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the irish book of the dead: a review of máirtín ó cadhain’s the dirty dust

By Patrick O’Connor.


Máirtín Ó Cadhain, The Dirty Dust (Yale University Press, 2015)

Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust is not exactly well-known to Anglophone readers, though the novel is surely of a piece with the great literary works that emerged from Ireland in the 20th Century. It has Joyce’s linguistic ingenuity, O’Brien’s surrealism, and Beckett’s comic philosophy. But it is written in Irish Gaelic, and it had to wait until last year to be published in English, by Yale University Press.

Translated by Alan Titley, The Dirty Dust is peculiar in many ways. For one, there are no characters in this novel. All of the voices in the novel are dead. There is also no plot—other than the one the corpses are interred in: the book is set beneath an anonymous graveyard in Connemara, a small rural community on Ireland’s west coast, during World War II, and unfolds through the conversations of comically ensnared voices of corpses in coffins.

If anything drives this story forward, it is the gossip from the arrival of new corpses, with the latest half-truths, trivia, innuendo, speculation, and scandal that is taking place in the land of the living. Countless voices speak, shout, reminisce, interject and argue about their life above ground, and it is often difficult to identify who is who. Some voices do emerge more clearly as the novel progresses. There is the Old Master, a teacher lamenting his wife’s eternal infidelity; a French pilot who crashed during the war; a nosy Postmistress; a conman salesmen who manipulates people from the community; the Trumpet of the Graveyard, the oldest and most portentous corpse; and Billy, a good natured postman who has a relationship with the Old Master’s wife.

Despite the cacophony of voices, the novel holds many consistent preoccupations. The Dirty Dust is a novel obsessed with questions of survival, both personal and collective, asking questions about the consequences of transition from an oral culture to a textual one, as well as the capacity of a people to communicate their values and anxieties across generations (as evidenced by the litany of miscommunications between older and newer corpses).

In a lovely paradox, Ó Cadhain makes the dead very lively indeed, as they inhabit the life of the living, and their thoughts, anxieties, and reputations survive in a dull and haphazard way, with immortal life unbearably proximate to mortal life. All these dead voices are hopelessly petty, obsessed with the most banal issues of life, such as who has the biggest farm, who is the nosiest neighbour, a publican watering down drinks, mallets, donkeys, seaweed, fences and a whole array of the most mundane concerns.

The novel, however, is not so much a paean to competing voices, as some critics have suggested, but a celebration of the ghostly silence implicit in all speech—with a forcefully ethical edge: the book is marked by a weird egalitarianism. Nobody seems to have the ability to elevate his voice over others; even the loudest are quietened and cannot assert their dominance for very long. The Dirty Dust gleefully grinds and churns all thought and aspirations into the material mulch of the graveyard clay.

As with many modernist texts, the form is partly the message. The narrative consists solely of conversations. Whether we can even call the exchanges conversations is unclear, as the babbling corpses’ sentences often are incomplete, starting in the middle without beginning; intended meanings are undisclosed; voices overlap; and often, conversations are repeated to no avail. Indeed, to what the extent characters can even hear each other is never certain. One gets the impression that Ó Cadhain is giving expression not just to vernacular speech, but to something subtler, the hidden and indirect meanings present in everyday communication. Which is to say, his literary achievement involves a very endearing and peculiarly Irish existentialism: a mix, if you like, of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Purgatory. Though Ó Cadhain is rightly placed in the pantheon of Irish literature, alongside Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien, a more pertinent forebear might well be the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Ó Cadhain revels in what Kierkegaard called ‘indirect communication,’ a way of confronting the reader with the necessity of paradox and contradiction, using multiple voices and pseudonyms to disrupt the authority of the author. After all, even the author himself is ultimately subject to the dirty dust.

Interestingly, because the novel consists purely of voices, there is a dearth of the usual visual description that comprises the bulk of most novels. This has the effect of profoundly dimming—disembodying—the lived world, which makes sense for a bunch of corpses. However, this belies Ó Cadhain’s injunction for a passionate commitment to the life of the material world. An unrelenting, unspoken theme of the novel is embodied life, or more accurately, the manner in which decay inhabits our biological life, and thus undermines our capacity for survival. The worst insults in Ó Cadhain’s shallow underworld are those that draw comparison with animality, sex, and bodily organs. No such insult is more succinctly expressed than through the voice of harridan-in-chief Catriona Paudeen: ‘I wouldn’t marry you, you rotten poop, even if cobwebs grew out of me for want of a man.’ Or: ‘You did in your arse. My daughters wouldn’t give you a whiff of a puff of a half-nostril of the air that was in the same room as my body.’ Even a cursory flick through the novel will reveal a stabbing ‘through the walls of your liver,’ along with gluttonous guts and ‘evil enemas’.

This, coupled with Titley’s joyous translation of Ó Cadhain’s ever-present sexual profanity and expletives, bringing us such linguistic delights as ‘piss flaps’, ‘cuntish gash,’ the traditional Irish favourite ‘fuck me pink,’ and a sprinkling of good old fashioned ‘cunt,’ all reminding the reader of the intermingling of the body and its drive for material survival. The disembodied voices miss the thing they forgot most when they were alive, and that is the corporeal frame of the human body.

It is impossible to read this novel without incessantly being reminded that, for Ó Cadhain’s, all bodies are existential bodies, with decomposition as their inevitable destiny, but bodies nonetheless that are barely repressible in their impulse for life. The suspension of the corpses in the graveyard offers direct criticism of the ethereal and immaterial. We find in the talking corpses a reversal of a lived life. In The Dirty Dust, rather than death haunting life, life haunts death. There is nothing resplendent in the next world for Ó Cadhain’s cadavers. In fact, their afterlife is remarkably similar to the life they have lived: the babbling of anxieties, grudges and grievances, misdirects, half-truths, gossip and passive aggression, cowardice, failure, and the pursuit of petty economic status – in other words, the basic social glue of rural Irish life when alive.

While Ó Cadhain does not offer an unquestioning celebration of the living world, he does show a great sensitivity to the formation of a community, an identity that draws sustenance and survival from nothing other than itself, via the narration of its own stories, and shared, inchoate attempts to make sense of the world. The whole novel offers the slenderest of metaphors, as the dead offer each other little solidarity, representing a small and closed community of silence. However, it is a community nonetheless, tenacious and resilient in its attempt to persist.

For all the solemn gravitas of loss and mourning, The Dirty Dust is a profoundly funny book. This is evident in Ó Cadhain’s singular mix of bathos and pathos. One of the most carnivalesque voices in the book is the Trumpet of the Graveyard, the oldest corpse, who heralds the arrival of each new corpse in the most pompous terms, which is usually met with bawdy cackling from his fellow cadavers. By the end of the novel, the Trumpet is left with nothing to say. It is impossible to escape the searing levelling and humorous debunking that comes from the mirth and bonhomie of Irish gallows humour. Consider the figure of the Old Master, who speaks of his romance with his wife as ‘of a piece with eternity’ and boasts of her promise to mourn him for the rest of her life. That the dead, however, should subordinate the living is anathema to Ó Cadhain: the denizens of the graveyard gleefully disrupt the Old Master’s peaceful afterlife, informing him that very briefly after he died, his wife gets together with Billy the Postman.

There are ethical points to be drawn from The Dirty Dust. The attempt to remove a living future is condemned, and the idea that someone could hold sway over mortal life after death is shown to be laughable. It should be kept in mind that the lived reality of Ireland in the 1940s was a place with little future. Ó Cadhain himself was subject to internment during this period. Secondly, the novel gives voice to equality, as there is nothing that the chattering corpses can rely on to prove they exist except, as befits a closed community, the interaction and testimony which comes from fresh immigrants from above the ground, bringing further claims, counter-claims, disputes and untruths. (There is also an undermining of the class system at play within the graveyard, as life always interrupts any fragile hierarchy that asserts itself.)

Ó Cadhain is prescient in his way, as the voices of the novel resemble nothing so much as an average Twitter feed. Heidegger called such nattering idle chatter, meaningless conversation without any significance, purpose and direction, where the most trivial matters of dining, fashion, gossip and what ‘they’ say rests alongside the gravest matters of life and death. The litany of the babbling corpses bring an equality to all things, and the only sense that this can be transcended for them is retrospectively; their great loss is in remembering, looking to past versions of themselves that might have been. Ó Cadhain is of a piece with Heidegger: death is very much a part of life, and though this is something that we prefer to forget, Ó Cadhain goes to extraordinary lengths to remind us of the invigorating possibility of the seriousness and frivolity of life, or the mix of gravity and hilarity typical of Irish waking culture. (Another one of Ó Cadhain’s books was called Idir Shúgradh agus Dháiríre –roughly Between Play and Seriousness, or Gravity and Play).

For Ó Cadhain, in a Heideggerean way, there is immense possibility embedded in the everyday life of all potential cadavers, that is, all of us: ‘…If I had lived another while! If I had lived another while, for jay’s sake! What else would I have done? What would I have done, that is the question. A wise man might be able to deal with that…’ The residents of this Connemara graveyard are just like us, frightened, vulnerable, status-obsessed and hopelessly self-involved, and the novel shows that we are all living corpses. Ó Cadhain’s achievement is to show how the local is transcended into the universal. The jabbering voices beneath the ground can come from anywhere, place or time. In the end, what is this strangely brilliant book really about? The ultimate question The Dirty Dust asks is how are we to survive, and the ultimate crime is not to let the dead bury the dead.




Patrick O’Connor is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Nottingham Trent University. He researches European Philosophy, with special reference to Phenomenology, 19th and 20th Century European Philosophy, and early to Mid 20th Century French Philosophy. He has published two books one entitled Atheism Reclaimed on atheism and existentialism, the other on phenomenology, ethics and the work of Jacques Derrida entitled Derrida: Profanations. He is currently working on project that investigates the intersection between Philosophy and Literature in the work of Cormac McCarthy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 26th, 2016.