Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70) is a name that can be anglicised as Martin Kyne. He was a former IRA prisoner from Connemara who became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. His 1949 novel Cré na Cille (literally, clay of the church) has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, with two English versions finally appearing in the past five years. It is said the first English attempt, in the Fifties, turned to dust when the young woman hired as translator joined a convent. There have also been stage and radio adaptations and an Irish-language feature film (2007).
The two central characters are the rival sisters Caitríona and Neil (pronounced Nell). Caitríona is dead in a Connemara graveyard but continues to live their feud from beyond the grave. Hence the brilliant conceit but the tragic element, evident from the first chapter, is that Neil took the man Caitríona loved.
Pursuing an ambition to read it in Irish was a proud undertaking in my book, though I was nearly fifty before I got round to it. Before long I got used to the non-standard spelling Ó Cadhain favoured but still had to turn to the dictionary quite often, not being completely familiar with our past customs either. After a hundred pages I hoped Caitríona would be seen yet to have put one or two over on her sister, by way of reprisal. The carry-on at her wake, the treatment of her corpse, is practically sacrilegious, even to a non-believer.
All updates come from the newly buried, though a French pilot arrives after a plane crash and no one can understand French. A hundred and fifty pages in, Caitríona gets her first bit of good news since she was lowered. It seems her previously despised daughter-in-law is a new woman since going over and hammering Neil’s equivalent over an insult and, when Neil tries to intervene, shoving her into the fire.
There is a key section near the middle of Cré na Cille – a passage of criss-crossing accusations of rural stealing and robbing this, that and the other – that performs two non-comic functions. It reminds the reader (a) not to take all that is said here at face value and (b) similarly not to take all that the living Irish say as gospel.
Towards the end of the book I began to wonder nonetheless would the whole prove less than the parts. With fifty pages to go it looked like there would be no climax, as I read a diverting passage of hospital slapstick about the mixing of two patients’ innards. That life goes on above ground seemed to be the overall message but I didn’t want to finish it just feeling sorry for Caitríona.
Nevertheless there is a kind of climax, in the end, when one ghost likens Neil and Caitríona to two pups he once saw watching a dying mule. In stopping the other getting at the mule, the one gets so worked up that it expires but, when the mule itself goes, the other pup just slinks away, leaving it all to the dead one.
…agus nach bhfágann ansin ag an gcoileán caillte é.
It thus seems the positive reports of Neil that torment Caitríona have something to them and that she really wasn’t so bad after all… once Caitríona was gone. Otherwise, half the community – above ground – ends up in court and/or prison.