In the 1930s the novel written in Irish typically told the story of the noble Islandman. He stood resolute against the battering Atlantic storm, with a stout and honourable heart that dearly loved his God and his neighbours. Adversity was but a passing challenge to be scooped up in the fishing nets of his wisdom. Morality was simple. Books written “for children or nuns” indeed.

The genre was fair game for Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen in 1941 in “An Béal Bocht” (“The Poor Mouth”) which satirised the whole Gaeltacht existence thing. The non-hero is Bónapart Ó Cúnasa, and he is a pretty miserable, self-pitying individual, living in constant calamity. Misadventure falls on his misfortune. There is but a fine line between him and the family pig. He’s so feckless they had a “feck” mountain left over and they’ve had to recycle them into Irish comedy up to the present time, just to use them up. If it wasn’t for the mad schemes of his old man, the Old-Grey-Fellow, the family would be on hard times altogether. For feck sake (that’s another one).

Although published in 1941, The Poor Mouth didn’t appear in English until 1973. Just in time for the New Ireland. They’d sentenced me to twelve years of compulsory Irish language learning, so inevitably I became monoglot in English.

Another novel , “Cré na Cille” by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, appeared around the same time (in 1949) but has only just been translated by Alan Titley as “The Dirty Dust”. I urge you to read it. I’ll come back to the translation of the title another time, but a stab at pronouncing his name would be something like “Maur-cheen Oh Kyne”.

I never stood a chance with it being in the Irish, and myself the monoglot. But I was not going to pass on the translation of any book that was initially rejected because it was too “Joycean”.

You see, the whole thing takes place underground, in the dirty clay of a cemetery, and the novel is a dialogue between the dead. But maybe “dialogue” is too grand a word. It’s more of an ongoing shouting match as each dead voice struggles to be heard. And what do the dead talk about? Mostly about the petty squabbles they had going on up above. The dead can talk, and they never let up for a second. A few of them went to their death expecting a quiet time of it after, and they are especially aggrieved at the outcome.

It’s not an easy book to read. If it was the text of a play, you’d have Mercutio: or whatever next to the lines to help you follow. This is just a stream of unattributed babble where you have to pick out the speaker from the text. You either learn the characters or you may as well give up. But this has the effect of speeding up the flow, so it really is like listening to a room full of Irish people talking. We have to use phrases like “Listen to me now” or “Come here to me now” just to get a bit of attention for the next utterance, half-blind to the irony that these filler words add yet more noise and even less signal.

Each character in Cré na Cille has a distinctive voice. Catch-phrases, if you like. It makes me smile to remember my own family and the phrases they made their own. It would be like you’re in a pub in Galway and you’d run into the aunt and the uncle out for the night:

Is that yerself that’s in it? Nice mouth on ya for a pint of Guinness. Were you up the country saving the hay? Ach, no better man! Who’s yer man abroad there? Nice mouth on him for a Mercedes and the trousers hanging off him. Far from class he was reared. Sure, fuck the begrudgers. A decent skin, all the same. No better man! Are ya coddin’ me? Wasn’t it him that was after telling me his self? Some cute hoor right enough. No better man, me arse! Fair fucks to him though all the same. No better man! You’re grand. Will ya take another one? Good on ya, sure you might as well. No better man!

The great thing about all of this and the encounter in general is that you would not have to utter a single word. It would all just stream around you whether you wanted it to or not. Good times.

The bitter irony of the ability of the dead to speak is that I myself can barely talk. I’m as hoarse as a crow that’s been eating sawdust in a desert. I’m the raven in Macbeth that can’t even portend the death of Duncan. That’s how hoarse I am. It started just after the chemo in cycle 3 and it has lasted for weeks now. The doctor said it was either an infection (unlikely, no temperature, etc.) or it was a tumour pressing on a nerve. Not so good, that second option. Think on the irony if these tumours are being kept stable in size, but one of them still finds a way to wreak havoc. The doctor gave me an apologetic smile and a prescription for some antibiotics. The drugs did not work.

On the strength of a useful suggestion I started to think of a third reason for the hoarseness. Maybe it’s the chemo? Could Carboplatin cause hoarseness or changing voice? That’s a search phrase right there if ever there was one. There are several mentions of the possibility in the results, but if you go by the numbers then the occurrence rate is something like 0.002%. Not the most heartening of statistics.

I went back on May 14 for what was called a “discontinuation” meeting. It just means it is coming to the time they will stop me on the study drug trial, but it does sound like a Joy Division song – when the procession moves on and the shouting is over. Here are the young men, indeed, with a weight on their shoulders.

It was a bit of a farce. Yet another doctor I’ve never spoken to before, glancing at my notes like a cheat sheet as we spoke. After he got it wrong on the number of cycles and the name of  the drug trial I’m on, I gave up inside. It can all be a little tiresome some times, when you think that I’m meant to be their guinea pig on the important research that will Cure Cancer. At least I had a CT scan the same day, which justifies the journey, and he made the useful suggestion that they should scan a little more intently around the throat region. So it came to pass, and I should know the results next week.

Anyway, I’m finally in Cycle 4 (the last cycle) of my drug trial treatment. Days I feel the “chemo-wipe” wash over me – waves of fatigue your worst feelings of tiredness, listlessness, and weariness ever, all coming together at once. Make my bed I’ve a pain in me head and I want to lie down. But there’s an Irish proverb:

An rud nach leigheasann im nó uisce beatha, níl leigheas air.
(If butter or whiskey won’t cure you, there’s no cure for it)

So, bring on the butter and the whiskey, and hope in the cure for the croak. I’m not quite ready for that old sweet ground, where so many weary souls take their rest.