Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1949 – Cré na Cille, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

The Irish State considered Connemara native Ó Cadhain as a threat to neutrality, but his acclaimed Irish-language novel is a brilliant series of scenes of class struggle

Máirtín Ó Cadhain: one of Ireland’s most innovative 20th-century writers. Photograph: Courtesy of Yale University Press

Máirtín Ó Cadhain: one of Ireland’s most innovative 20th-century writers. Photograph: Courtesy of Yale University Press

 

One of the side effects of the second World War was the internment of IRA activists by an Irish government that feared their alliance with Germany would endanger Irish neutrality.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, who had been dismissed from his teaching job in 1936 for IRA membership, was imprisoned initially in Arbour Hill, in Dublin, just after the outbreak of the war, then interned at the Curragh from April 1940 to July 1944.

Ó Cadhain used his time well. His intensive study of languages and of modern European literature helped him become the most important prose writer in Irish of his generation, and one of Ireland’s most innovative 20th-century writers.

Ó Cadhain’s politics were driven by outrage at the poverty of his native Connemara community in Cois Fharraige. He was particularly critical of anything that might mummify or museumise western Irish-speaking communities. In many ways, indeed, he dramatises the irony of the State’s inability to give much reality to its stated aims of reviving Irish as the vernacular language.

The 1937 Constitution declared Irish to be the “first official language”, but arguably that language’s most vigorous writer was soon behind bars.

In France a very different Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, was summoning (in French) “all the dead voices”. Cré na Cille also listens to the voices of the dead.

Set in a graveyard and presented as a series of conversations between those who are interred there, the novel revolves around the lifelong and all-consuming rivalry between the central character, Caitríona Pháidín, and her sister Neil, who married Jeaic na Scolóige, the object of Caitríona’s desires. In a series of dramatic interludes Caitríona converses with a range of locals, and the freshly buried arrivals fuel her insatiable thirst for gossip about her family and neighbours.

While the novel exposes the class structure and social circumstances of a tight-knit rural community, its broader existential concerns bring it beyond the confines of realist fiction. The sense of the human as mere matter in the cyclical process of birth, growth, decay and death is highlighted in the stylised introductions of Stoc na Cille (The Trumpet: Voice of the Graveyard), which precede some of the interludes. Although there are numerous references to religious ritual, religion provides no solace for Ó Cadhain’s chattering dead.

Aspects of the novel may also derive from Ó Cadhain’s internment, where letters were censored and news from outside was limited to that brought in personally by the newly arrived prisoners. But the world of the novel is not entirely internal: references to emigration; interethnic marriage among Connemara people in England; English-language popular literature; London nightclubs; and American movies all denote a community in contact with a wider world.

The novel is set during the war years, and the incessant talk includes references to Irish neutrality, support for Hitler, Nazi concentration camps, food rationing and Lord Haw-Haw. One of the dead is a French pilot whose aircraft crashes over the Connemara coast and who is trying to come to terms with the cacophony of voices around him.

Cré na Cille was serialised in 1949, in the Irish Press, before its publication in book form. It was a matter of great pride to Ó Cadhain that the story was not only read with relish in his native Cois Fharraige but also gained him recognition on the streets of Dublin, eliciting a remark overheard from the crowd on his way into Croke Park: “There goes Cré na Cille.”

In listening to the dead voices Ó Cadhain had given his language a whole new life.

You can read more about Máirtín Ó Cadhain in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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