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Graveyard Clay and The Dirty Dust

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Compare two translations of “Cré na Cille,” Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Irish masterpiece

By Stephanie Bastek

March 16, 2016


 

It took 66 years for Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist masterpiece, Cré na Cille, to make it from the original Irish into English. The Dirty Dust, Alan Titley’s translation of this splendidly batty novel—in which the dead gossip, flirt, and feud in the graveyard with the same aplomb as they did in the pub—came out last year to critical acclaim. This year, Yale University Press has issued a second translation, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, called Graveyard Clay.

See for yourself how differently the dead can speak, in this passage featuring Caitríona, a newly interred resident, and an old-timer from the graveyard, the flatteringly named Nóra Filthy-Feet or Toejam Nora.

Graveyard Clay

. . . Nóra Filthy-Feet standing for election! Good God above, they’ve lost all respect for themselves in this cemetery if the best they can offer is Nóra of the Fleas from Mangy Field . . . She won’t get in . . . But then, who knows? Cite, Dotie and Muraed are always talking to her, and Peadar the Pub, and even Siúán the Shop at times. As for the Big Master, of course it’s a public scandal the things he says to her every day . . . He says they’re in the book, but nobody would have the indecency to put those things in a book:

“Your flowing curly hair,
Your dewy bright eyes,
Your delicate round white breast
Attracting eye’s desire.”

. . . That’s fine talk for a schoolmaster! The Schoolmistress and Billyboy the Post are driving him mad. But he must have a screw loose to be singing Nóra Sheáinín’s praises: “Her mind has greatly improved,” he says, “she’s cultured now . . .”

She wasn’t long reminding me of the cross over her grave. “I have a fine decent cross over me,” says she, “which is more than you have, Caitríona.” Her grave would be a long time without a cross only for that fool of a brother of hers paid for it, and I told her so. Down there in the Half-Guinea Plot among the riff-raff of Sive’s Rocks and Wood of the Lake, without headstone or slab she’d be. And that’s where she should be if justice were done. She most certainly was never praised till she died. When did anyone ever have a good word to say for any of her breed? Never. Never in living memory. It didn’t happen. Out from under the dock leaves that lot crawled . . .

Those people above ground are very simple-minded.  “What good will it do the dead to put a cross over their grave?” they’ll say. “Devil a bit! The same crosses are nothing but snobbery and vanity and a waste of money.” If they only knew! But they don’t understand till they’re buried in the graveyard themselves, and then it’s too late. If they understood above ground that a cross on your grave here makes even the Filthy-Feet Breed respectable, they wouldn’t be so neglectful . . .

From Graveyard Clay: Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain; translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in March 2016. Reproduced by permission.


The Dirty Dust

. . . Toejam Nora standing for election! Jesus Christ Almighty, they have no respect left for themselves in this cemetery, especially if they can’t put up anyone else only Fleabag Nora from Gort Ribbuck . . . She won’t get elected . . . But who knows? . . . Kitty, Dotie, and Margaret talk to her, and Peter the Publican, and Huckster Joan sometimes. As for the Old Master, it’s a total disgrace the kind of things he tells her every day . . . He says they’re all in the book, but I can’t imagine myself that propriety would allow those kinds of things to be printed:

“Your curling tresses fair
Your eye sparkling like the dew
Your smooth and pointed breasts
Set my soul ablaze anew.”

. . . That’s lovely talk altogether for a schoolmaster. The Mistress and Billy the Postman are being driven mad. If he wasn’t a bit nuts himself, of course, he wouldn’t be praising Nora Johnny: “Her mind has really improved,” he said. “She has acquired some culture now . . .”

Wasn’t she very quick to remind me about the cross over her grave. “I have a fine big cross,” she said, “something you haven’t got, Caitriona.” She’d only have a small scutty little cross if it wasn’t for what that fool of a brother spent on her, something I told her straight up. She’d be down in the Half Guinea place without a plaque or a headstone, in among those gangsters from Clogher Savvy and Derry Lough, and that’s where she should be, if the truth be told. That’s what they were going to do anyway, until she died. When did anyone ever have a good word to say about any of her lot? Never, I’m telling you. Never ever. Never happened. A useless shower . . .

That shower aboveground are very innocent. “What good will it do them to have a cross over their graves?” they ask. “Not the smell of an oil rag! Those crosses are only snobbery and one-upmanship and a waste of money.” If they only knew! But they never get it until they are buried, and then it is far too late. If they knew up there that a cross here earns respect even for the Toejammers, I don’t think they’d be dawdling around as they are . . .

From The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain; translated from the Irish by Alan Titley, published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in 2015 (paperback edition March 2016). Reproduced by permission.


Stephanie Bastek is the associate editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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