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5 October 2006 Edition

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Review - TV Documentary on Máirtín Ó Cadhain

Welcome look at Ó Cadhain's literary greatness


Arts Lives

RTÉ 1,

Tuesday, 26 September

"It is as an unrepentant republican that I write this" were the opening words of Máirtín Ó Cadhain's pamphlet Aisling, in which he described the fundamentals of his political outlook. It was one which permeated his creative prose writing also - which, combined with his understanding of the complexity of human beings living their lives in a changing world, made him one of the greatest prose writers Ireland ever produced, if not indeed the very greatest.

Yet to English-speaking Ireland, Ó Cadhain is virtually unknown. And indeed, even in the Irish-speaking world, Ó Cadhain has been largely silenced on the argument that he is "too difficult to understand."

RTÉ, then, did a major public service last week when they broadcast a documentary on Máirtín Ó Cadhain, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of his birth in Cois Fharraige, Conamara, in October 1906. Arts Lives broadcast this special programme in Irish, but with on-screen English subtitles, under the title Rí an Fhocail (King of Words), followed by a repeat of a celebrated documentary There Goes Cré na Cille.

Cré na Cille was Ó Cadhain's major prose work, compared by Irish scholars to Joyce's Ulysses. But while Joyce analysed the angst of the urban lower middle class in a changing Ireland where old authorities were beginning to be challenged, Ó Cadhain looked at a traditional peasantry coming to terms with the modernisation of their world against the backdrop of the continuing power of the Authority: the Church, and of what was then a dying tradition.

Given the almost complete blanking out of Ó Cadhain from Irish cultural history by the English-speaking scholars who dominate academe, it is a great pity that this documentary did not analyse Ó Cadhain's outlook more sharply and, in particular, did not point out the way in which he can justly be compared to Joyce and Beckett. It was as if the story was too big for RTÉ to manage.

And so Ó Cadhain's life was compartmentalised, as if his literary work, his political writings and his political activism were discrete parts almost unconnected with each other.

We were told that Ó Cadhain joined the IRA in his youth in the late Twenties, but were never told why. What republicanism meant for him was never discussed, even though in his comments on the funeral of hunger-striker Tony D'Arcy in 1940 he explained very well that the IRA of his time stood for the completion of the social revolution that would undo the English conquest and modernise Ireland not on the basis of greed and inequality but by building on the traditions of shared work (the meitheal) and shared community (the pobal).

It was this political outlook - allied of course to his unwavering commitment to the Irish language revival - that permeated his literary writings, and that gives them meaning.

The programme did draw attention to his acute portrayal of the doubly-oppressed role of women in a beaten community, but left it out of context. For example, in describing Bóthar go dtí an Ghealchathair (The Road to Brightcity - available, incidentally, in English translation), the film had the heroine looking back at the hard road she had travelled, aware that this merciless struggle would reoccur every day of her life. But what was left out was her hope for a better life for her child, her belief that her hardship could be avoided for the next generation - in other words, that struggle would bring progress.

This is a profoundly socialist understanding, and one fully in tune with the republicanism of his comments on D'Arcy's death. It is an understanding that explains his work, rather than just describing it.

The documentary attempted also to trace the three main stages of Ó Cadhain's literary output: the early writings, rooted in a straightforward (but still progressive) explanation of his own Gaeltacht community, and the role of women especially within it; the period following his release from the Curragh (where he was interned for his IRA activities in the 1940s) when the influence on him of international trends, such as that of Maxim Gorky's socialist realism, can be noted; and the phase of his Sraith series when he had moved to Dublin and wrote with more acute awareness of the urban environment.

But the programme didn't have the time to explore all of this, and neither do I in this review. There is a richness of material here, worthy of more analysis and dis cussion.

But one gap was glaring, and that was the analysis of Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain's masterpiece. Cré na Cille has two parallel themes: the real life of the Gaeltacht peasantry, with their squabbles and humanity, presented surreally here as a dialogue of the dead; and the constant threatening presence of Authority, interwoven through which are stultified tradition, ecclesiastical authoritarianism, and the eternal truth that death is the end of all life.

"Mise Stoc na Cille. Éistear lemo Ghlór. Caithfear éisteacht!" I am the Stock of the Graveyard. Let my voice be listened to. It MUST be listened to.

The word Stoc of course has many meanings: stock, root, connecting-thread, as well as trumpet, battle-horn and call to arms. There is a wealth of meaning in the phrase, as there is a wealth of meaning in what Ó Cadhain wrote.

Nevertheless, this was a major effort by RTÉ, and one deserving of praise. Not only did they put the effort into making the documentary, but they put a lot of effort too into publicising it. Ó Cadhain deserves it, and hopefully it will stimulate many listeners to go back to the sources and read Ó Cadhain for themselves. That's a task well worth doing, even if the non-Gaeltacht speaker might need to use a dictionary.

Well done, RTÉ. But it could have been better.


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