time, I am storeman, cellarer, and turnkey of Life. Let my voice be heard! It must be heard …

That is the lyric cycles-of-nature voice in the novel, almost one could say, the metaphysical layer of the novel. The rest is the bumptious ribald mess of human life, such as the following passage of dialogue chosen at random:

— … These chatterboxes always get a fit of talking just when a person is longing for peace and quiet. What a load of rubbish they speak in the world above: “She’s gone home now. She’ll have peace and quiet from now on, and she can put all memory of the world out of her head in the graveyard clay.” … Peace! Peace! Peace! …

— … If you elect me as a representative I promise you I’ll do all a man can do—I mean all a woman can do—for the cause of culture and to cultivate an enlightened public opinion here …

—Muraed! Muraed! Hey, Muraed … Did you hear what Nóra Sheáinín said … “If you elect me” … I’ll explode! I’ll explode! …

Ó Cadhain said he got the idea for the novel when he was part of a burial party that had to dig three graves in the course of trying to find the right one, and the third wasn’t it either. One of the party, when he heard which body had been finally put in whose original grave, said, “Oho! … There will be some grammar there alright!” There are literary precedents for stories like this. Two that come to mind are the short story Dostoyevsky included in his Writer’s Diary, called, “Bobok,” about a man who falls asleep in a grave yard and dreams he hears the dead talking to one another. And there is that part of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, wherein the grave dwellers ruminate about how the living never live fully in the present moment.

But Ó Cadhain’s book takes the same impulse and explodes it—as Caitríona likes to say—into a Rabelaisian extreme. In a way it is appropriate that two translations are now available for this great book: they complement one another. One could wish there was one translation as good as both—that Titley had toned down the f- and c- words, that Iomaire and Robinson had translated more of the Irish words—but perhaps it is an Irish trait to have two sides to every good thing.  

Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.