Review: The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

I received a review copy of this book from Yale University Press.  This book was published in Irish in 1949 and this is the first time it has been translated and published in an English edition.  The translator, Alan Titley has a well-written introduction at the beginning of the book that includes some interesting information about the history of Irish language and literature.

My Review:
Dirty DustThis book takes place in the cemetery of a small town in western Ireland where corpses engage in conversations that continue the pettiness and gossip that dominated their lives when they were still aboveground.   Caitriona Paudeen, the most outspoken, and the most foul-mouthed in the group has a severe dislike for her sister, Nell and her daughter-in-law.  Caitriona’s vehement dislike of her relatives stays with her on the other side and it seems to intensify when she hears news of their lives as they continue on without her.

THE DIRTY DUST is one of the most unique premises for a book that I have encountered.  The dialogue in the book is not the typical streamlined speech that one encounters in a more conventional narrative; the conversations on which the reader is eavesdropping are bits and pieces of information, complaints, and stories that the corpses are remembering from their former lives.  Because we are oftentimes launched into the middle of a conversation, it is not always clear who the speaker is in the narrative and one has to look for certain clues or turns-of-phrase that are uttered before a speaker can be identified.  The only time new information is introduced to the graveyard is when a fresh corpse is buried.  Each new corpse brings another opportunity for juicy gossip to be spread around the graveyard.

Through the course of their cacophony of conversations, we learn that this group of neighbors and family members are petty, jealous, bigoted, narrow-minded and foul-mouthed.  The town Postmistress opens everyone’s mail, Peter the Publican who owns the tavern waters down everyone’s drinks, and Huckster Joan who is the town merchant poisons everyone with her terrible coffee.  They bring up old arguments about football games, money and wills; they are constantly spying on each other and wondering about the goings on of their neighbors.

Ó Cadhain also demonstrates his writing versatility though the use of philosophical and poetic speeches that occur at the beginning of each chapter or interlude.  At the beginning of Interlude 5 he writes, “Here in the grave the spool is for ever spinning; turning the brightness dark, making the beautiful ugly, and imbricating the alluring golden ringlets of hair with a shading of scum, a wisp of mildew, a hint of rot, a sliver of slime, and a grey haunting of mizzle.” As contrast to what happens in the graveyard he writes, “Aboveground everything is bedecked in the garments of everlasting youth.  Every shower of rain creates a multitude of mushrooms miraculously in the grass.”

THE DIRTY DUST is a timeless and brilliantly funny satire of life in a small town where old grudges are not forgotten, even when neighbors are buried six feet under the ground.  The only difference between life and death is that in death the people in this small town are stuck next to their neighbors from whom they can never escape.

About The Author:
Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906 – 18 October 1970) was one of the most prominent Irish language writers of the twentieth century.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born in Cois Fharraige in the Connamara Gaeltacht in 1906. He is best known for his major novel, Cré na Cille (Dublin, Sáirséal agus Dill, 1949). It has been translated into English as The Dirty Dust, and into many other languages, including Danish and Norwegian.

His short story collections include Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre, 1939, and An Braon Broghach, 1948, from which Eoghan Ó Tuairisc translated stories published under the title Road to Bright City (Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1981); An tSraith ar Lár, (1967); and An tSraith Dhá Thógáil (1970).

A national school teacher in his early life, he was interned for his activities in the IRA during World War II. He became a lecturer in Irish in Trinity College Dublin in 1956, and became Professor of Irish there in 1969.

He died in 1970.

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Filed under Classics, Humor, Literature in Translation

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