…the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language, and among the best books to come out of Ireland in the twentieth century.
Graveyard Clay is the second English language translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s classic Irish language novel Cré na Cille, published just a year after Alan Titley’s translation, entitled The Dirty Dust.
Ó Cadhain, grew up in the Gaeltacht , the Irish-speaking region of south Connemara. He was a teacher, but was imprisoned in 1939 for his involvement with the IRA. He wrote while in prison, and on his release in 1944, went back to teaching and finished Cré na Cille.
This translation, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson includes an insightful biography of Ó Cadhain, along with an introduction to the book and some invaluable annotations that helpfully clarify unfamiliar Irish references and cultural customs. Written in 1949, Cré na Cille has long been established as one of the most important works of modern Irish literature, but it has taken over 60 years for it to be translated into English.
That we had to wait so long for one translation, let alone two, could be due to many factors, one being the sheer scale of work needed to capture the letter and spirit of the rich, idiomatic dialogue of an Irish speaking community in the West of Ireland in the 1940s. I haven’t read The Dirty Dust, so can’t comment on the difference between the two translations and I really can’t comment on the original text, particularly given that despite 5 years of Irish language classes in school, I can only say two phrases in Irish now – ‘shut the door’ and ‘I like ice-cream’.
Graveyard Clay has a simple premise. The dead can talk. Buried in the clay of a Connemara graveyard, all they do is talk with a Rabelaisian energy and unceasing spirit. It’s all they can do, so the animosities, jealousies, fights and gossiping that sustained them above ground, continue in death. As above, so below.
The novel is told almost entirely in dialogue, there is little narrative of which to speak, just chatter and arguing, gossiping and cajoling as feuds are continued, old envies reignited and a whole cacophony of voices jostles for attention. Hints of stories from the townland above emerge, but often stories begin and tail off, glimpses of lives lived and remembered after death.
Life’s the same here…as it was in the ‘ould country’, except that all we see if the grave we’re in and we can’t leave the coffin. You won’t hear the living either, or know what’s happening to them apart from what the newly buried will tell you
Aside from the bitching, the gossiping and the remembering the only other excitement in the graveyard clay is the lowering down of a new body. A new body brings much needed news from the land of the living and a freshly delivered corpse is harangued and badgered for details on how those living are getting on without their dead.
I wonder what sort of funeral I had? I won’t know till the next corpse I’m acquainted with arrives. It’s high time now for someone to come. Bid Shorcha was ailing. But I’d say she’s in no danger of death yet. There’s also Máirtín Pockface, Beartla Blackleg and Bríd Terry, and of course the ugly streak of misery Big Brian, may God protect us from his heap of bones…Tomás Inside should have his death from the leaking roof any day now
Status envy is still a concern after death, with the class system continuing in the graveyard. Stone crosses are coveted, as are rails around the grave. There is the Pound Plot, the Fifteen Shilling Plot and the Half-Guinea Plot, with arguments and discussions abounding about who deserves to be in which plot.
The main character Caitríona Pháidín has just been buried, to her disgust, in the Fifteen Shilling plot. She’s not happy to be dead, mainly because she didn’t manage to outlive her much hated sister Nell, who married the most eligible man in town and never let her forget it. Catríona rages and raves against her sister, wishing her ill and hoping for bad news about her. She is also obsessed as to whether or not her son has put up the cross of “Island limestone” over her grave, an action that would slightly mitigate the shame of not being buried in the Pound Plot.
Fifteen-Shilling Plot after all! In spite of my warnings…Nell must have been grinning all over her face! She’ll go to the Pound Plot herself for sure now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Nell got Pádraig to bury me in the Fifteen-Shilling Plot instead of the Pound Plot. She wouldn’t have had the cheek to come next or near the house until she knew I was dead.
What Ó Cadhain brilliantly captures with Graveyard Clay is the never-ending obsessions and slights that can grip small town Irish life and literally never die. In death, as in life, a community is sustained by chatter and gossip, the neurotic concern for how you are perceived and the need to always know what is going on becomes a life-blood. Or in this case a death-blood. This is essentially a 300 page symphony of snide gossips and bitter enemies that can be incredibly entertaining, but also tiring to read.
While they wait for news from above, the dead are trapped in the stagnation of the past, with often hilarious consequences. A murderer has found himself resting next to the man he stabbed, an agreement on the outcome of a football match can never be reached. Everyone still bitches about the pub owner’s daughter who flirted with wealthy customers to get them to drink more and the poor school master is met constantly with details of his wife’s re-marriage as each new body joins the graveyard.
Now Master, you’ll have to forgive me…I’m not a gossip…Don’t ask me to name the man, Master. Ah now, Master dear, don’t ask me that!…If I’d known it would upset you so much I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all…So she swore and she promised that if you died she’d never marry another man! Ah Master dear…Did you never hear: after the vows the women are easiest…You weren’t even cold, Master when she had an eye cocked at another man. I think, between ourselves, she was always a bit flighty.
Ó Cadhain has perfectly captured the sarcastic, witty and often hilarious voices of small town life. He asks that the reader do some work though, the dialogue is merely presented and it takes a while to work out who is speaking. Through repeated expressions and turns of phrase, each character creates as it were, their own verbal significance and the conversations become easier to follow. The conventions of the traditional novel are pared back, leaving us swimming in a sea of voices, clinging to one character for a while before floating on to someone else. This style gives the novel a strangely modern feel, given its age.
At times it can feel like a bit of an onslaught, but the bawdy cacophony is counterpointed with more lyrical passages, or Interludes that are spoken by the Trump of the Graveyard, or the clay 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 …
These highly lyrical passages contain hints of Flann O’Brien with their overblown pastiche of romantic poetry but serve to remind us that despite the petty gossiping and fighting, there is still a cyclical process of birth and death, growth and decay that cannot be denied.
It is a theme that rears its head in the work of Ó Cadhain’s fellow countryman, Samuel Beckett and indeed there is something very Beckettian in the absurdity of the never-ending situation that the residents of the graveyard find themselves in.
But the old man’s trembling is chronic now. The young man’s bones are seizing up. The smear of grey washes over the gold in the woman’s hair. Cataract, like snake slime, is quenching the child’s eyesight. Gaiety and gambolling give way to grumbling and groaning. Weakness is driving out strength. Despair is overcoming love. The grave-cloth is being stitched to the cradle-cloth, and the grave to the cradle. Life is paying its dues to death…
The themes of entropy and waiting for something unknown are also something that would be reminiscent of a time spent in prison, something Ó Cadhain himself had experienced.
As the residents of this unnamed graveyard pay their dues to death, it is easy to be reminded of Sartre’s comment ‘Hell is other people’. It’s interesting that for a book written in the context of, and about Catholic Ireland, there is no mention of heaven or hell, and no questioning of whether or not there is an afterlife.
There are just the voices. These never-ending voices.
Graveyard Clay is not an easy book to read, a lot of references went over my head and it takes work to get into the flow of it. It may have worked better in a shorter form, but there is no denying its importance as one of the great modernist Irish novels, regardless of which language it is read in.
I received a copy of Graveyard Clay from the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest review.