Home Books The Dregs of the Day: by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

The Dregs of the Day: by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

Imagine a novella evoking James Joyce’s story of “The Sisters,” Flann O’Brien’s blather of hyper-literate, half-mad pub denizens, Joyce again in the ruminations of Leopold Bloom wandering the streets of an Irish city and Samuel Beckett’s formidably logical protagonists.

Translated by eminent poet-critic Alan Titley, The Dregs of the Day follows Yale’s 2016 edition of the most renowned novel in the Irish language, rendered by Titley as The Dirty Dust. While acclaimed, the alternate 2017 version—one marvels at a publisher nowadays commissioning two translations at once—as Graveyard Clay, in Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s phrasing, better conveys the sense, echoed in Hiberno-English, of the dense dialogues and lyrical passages contending in Cré na Cille’s rattle of eternal bickering among a village’s cemetery inhabitants. With either version, a wider readership finally had a chance to dig in.

In Dregs, Titley distills the essence of the language in this second fine fiction from that master of Irish, Máirtín Ó Cadhain. It introduces the energy of what can be disorienting and dispersed interior monologues set off by rapid-fire conversation more compactly than in Ó Cadhain’s difficult 1949 tale, for those new to his (admittedly still limited) work rendered through English.

A more compact story engages as, Titley reminds us in his introduction, one realizes that existentialism was invented not by struggling laborers or displaced immigrants, but those of rarified privilege. Contrarily, Ó Cadhain scrabbled and fought to emerge from poverty into a hard-won grasp of wider culture. He grew up among impoverished Irish speakers farming on the harsh west coast of Connemara. A schoolteacher jailed for his IRA recruiting and his agrarian activism by the Irish Free State during WWII, he fought against the government which he’d soon need, in job-scarce Ireland, as his employer. While the mix of Marxism and anticlerical socialism driving him gains less attention in The Dregs of the Day compared to his political tracts, the modernist inspiration infusing his imagination blossoms in his final book, which came out the year of his death in 1970. As Titley puts it, this writer stretches and teases his twisty language.

An unsettling existential viewpoint permeates this novella. Known only as N., its indirect first-person voice never wanders away from this harried civil servant working for the state television. What rankles him is that his wife has just died while he’s off at work. Preoccupied by the hit on his bank account this portends, his addled frame of his mind falls unhinged after his wallet is stolen in a department store in this unnamed (but inevitably Dublin-esque) metropolis. Ó Cadhain’s contempt for the urban hustle in which he had to earn his living similarly in mid-century Ireland surrounds his alter-ego N. Titley notes aptly how Ó Cadhain wrote until his momentum sapped.

It could be as a hefty graveyard saga or this efficiently told weekend, so The Dregs of the Day shows his knack for channeling the best of relatively recent writing from his fellow countrymen through his own style. N.’s inner voice ruminates as he takes the path between “the looming trough of despond and the impossible veil of the future.” Rather than clever cant of his French intellectual contemporaries, a dogged, veteran, radical agitator Ó Cadhain hones in on raw truth.

While women fare less well in N.’s affections than how much he can score for a pint paid by an easy mark, Ó Cadhain manages to make his character’s misogyny quirky rather than cruel. N.’s frazzled peripatetic peregrinations track him lurching from one perplexing encounter to another, even more frustrating rejection as he seeks solace in ready loans or at least a reduced rate on the costs looming for the funeral, coffin and inevitable reception with its distribution of drink.

Turned down by the credit union, St. Vincent de Paul’s charity dispensers, the parish and even the Salvation Army, all interlocutors explain that for one, he’s a well-employed functionary of the Irish government, and two, it’s Saturday night and nothing can happen until Monday morning regarding any postmortem arrangements or transactions. N. increasingly lapses into streams of consciousness. Subtly speckled with self-consciously satirical sputter about his impecunious plight, N.’s mind fills with oddly appropriate biblical allusions. “N. knew full well that he was the chaff in the midst of the rich crop of wheat.” Ó Cadhain’s narrative rambles in dispersed fashion.

But it quickens into hints of exaltation. Amidst appropriately morbid reflections on mortuary customs, N. runs into a sailor from Boston who’s been rolled of his cash after a drunken debauch. Bob pals up with N. But N. fears that his relatives in Beantown will get wind, such is Irish gossip, of N’s dissolute condition and dire straits. He also fears facing Monday’s reality.

Although N. manages to cadge two bottles of whiskey despite his purported destitution, he cannot escape the decision ruining his weekend. Should he stay away or must he go now to his wife’s internment? The climactic choice proves surprisingly wistful amidst the self-contempt. It’s a neat nod to Joyce’s innovative use of epiphany, which fittingly ends his novella The Dead. N.’s parting gesture leaves the reader contemplating the titles of both Joyce and Ó Cadhain’s stories.

Does a widower have to attend his wife’s funeral? Or is this his best excuse ever for calling in sick?
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Evokes the masters

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