Building a sense of the self


As na Culacha by Padraic Breathnach Clo IarChonnachta 288pp, £10

Tearmann na gColur by Aodh O Canainn Clo IarChonnachta 204pp, £6.50

Not quite one hundred years old, the novel in Irish seems, on the evidence of Padraic Breathnach's As na Culacha and Aodh O Canainn's Tearmann na gColur, to have enough puff to carry itself into the next millenium and a little beyond that. The two works offer an interesting example of "compare and contrast".

Breathnach's As na Culacha is concerned with the emigrant experience in London. We've been here before. Padraic O Conaire mapped this territory in his short stories and in his novel, Deoraiocht. But where O Conaire's depiction of loss and twisted minds owes much to subtle implication and an active imagination, Breathnach simply weighs in with a narrative style which is both blunt and surprisingly stylish, given the subject matter.

Breathnach's narrator, an Irish-speaker from the Conamara Gaeltacht, recounts his days as a navvy on London's building sites in the 1960s with lustful indulgence. Little is left to the imagination. The foibles and fetishes of our narrator's life are laid before the reader in painfully explicit detail. Sex dominates this character's every moment: lack of sex, expectation of sex, talking about sex, listening to sex, having sex.

It is in a very coarse way a man's story. Women are little more than objects of lust and the female form is depicted in savagely anatomical detail, rendering it not so much an object of desire as an object of dissection. Men are the vital and brutish beings in this universe. They work and take their pleasures where and when they can find them. The narrator becomes a brute in a foreign field; freed from familial bonds and censure, he ruts his way around the concrete highways and byways in an attempt to satisfy his lust. Needless to say, his cravings have a price.

As na Culacha is a fraught, and at times wearying, piece of work. Powerful, engaging and horrifying, it demands and demeans by turns. Few will emerge unscathed from Breathnach's ferociously pitiless depiction of male carnality. Nevertheless, there is a sense that this novel lacks a little something to lift it out off the minutely descriptive and into the truly imaginative.

By contrast, O Canainn's Tearmann na gColur is a prim and proper novel dealing with the emerging civil rights movements in Derry and the Donegal Gaeltacht in the late 1960s.

Telling his tale in an episodic manner, O Canainn builds the work around individual chapters on his protagonists: Marcas O Dochartaigh, Clodaigh Nic Gairbheith, Pascal O Riagain, Tiarnach Mag Fhionn and Sorcha Ui Riagain.

This disparate cast are bound together by common ties of religion, language and work. Single episodes in their lives are replayed from individual angles, an interesting device but one which tends to make the work a little ponderous.

Nevertheless, the author has constructed male characters who are deeply flawed personalities and all the more interesting for it. O Dochartaigh, whose story opens and closes the work, is possessed of a selfishness which renders him unsympathetic to the reader. O Riagain is a dry stick and Tiarnach Mag Fhionn is a hypocrite. Much of the book centres around these three.

For redemption, the reader must turn to the women. Clodaigh Nic Gairbheith's story is the most moving. Caught in a dead-end factory job in the Gaeltacht, she gradually begins to realise her own strengths and abilities in the face of a hostile (and male) management.

Similarly, Sorcha Ui Riagain, wife of Pascal, finds her self-worth in the civil rights movement while her husband fusses over his managerial responsibilities and worries about prospects for promotion.

Intermingled with the story of the civil rights movement in Derry is an exploration of the Gaeltacht and the effects of attempted industrialisation. The linguistic integrity of the region is threatened by the populace's own lack of interest and the active dislike of senior English-speaking industrialists who milk the system for every grant they can get.

The Church too objects to industrialisation as it brings with it outsiders and their dubious ways. O Canainn has a sharp eye for detail and a sharp ear for hypocrisy. And while Tearmann na gColur is an intelligent work, I'm not wholly convinced by its ending.