The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Mairtin O Cadhain

Liam O Ruairc • (first published in Fourthwrite)

Mairtin O Cadhain (1906-1970) has been called by Declan Kiberd the greatest 20th century prose writer in Irish, and his work has been compared to that of Joyce and Beckett. He is also the major Republican Socialist theorist of the language and culture question. However very few would be familiar with his name and work. A search on Google will bring only 124 hits for his name, and one on Cre na Cille, his masterpiece, will bring up a scandalous 306 hits –most relating to a restaurant of the same name! It is time that his importance and contributions be recognised.

Mairtin O Cadhain was born in 1906 in the Conemara Gaeltacht. He studied to become a teacher, and joined the IRA in 1927. In 1937, he got sacked from the school he was teaching in for his Republican sympathies. A 1980 RTE documentary revealed that in revenge, the local IRA carried out a ‘punishment beating’ on his successor. In April 1938, he was elected to the Army Council of the IRA. He was arrested in 1940 following his oration at the burial of Tony D’Arcy who had died on hunger strike. Subsequently, he was interned in the Curragh until 1944. Disagreeing with the IRA over its lack of political and economic programme, he drifted out of the organisation. After his release, he worked in the translation department of the Dail, before integrating the department of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. Over the years, O Cadhain was involved in a number of organisations defending the rights of the Irish speakers, such as Muintir na Gaeltachta, Misneach, and the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Gaelic socialist newspaper An tEireannach. A fellow traveller of the CPI, O Cadhain is reputed to have first translated the Communist Manifesto and the International into Irish. He died in 1970.

The greatest prose writer in Irish, O Cadhain uses his native language with skills not found among many writers. He was a great stylistic innovator, enriching his colloquial speech Irish with constructed neologisms and words from other languages and dialects. His masterpiece is the novel Cre na Cille (“The Graveyard Clay,” 1949). As Eoghan O Tuairisc noted, he shaped a vitriolic style, using the most shattering idioms of the living Irish speech laced with phrases from the 17th century literature and new coinages from the thinking of Darwin, Einstein, Marx and Freud. His writings attack the dehumanising of life and the castration of culture with a blistering invective and scurrility unsurpassed since Swift. This is the sort of literature Republicans should aim to produce.

O Cadhain developed a Marxist analysis (with strong Gramscian elements) on the language question and the depopulation of the Gaeltacht. The cultural hegemony of English was the outcome of socio-economic interests inherent in the power structure; the breaking of this cultural hegemony therefore would require a revolution in the power structure. He summed his position as: “Irish is the Reconquest of Ireland and the Reconquest of Ireland is the salvation of Irish. The people’s own language is what will save them.”

The revival of the Irish language depends on the revival of those who speak it. He saw Irish as the means of expression and cultural medium of the most downtrodden social group in Ireland. It is through the revolutionary Reconquest of Ireland that the Irish speaking community could be revived. When he writes that the people’s own language is what will save them, he expresses his belief that revolution should be a development immanent to the life and culture of the community and vice-versa. The revival of the Irish culture depends on the revival of the Irish people, the revival of the Irish people depends on the revival of the Irish culture. The struggle for the Irish language should be part of the Reconquest of Ireland, if the Irish language movement fails to be active leaders in that struggle, then the whole Irish revival will fail:

“It is the duty of the Irish speaking people to be socialists. The Irish speaking community of the Gaeltacht is the poorest and most beaten down class of our people in Ireland. For me, to revive that class, the Irish speaking community, is the same as to revive the Irish language. This revival can only be achieved through the Reconquest of Ireland –the reacquisition by the people of Ireland of the ownership of Ireland and all its wealth. So for me the revival of Irish is the same as the revolution that is needed for that Reconquest. So any act which will increase the spirit of the Irish speaking community is a part, and an important part, of the Reconquest.”

His message to the Irish language supporters is that they must become involved in the struggle for national liberation and socialism:

“Not only should Irish speakers be participant in this war for the Reconquest of Ireland –it is the only thing worth being part of in Ireland- but it is our duty to be its leaders and its guides. If Irish is the steering force of the revolution, in this way, Irish will be one of the most progressive forces in Ireland: that is the same as reviving Irish.”

Mairtin O Cadhain is one of the few revolutionaries who really understood the value and importance of culture and language in the fight for freedom (or “national liberation as a factor of culture” as Amilcar Cabral would have put it). He illustrates at its best the socialist position on the revival of Irish. That his work has been neglected for so long is simply scandalous.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

28 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Anthony McIntyre

The Cost of the Failure of Politicians is Immeasurable
Mick Hall

A Provisional Pushover
Tom Luby

Seeing What You Want to See
Eoin O Broin

Puritan Death Ethic: Ronan Bennett’s Havoc, in its third year
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Mairtin O Cadhain
Liam O Ruairc

Please Help Put A Smile On The Faces Of Palestine’s Poorest Children This Christmas
Margaret Quinn

23 November 2004

Dropping the Last Veil
Tommy Gorman

No Place for Silence
Anthony McIntyre

The Vacuum

The Unpopular Front: James T. Farrell then, Margaret Hassan now
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Reflection on an Election
Patrick Hurley

New Work on Perry Anderson
Liam O Ruairc

I, a Collaborator
Dorothy Naor

The Murder of Margaret Hassan
Ghali Hassan

The Orange Order and the KKK
Richard Wallace



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