Mairtin O Cadhain's Cre Na Cille: A Narratological Approach

Article excerpt

Mairtin O Cadhain's novel Cre na Cille (Graveyard Soil) won the Oireachtas literary competition in 1947. Recognized almost immediately as a classic, the book, set among the dead in a Conamara graveyard, was serialized in the Irish Press between February and September of 1949, the same year it was published in Dublin by Sairseal agus O Marcaigh. O Cadhain, responding to suggestions that he was inspired by Dostoevsky, claimed that his inspiration actually came from a throwaway comment he heard after digging a grave for an elderly resident of An Cnocan Glas (1) in the winter of 1944-5

   Chart muid dha uaigh ach niorbh iad na conrai cearta a fuair muid
   iontu. Cuireadh fios ar mhapa na n-uaigheannai ach big an mapa
   cosuil le gasur ag deanamh suimeannai leis an tlu i luaith an
   teallaigh. Bhi se siar sa la agus ba ghearr go mbeadh an tsochraide
   ar fail. Duirt muid go gcartfadh muid uaigh eile agus gurb shin e
   an meid. Ag dul abhaile dhuinn duirt duine de mo chomharsanai:
   'an bhfuil a fhios agaibh car fhaga muid tealtaithe sa deire i,
   anuas', aduirt se, 'ach ar dhuine a dtiurfa mise Micil Rua air'.
   'O', aduirt ceann erie, 'o bho go deo nach ann a bheas an
   "grammar"'. (2)

   We dug two graves but we didn't find the right coffins in them.
   The map of the graves was sent for, but the map was as if a child
   had been doing his sums with the poker in the ashes of the fire. It
   was getting late and the funeral was due at any moment. We said
   that we would dig another grave and that would be that. Going
   home, one of my neighbours said: 'do you know where we got rid
   of her in the end, but down on someone whom I'll call Red Micil.'
   'Oh', said another, 'Oh dear, but isn't there going to be the
   grammar down there'.

The novel's chief protagonist appears to be a woman, Caitriona Phaidin, who has died and entered the graveyard only to discover that even there she will not find the peace she expected. Instead, she joins a cacophonic and multi-voiced argument between the many local villagers (and some strangers) who have preceded her. From the news she brings, the information we hear from the already-dead, and fresher input from those who follow her, we piece together the fragments of multiple narratives, some concerning the real-time goings-on in the graveyard and the village, and some concerning earlier events that the dead are doomed to replay and reanalyze for eternity.

The most unusual feature of the novel is its presentation in the form of dialogue. There is no obvious narrator to describe the speakers or mediate their utterances to a reader, making the novel seem like the script of a radio play, as Declan Kiberd notes in Irish Classics. (3)

O Cadhain made no concessions to his readership, mostly from the educated urban middle class, who had little or no experience of the Gaeltacht. His greatest strength could paradoxically also be his greatest weakness: in hyperrealistically portraying the linguistic and societal quirks of his beloved Conamara he made his prose impenetrable to all but those readers who either hailed from the region or whose chosen field of linguistic or literary expertise it was. Breandan O hEithir, in his early life a travelling salesman of Irish-language books around Ireland, observed with resignation that many people, even schoolteachers, would have difficulty understanding even the first sentence of Cre na Cille, while most readers gave up less than half way through the book. (4)

Beyond the vocabulary and idiom of much of O Cadhain's prose, however, lies serious narratological difficulty. Although there is little dispute that stories develop in his prose, it is often unclear who his narrators are. What can one make, for instance, of the following exchange between three seaweed-gatherers on a beach in O Cadhain's powerful short story 'Fios':

   'Dheamhan an oiread sin feamainn dearg a chonaic me i dtir
   ariamh cheana faoi Bhealtaine,' adeir Claonfheachaint. …