The Dirty Dust by Mairtin O Cadhain


Fuck The Fucking Fruitcake

Originally published in 1949, Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s notorious novel The Dirty Dust is widely considered to be a masterpiece of Irish literature. Yet in the fifty-plus years since it arrived on the scene, shocking the sensibilities of many of the upstanding citizens of Ireland with its liberal use of crass and filthy words, no one has attempted to provide non-Irish speaking readers with an English language translation. All that finally changes today however, thanks to the arrival of Alan Titley’s energetic take on the classic text from Yale University Press.

From the very first sentence of the opening paragraph it’s clear that The Dirty Dust is not your ordinary novel. Told almost completely in dialog that’s being exchanged by an ever increasing number of dead people whose bodies are rotting away in the ground beneath a local cemetery, the story that unfolds over the course of its ten interludes demands much from the reader, asking them to pay careful attention to determine who’s currently speaking, what they’re speaking about, and how what they’re saying fits into the larger narrative that’s constantly unfolding. Keeping track of the endless banter between these dozens of denizens of the dirt isn’t always the easiest of tasks, especially without any additional guidance from the author himself, but it does create a rather astonishing effect, elevating the structure of the text above that which could be initially perceived as a rather gimmicky form of storytelling and placing it squarely within the realm of a fully realized art form.

There are no descriptions of the principal characters, and by purposefully omitting these seemingly crucial details Ó Cadhain has all but forced his readers to ascertain their own thoughts and feelings on each of his subjects based solely on the strength of each individual’s words. It’s an interesting experiment, sort of like how your initial perceptions of someone in real life, which are based primarily on physical appearance, can change after you’ve gotten to know them much better. What first appears to be beautiful can in fact wind up to be rather ugly, and vice versa. Though for the record, while your opinions of them can and will change over the course of the novel, most of Ó Cadhain’s creations do come across as rather unattractive, petty people, but the negative personality traits they each possess only add to their appeal as a set of hilariously outspoken, backstabbing, and narrow-minded voices coming at us from beyond the grave.

If there’s one voice in particular that seems to rise above the cacophony of noise most frequently it would be that of the recently deceased Caitriona Paudeen, a bitter woman whose only aim in life was to outlive her much hated sister Nell (didn’t happen). Seconds after being placed in the ground she starts to worry: was she buried in the fifteen shilling plot or the much more respectable pound plot? Once she comes to terms with the fact that it was the former, she begins to obsess over when a highly expensive cross made of Connemara marble will finally adorn her gravesite. This fear of never having a proper marker isn’t unfounded, because it seems like just about every interlude starts with a brand new corpse being accidentally lowered on top of her. As much as she can’t stand sharing her space, she also can’t wait to hear the latest news from the world above. How many people attended her funeral? Will her sister finally drop dead soon? What’s her beloved son Patrick up to? All those daring to spout words that contradict what she desperately wants to hear best be prepared for a wicked tongue lashing though.

—May you be seven thousand times cursed tonight and tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, you Communist you, you Fascist, Nazi, atheist, spawn of the red Antichrists, you perfect pustule of the plebeian pricks, you dirty dregs of the dingy damned, you fester of fever, you fly’s fart, you maggot’s mickey, you earthworm’s slime, you belching bollocks that even frightened death himself so he had to send you a disease in the end, you muck muppet, you clap of crap, you rusty wreck of a useless git! . . .

Caitriona is surrounded by an equally amusing and self-centered cast of characters including a French fighter pilot (whose words remain untranslated), a former pub owner who is accused of watering down drinks, a school teacher who fears his wife is having an affair (not much he can do about it now) and the comical John Willy, a man who was in possession of a rather dicey heart and isn’t shy about sharing this information with his new batch of deceased friends. Together they all try to hold elections, start rotary clubs, and form societies, because seriously, what else is there to do from the beyond but attempt to maintain some semblance of the life you once knew? Yet all these pursuits seem to eventually fail because of the tireless in-fighting and gossiping that’s occurring between them all.

The Dirty Dust is a novel that’s inspired me to change my ways. Oh who the fuck am I kidding, that’s not true at all, but has made me realize how much time I spend complaining about others behind their backs, and truth be told, how great doing it makes me feel. By focusing completely on the voices of the dead Ó Cadhain has managed to both mimic and celebrate the glorious storytelling power inherent in life. We can’t help but bitch and whine about our neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones. Their apparent stupidity feeds that deep need we all harbor inside to feel superior to everyone around us.

People are quick to say that all this modern technology—things like cell phones that double as mini computers, email, and the internet—are making us lazy, that they’re destroying language and communications, but isn’t the opposite true? Hasn’t technology actually empowered us to say the very things to people that we’d have never dare dreamed of saying to their faces without the buffer of a keyboard and screen? It could be seen as a form of cowardice yes, but at least we’re finally beginning to tell some version of the truth to one another. That’s got to be worth something, no?

Then again, maybe not. Maybe we should just bottle it all inside, save it all up, for the day when we finally claim our rightful place in the dirty dust. At least that way we’ll have plenty to talk about when we’re gone, as if somehow running out of shitty things to say about the people, places, and events of our lifetime was ever a legitimate concern in the first place. For a novel that takes place six feet under ground, Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust is quite the lively affair and thankfully, all these years later, Alan Titley’s translation resuscitates it wonderfully for an entirely new population of modern day readers to ponder over and enjoy.

Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain / Translated from the Irish by Alan Titley ★★★★☆
The Dirty Dust
by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Translated from the Irish by Alan Titley
Yale University Press
(1949) 2015
328 Pages
ISBN 9780300198492

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.