Graveyard ClayHow could a great modern (and modernist) novel from the British Isles become a local cult hit and a contemporary classic, yet languish unread and unknown in most Western countries? The answer is: If it’s in Irish Gaelic. Prolific Irish author and nationalist Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970) wrote Cré na Cille (variously translated as Graveyard Clay or The Dirty Dust) in 1949, but it had to wait until 2015 to find its first English translation – apparently because the Irish publishers didn’t dare try to find a translator good enough.

Happily, the drought is over, with a new translation by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson appearing from Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series this month in hardback and Kindle format. It goes head to head with another translation by Alan Titley from the same publisher, released almost exactly a year before. That may be testament to the difficulty of rendering a work that’s been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Cré na Cille sounds a whole lot funnier. And for anyone reluctant to tussle with the prose, there’s even a film.

For Cré na Cille is all about graveyard humor – literally. The fractured narrative follows a group of newly and not so newly dead residents of a boneyard in western Ireland during World War Two, who tell over the deeds and wrongs of their lives, sometimes whimsically, often obscenely. Words like bawdy, ribald, and profane jump out of commentators’ accounts when they describe it. Yet as of the latest figures on Irish Gaelic speakers, only some 140,000 have its tongue as their first language, with around 1,065,000 across Ireland who speak Gaelic as their second language. As late as 2001, columnists in The Irish Times were begging for an English translation, on the grounds that, even after the appearance of versions in Norwegian and Danish, “most Irish people have not read one line of it.”

The author would have understood the problem. Máirtín Ó Cadhain was a vehement Irish nationalist in his lifetime, who saw his work partly as defending the cultural identity of his people. He lost his job as a schoolteacher and was interned during World War Two for his membership of the Irish Republican Army, running apparently highly successful language courses during his imprisonment in the Curragh Camp. Scottish Nationalists familiar with the cultural and Marxist nationalism of Hugh MacDiarmid will recognize the type. He was also a prolific short story writer and journalist, penning two more novels as well, so there is plenty, plenty more in store now that the English-language translation logjam has been broken.

And why the long delay? Reports suggest that editors and publishing houses in Ireland were simply scared off by the work’s formidable reputation. In particular, the Ó Marcaigh father-and-son team who held the copyright until 2009 were apparently so wary of finding an adequate translator that they vetoed translation for some three decades. Fortunately for Irish readers, and everyone else, except presumably Danes and Norwegians, the long wait is now twofold over.


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