Cathal O Sandair


ONE of the conventions of our time is the listing at year's end of those famous people who passed away in the course of the year. When such a compilation is made in relation to 1996 I doubt if the name Cathal O Sandair will appear on it. Cathal said slan in the spring and a true genuine citizen of the world had departed.

Ce'rbh e an Cathal seo, you might ask, and whence? He was born in England in 1922 of a Dublin mother and an English father, a member of the British Army, and the family moved to Dublin when Cathal was very young. Whether by accident or design the garsun was soon immersed in the culture of his new country and by 16 years of age his first short story in Irish had appeared in print.

It heralded the greatest success story in modern Irish literature and the author of a harvest of titles featuring the detective Relies Carlo, who had the status of a pop star among the youth of the Forties and Fifties. The first in the series appeared in 1943 Na Mairbh a d'fhill and it sold over 30,000 copies. By the time the "Irish Detective" retired from the scene, over 500,000 copies of books of that ilk had been bought. No other writer in the Irish language ever succeeded in matching that achievement.

I fell victim to those gripping tales, with the result that I was always interested in the personality behind the fiction. How strange then it was for me to read a letter in a national newspaper, a few days after my first ever broadcast, in praise of my effort, with the name Cathal O Sandair appended. The same letter could be cited as typifying the philosophy of the man his propensity to praise, especially youth, and his willingness to perceive goodness where possible.

Cathal O Sandair had other lives, too, besides being author of over 150 books in Irish, a pioneer of comics in the language and a regular contributor in English to magazines like tiornans it at and others of its kind, under appropriate female pseudonyms. He spent some time in the Air Corps and later served in the Customs and Excise service.

But the urge to write and create was ever present and, though financially less rewarding, he took some years off from "normal" work to do so full time. He was the essence of the true scholar and this trait bred a desire within him to try and appreciate and understand the diversities of other people's interests. Personally he absorbed all he could of Irish culture before reaching outwards and becoming fluent in each of the Celtic languages Glidhlig, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

But Cathal's world did not end in total fascination with the mystique offered by the Celtic world alone. He felt he owed something to the principle of mutual respect and, as a means towards its perfection, he also acquired a sound working knowledge of French, German, Spanish, Russian and Dutch. Indeed, he always made a point of greeting people from other lands in their language, thereby making a statement that his world did not contain masters and servants but equals, with everybody cherishing their own values while respecting those of others.

It was appropriate that such a man would say farewell as he listened to his grandchildren recite the luring poem of Raftery, the blind Irish poet, Anois teacht an Earraigh now the coming of spring. It tells of the mental wanderlust of the poet as the vibrancy of spring drives him from town to town throughout his native Mayo finding solace, friendship and happiness at all stops Clar Chlainne Mhuiris, Balla, Coillte Mach, Baile An Ti Mhoir and so on. It is a poem of hope and anticipation and to Cathal those "backward" places particular Chontae Mhaigh Eo" were prototypes of similar places the world over a world appreciated as a unit by the mind of a man who deserves recognition from all of us.

Spring will truly remain with Cathal the Extraordinary.