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Máirtín Ó Cadhain — No Ordinary Man

Le Declan Kiberd.

Published, under the title No Ordinary Man, in Irish Examiner, Wednesday
15th February, 2006 (p 16).

Once when Irish writer Máirtin Ó Cadhain went to Croke Park to watch the Galway team, a wag in the stands shouted: “There goes Cré na Cille!” as he made his way to his seat. It was the kind of recognition of which most writers only dream. Yet the classic book in Irish which gave rise to that wisecrack went out of print some years after Ó Cadhain’s death in 1970 and was reissued only in 1996.

Ó Cadhain was a man of contradictions — born into a poor family in An Cnocán Glas a century ago but ending his days as a resident of Dublin’s southside; a passionate advocate for Irish who nonetheless made savage criticisms of Gaeltacht summer schools in a column called ‘Irish Colleges: Big Business’; an erstwhile IRA man who became a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. He was a socialist who had no compunction about appearing at the Oireachtas in a dinner jacket, because nothing is too good for the revolutionary classes.

As an agitator for the Irish language, he favoured direct methods — going so far as to picket the home of a government minister. Puritanical Gaels derided him as a ‘Joycean smutmonger’ but he had a satirical turn of phrase, referring to one rather tall, thin Fianna Fáiler as síne fada na Gaeilge.

At Trinity, he amused his students, in 1966, by setting them a three-hour exam essay which asked them to construct a dialogue between Admiral Nelson and the republican who blew his likeness off his column in spring of that year. Two years later, when a cult of Chairman Mao of China flourished among student radicals in his department, he mischievously set them another three-hour exam, in which they had to translate into Irish an English version of Mao’s talk on culture at the Yenan Forum. It wasn’t easy to find phrases for such terms as comprador bourgeois lackeys and running dogs of capitalism — and he chuckled at the discomfiture of the students.

Ó Cadhain was pugnacious but also thoughtful. During his internment in the Curragh Camp in the period of World War Two, it was often said that there were three factions among the republican prisoners — the pro-Germans, the pro-British, and Mairtin Ó Cadhain. He taught himself many languages while incarcerated; and he once told me that the hardest day of his life was that of his release from captivity, when he had to face the bleakness of freedom and relearn social skills.

Cré na Cille (1949) is set in a graveyard, where the corpses gossip incessantly about one another and about life in their village above the ground. There are 10 ‘interludes’ or chapters; in each a newly-dead person is buried and arrives bearing news of all that is happening above. Often, the babblers seek to over-ride one another’s voices, traducing neighbours and friends with a furious impartiality. This is not the idealised western peasantry to be found in the texts of Patrick Pearse: rather the book answers a need, first voiced by WB Yeats, for a work in which the people would be shown up in all their naked hideousness. It is realist rather than revivalist.

But the savagery of Cré na Cille is redeemed by an even deeper sense of fun and by a willingness to see the ludicrous side of people’s aspirations. The central character, Caitríona Pháidin, is buried in a 15-shilling plot but yearns for re-burial in a more genteel guinea grave. The talkers boast of the number of priests (or motor cars) attending their funerals, or that their burial was reported in two newspapers. All are in the grip of measúlacht — killed (quite literally) with respectability, a vice which Ó Cadhain abhorred.

Tormented by the slowness of time, these buried folk seek relief in talk and story. When Jeaic na Scolóige, an old love-interest of Caitríona, is buried nearby, her spirits are raised. Others, newly-buried, tell tales of the infidelity of beloved partners above ground who have found new loves when old ones died. A French wartime pilot, who crash-landed in Connemara, adds a new voice (and language) to the babble. The result is one of the very greatest classics of Irish writing, a work fit to be set alongside Joyce’s Ulysses or the writings of Samuel Beckett.

Scholars are still arguing about the possible sources for the central conceit of Cré na Cille. Perhaps the experience of prolonged internment — of being effectively dead to the outside world — was the main inspiration behind the book. Ó Cadhain had read Gogol’s Dead Souls while studying Russian in the Curragh, so that may also be an element in the formula.

One source that hasn’t been considered is Joyce’s own masterpiece, Ulysses. In its sixth chapter, Leopold Bloom visits Glasnevin cemetery for the funeral of Paddy Dignam. Many of the jokes anticipate those voiced in Cré na Cille, not least the question of how each person will gather his bones and guts back together on the Day of Judgement. Bloom ponders whether the dead really know that they are dead at all; and he wonders, does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down? There, in a nutshell, may be the basic formula for Ó Cadhain’s text.

It may be that the talking corpses were Ó Cadhain’s metaphor for the state of the Irish language, considered dead by many but still marvellously truculent. After all, he knew better than most that Ireland’s is a funerary culture, in which death has long been a sound career move. The Irish, he sensed, were uneasy in their treatment of life, but absolutely inspired when it came to dealing with death.

As far back as 1601, the poets or filí (who had once been paid well to lament dead chieftains and fallen warriors) discovered a new theme in asserting the communal death of Gaelic tradition, after the collapse at the Battle of Kinsale. But they did so in lines of such — throbbing vitality as to belie their very message.

Ever since, the Irish language and culture have been repeatedly pronounced dead, only to revive and return from a near-death experience in some newer guise.

Ó Cadhain must have known that his great book of death was really a proof that the Irish language was fully recovering its literary life.

In the same year of its publication, another great Irishman whose centenary we also celebrate this year, Samuel Beckett, was writing the following lines at the climax to Waiting For Godot: “All the dead voices… They make a noise like wings… To have lived is not enough for them… They have to talk about it.”

Some would say that current debates concerning compulsory or voluntary Irish are not really about how we save it but about who owns the corpse.

Ó Cadhain’s example suggests, however, that the corpse, just like that of Finnegan in the famous song about the wake, keeps on rising to make one more speech. And as long as that happens, Irish will remain very much with us as part of what we are.

Declan Kiberd is Professor of Anglo-trish Literature at UCD and author of The Irish Writer and the World (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He was a student of Máirtín Ó Cadhain at Trinity College from 1969–1970.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to the author and the publisher, Irish Examiner, for their permission to publish this article here.