Reclaiming One Of Ireland's Masterpieces

03/30/2015 09:10 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Irish literature is one of the great literatures of the world. This is well-known because of our Nobel Laureates in particular, Yeats and Shaw and Beckett and Heaney, but also because James Joyce and Swift and Oscar Wilde and others strut the world in their greatness. Contemporary Irish literature has also attained international acclaim with the novels or stories of John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright or the poetry of Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan and Eavan Boland amongst many others.

What is not often known, is that there is another Irish literature written in the Irish language, a literature which is little known and smally celebrated. The Irish language was the tongue spoken in Ireland for most of its history, and maybe all of its pre-history. It is not English spoken with a thickish brogue and wheeled out in plays and films to betoken authenticity. It is described as a Celtic language closely related to the Gaelic of Scotland and the Isle of Man, and more distantly to Welsh, Breton and Cornish. It is sometimes wrongly described as Gaelic which would be akin to calling the German language 'Dutch.'

There are many wonderful things about the Irish language, not the least of which is that it contains the longest, unbroken, literary language of Europe, with the exception of Greece. It became under serious attack during and after the English conquest of the 17th century, and was still the majority language of the country on the cusp of the famine in the mid-19th century.

When most of Ireland regained its independence in 1922, the Irish language was given institutional support which it had been denied for hundreds of years. This helped to regenerate its literature which had been largely reduced to folklore and to pleasant tales of rural life.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain's novel Cré na Cille, which I have translated as The Dirty Dust, broke through all the certainties and the pieties. It was a novel written in the most Irish of Irishes, but which told the tale of people's small-mindedness, of their butchy and bitchiness, of their hatred and venom for one another, of their everyday pettiness, of their inbred nasty vendettas, but all of it told in a language of life, of vigour, of beautiful verbal viciousness. More startlingly, it is a novel told by people who are all dead.

It is set in a graveyard on the coast of Connemara in Irish-speaking Ireland, and even though everybody is buried and laid in their grave, they are certainly not silent. The squabbles and fights and hatreds and jealousies that lived in the world above persist in the world below.

It might seem that the basis of the story is petty enough. One sister hates another because of a man. But it may be that all of life is in that kind of hatred. The pettiness, the unforgivingness, the getting-even, the never-ending feud of life. Around this is woven the rippling and expanding feuds of family and of relations, who married whom, and why they should not have done so, and whose son or daughter has done better than the other son and daughter, and who is to get more money from the next will, and who stole somebody's seaweed, and how did they die and who is going to be next down into the hole...

It is the constant soap opera of humanity. Big issues may come and go, the universe may be coming apart, the end of the world may well be nigh -- as it already for those who gabble and gossip in the grave - but the only real thing that matters is the immediate daily gripe, the putting one over, the getting better of, the sly dig, the verbal victory, the luscious lie, the rapid response, the conversational crushing, the winning of the word!

Indeed, winning the word is the greater part of the book. Anthropologists divide cultures into those that are silent and those that are loquacious. In case there was any doubt about it, Irish culture is loquacious. Deprived of literacy in their own language, prevented from access to power and to the press, squeezed out of official discourse day by day, it was not surprising that the Irish expressed themselves in their communities with a flamboyant fluency and a poetic flair which was denied to them elsewhere.

The Dirty Dust is a celebration and an expression of this flair and fluency. It is not an accident that it is told entirely in talk, with the exception of some overblown prose of ironic intent which serves to mark the difference between the ordinary and the sublime. This superinflated prose happens briefly at the beginning of most chapters, but can be largely ignored for the purposes of enjoying the story.

My intention in the translation was to capture the best that could be caught of this fleeting masterpiece. There is no easy equivalence between any two languages, and those that belong to different language groupings present even more problems. Every translation is a work of chance and of gamble and I tossed the dice. But if you want to know what really went on in rural Ireland, this is the novel for you. There are no holds barred, and no questions unput, and no praises undampened.

Like the truth of it, you might not wish to be there, but it is great fun to listen in to what was going on.

My hope is that by reading this novel and wondering at its joy and love and hate and anger and crude beauty people may begin to recognize that there are many other great works of prose fiction and of poetry written in Irish which have been hidden to the world by its usual universal insularity.