‘Graveyard Clay’ (original title Cré na Cille) is an experimental novel written by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. Originally written in Irish, this 1949 classic has been re-translated by Yale University Press and published March this year.
The novel’s basic premise is that the dead can speak to each other in the graveyard. With each new burial there is new gossip, new feuds, and new huge personalities. It begins with Caitriona’s death, and follows her into the grave. Everything she knows – her horrible “pussface” of a sister, her weakling of a daughter-in-law – is eventually called into question by the other inhabitants of the graveyard…
It quite reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Play’, actually.
What can I say, I’m a big Beckett fan.
‘Graveyard Clay’ is made up almost entirely of dialogue, with no indication as to who is speaking. Some characters are very easy to pick out, as they have their individual phrases and ways of speaking, but others are not. This is quite interesting, as it definitely made me think about the anonymity of the dead (especially when they don’t have a cross, a huge point of conversation in the novel). In the beginning it works very well, especially as we are introduced to Caitriona and her loud personality. However, it does get a little annoying as well, especially when voices less interesting than Caitriona’s begin to dominate. I was very grateful for the small prose sections that divide the novel.
There are many references to Irish history and mythology. This isn’t a problem because there are succinct footnotes that explain them, which was very helpful. There was also the interesting decision to italicise all the words that were originally in English, which I found absolutely fascinating.
It is a long novel, I’m not going to lie. It could be a hundred pages shorter and still get its message across. However, I found it unlike anything I have ever read, and I’m glad that I took the time to do so. I would love to read more Irish literature and see how it compares.