In the second article in this special series, various writers celebrate the life and work of Máirtín Ó Cadhain who died on 18 October 1970.
Who will understand it forever?
I didn’t feel a penny about Máirtín Ó Cadhain when I was in secondary school. I am not in favor of making the usual complaint that he was not on the course. There was hardly any new literature on the course, and whoever liked it had to go looking for it himself.
Nor was he on the first year course when I was a teaching student at St. Patrick’s College. But there was something better than that, the people of Connemara were there. For the first time correctly this unusual Irish landed on my ears, Irish in which ‘acub’ and ‘leob’ and ‘a’m and the emphasis on the syllable were contradictory. We only spoke Cork Irish, with the exception of the few westerners who did their best to transcend the Gaelic of Kerry. More remarkable than the students of Connemara themselves, there were some who discussed books and literature, perhaps as strange as people now imagine. It was in that chatter between two lights that I first heard about Máirtín Ó Cadhain. In the folklore I translated with him.
That first December, six months after the Leaving Cert, I was hanged Cré na Cille home from the library. I had no idea what it was, but I understood that it mattered. Seosamh Mac Grianna concluded that he wanted to write a book that would remove the skull from mankind; this book was about to decapitate me.
Did I understand it? Who still understands? Who will understand forever?
Tomás de Baldraithe told me to read Cré na Cille at least once a year. I can’t say I did that, but I often did. Giving too much to any work is not a healthy thing and I was afraid that when the CDs of the book that were broadcast in the early days of RnaG, CDs that had been enthusiastic companions in my car for a long time, were released, I was afraid to start talking about such as Caitríona Pháidín or Tomás Taobh Istigh, or for God’s sake, the Grand Master.
I went out on the short stories soon after that Christmas, my first year in college, and those, too, have been my lovers for a long time, the late ones too. There was a friend of mine in high school who claimed that Elvis never sang a bad song (I have examples to the contrary!), And it can be argued that Cadhnach did not write bad news either. Some better than others, true, but still…
A man who never stood by the common people
Bríona Nic Dhiarmada
When I started university in the mid-seventies, Máirtín Ó Cadhain was in the grave for five years but his echo could still be heard around Trinity College and especially in Scoil na Gaeilge and among the students in the Cumann Gaelach. I registered as a member of the Society on the first day and the ‘Freshers’ Week’ events were in full swing. I was excited. I am a member of a society founded by Douglas Hyde! The first person I met in the Society’s rooms was the son of Cadhnaigh’s brother, Máirtín Óg Ó Cadhain. I was six years ahead of us among the handful of us who were studying Old Irish and Modern Irish at the time. We were to be friends during our time at Trinity and I got to know all of his family over the years.
Getting to know the likes of Máirtín was a great encouragement since I had always been Cadhnach as a hero even though I hadn’t read a word he wrote yet. What impressed me most in my youth was his political and cultural activity, the way he stood up for the causes he believed in. A determined man, a man who has always stood by the common people, a man who was appointed Professor of Irish at Trinity College despite having spent years in captivity for his Republicanism and had no academic experience or the appropriate credentials other than a reputation as a great modern Irish prose writer!
I felt proud to be attending such a university. I was eager to start reading his work. His first book on the course was The Broghach Drop. The lecturer was a young woman from Connemara, Máire Ní Bháin, who had been closely associated with An Cadhnach since she was conceived. With a lot of help from dictionary notes provided to us by Máire, I started reading. I was enchanted even though it was hard, hard to read “as hard and troublesome as the stones of Connemara itself” as one critic put it. But the stories, the characters, especially the female characters, Mairéad in ‘An Taoille Tuile’, the mother in ‘An Bhliain 1912’, Nóra in ‘An Bhearna Mhíl’, Bríd in ‘An Bóthar go an Ghealchathair’. There is not a penny of sentimentality to be felt, there is only the truth, let it be bare and bitter itself. They never left me. As another well-known writer said: ‘Their memory lives on in my mind / I will surely live until I am on earth.’
If we want to celebrate it read it
Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh
I do not know what Cadhnach would say, if he heard through the clay of the cell in Mount Syroom that a statue is to be erected in his honor. It would shake the clay, I would say.
Most important is a stone or brass statue in honor of the sweetest Irish speaker and writer of his time. The language itself is its heritage and its honor, as long as it survives – the speech of the people, Cois Fharraige talk, ‘country talk, earthy talk, skinny talk that starts dancing on me a little, crying on me a little, thank you’. She still lives, even though I hear on the radio the cancer of Englishness digging hard in her.
If there are people with us here who have not yet read much of Ó Cadhain ‘s work – and certainly is – I would recommend you first immediately with his essay White Papers and Speckled Papers (Clóchomhar 1969). There is an addition to the origins of the stories, to the folklore and biographical background, as well as to the hard work of the mind that the writer needs to excel in order to excel. – and all that in prose that would break your heart with its beauty.
Cadhnach was only a little over sixty when he was lost. If he had lived another ten years, I have no doubt that he would have been awarded the Nobel prize for literature, as it was in those years after his death that literary committees began to pay due attention to great writers who practiced languages in a small community. Sadly, that will not happen, as the prize is not awarded after death – but the work is on the shelf ahead, and more important than a prize is a statue that would attract the attention and appeal of today ‘s young readers.
CADHNACH AND ME: ‘This writer had a relationship with us, he was one of us’