Rí-rá agus rumpy-pumpy.

Philip O’Leary reviews The Dregs of the Day, by Máirtín Ó Cadhain:

When the first published English translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille appeared in 2015 and 2016, readers of English were able to share what readers of Irish had long known – that Ó Cadhain had achieved world stature by drawing on his unparalleled mastery of his linguistic medium to express the life lived by the people of his own native Conamara Gaeltacht. Ó Cadhain himself was, however, never satisfied with that achievement, writing in his 1969 pamphlet Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca that having lived in Dublin longer than he had in the Gaeltacht he didn’t have the right “Baile Átha Cliath a fhágáil ina pháipéar bán”. The result of this guilty awareness was a series of groundbreaking stories of Irish urban life in the Irish language, of which the most important is the novella Fuíoll Fuine, here translated by Alan Titley as The Dregs of the Day, the final story in the final collection published in Ó Cadhain’s lifetime and thus an important indication of the direction in which his work might have gone had he not died in 1970. […]

So much for the novella itself, but what about the translation? In many ways, Titley, the finest writer of Irish prose since Ó Cadhain, is in his element with Fuíoll Fuíne, having shown in his early novel Stiall Fhial Fheola (1980) and in later short stories a kindred ability to create a Dublin that is both alien and weirdly like the “real” one. Moreover, he also shares Ó Cadhain’s extraordinary command of his linguistic medium and a sometimes anarchic willingness to expand his word hoard with borrowings, adaptations, puns, and outright creations. As a result, The Dregs of the Day reads very much like an original work, free of any touch of academic second thoughts or undue subservience to an esteemed original. The one aspect of the translation that may require comment involves the question of linguistic register. Titley’s English here is far slangier and raunchier than Ó Cadhain’s Irish. For example, in Fuíoll Fuine, the Little Sisters of the Poor will lay out a corpse “in aisce”, while in Dregs they will do it “for feck all”. Ó Cadhain’s “ag cur imní air” becomes Titley’s “bugging him”; “ar meisce” is translated “pisso blotto”; “céard ba chóir dhó a dhéanamh” as “what the fuck he should do”; “a dliteanas céileachais” as “her rightful amount of rumpy-pumpy”; “lucht na tuaithe” as “that bogger crowd”; “póilís” as ‘fuzz”; “lucht póite” as “piss artists from the boozers”; “duine dímheabhrach” as “total thicko”; “fear ab airde ná é” as “somebody higher up the food chain”; “an múnlach bréan móna seo” as “this fucking bogplace shithole here”; and “chuir sin scáth air” as “this put the shits on him”. And there is much more of the same.

Some of these earthier renderings are more successful than others, and there will doubtless be readers who know the original who will find some or many of them startling and/or objectionable. But that is just the point. In Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca, Ó Cadhain recalls a conversation he overheard on a Dublin bus in which a man called him “a right galoot if ever there was one. A Joycean smutmonger.” What this man was shocked by was not Ó Cadhain’s language, for having developed largely free of the absurdities and excesses of Latinate classism and Victorian respectability, Gaeltacht Irish never needed to develop separate registers of acceptable and “dirty” words to denote body parts and their functions. The simple fact that a writer of Irish like Ó Cadhain wrote about – perhaps even knew about ‑ such things – was enough to scandalise more than a few committed “Gaels” for whom the Gaeltacht was more holy ground than a place where people actually lived. Thus the simple fact that Ó Cadhain wrote of that life so naturally and honestly lent his Irish a certain frisson in his own time. To give his readers that same jolt now a translator must up the voltage in his search for English equivalents for what seem to be neutral Irish words and expressions. (One thinks here, for example, of Paul Muldoon’s translations of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.) Titley must have had great fun coming up with his rumpy-pumpys, and to a great extent if they bother us that’s our problem. Besides, should anyone be surprised to find more than a few fucks in a story set in Dublin?

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Google Translate says that “céard ba chóir dhó a dhéanamh” means just “what to do”. Maybe someone who knows Irish can comment on whether it’s being too genteel to say what it really means.

  2. That’s what it means.

    Literally “what’s right to do”.

  3. Yes, “what he ought to do”.

    The title is a pun on “rí rá agus ruaille buaille”; “uproar and commotion”, “fun and games”.

  4. Is that one English example actually supposed to be “bugging him” (which is not vulgar in the slightest) or “buggering him”?

  5. John Cowan says

    But what is it to “leave Dublin in white paper” (per GT)?

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘someone higher up the food chain’ isn’t vulgar – I think the point is that these are all more colloquial than the original Irish, vulgar or not.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    John Cowan: ‘on a blank page’, I think. The title ‘Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca’ seems to be translated as ‘Blank pages and written pages’.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    @jc, jen
    In this case bán = blank, breac = written. The distinction that breac gives for me is one of markedness, qualifiedness or impurity, I. e. a breac-Ghaeltacht is a mixed-speech region as distinguished from a fíor- or lán-Ghaeltacht, which is (theoretically) a district where Irish is used for everyday purposes. The book “the speckled people” plays on another use of breac (I. e. specific type of markedness)

  9. “slangier and raunchier” describes the sum, of parts which may be slangier, raunchier, neither, or both.

  10. John Cowan says

    Okay, but I still don’t see what leaving Dublin and blank paper have to do with each other. I am undoubtedly being thick today.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    He did not leave Dublin, he left it (as) a blank sheet, I. e. he had not written enough about it, although he had lived there for a long time.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I was in the state of Knowing All Those Words but not the meaning – ‘breac’ is essentially a landscape word for me, although I think there was a king Domhnall Breac at some point. I’m not sure if using it for writing is an Irish thing, or if I’m just not poetic enough 🙂

  13. John Cowan says

    Ahhh. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail English preposition. Stupid GT.

  14. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Is the ‘ina’ the same kind of reflexive preposition – I don’t know the proper word for it – as in ‘tha mi nam tidsear’ and so on? ‘In a blank page of its own’?

  15. John Cowan says

    king Domhnall Breac

    Indeed. He seems to be Donald the Speckled, though surely “the Freckled” would make more sense.

    Royal epithets. Sorry about the typo Cháca for Chaca as James II’s epithet, corrected further down the page).

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    You are correct. I am a teacher could be “Tá mé i mo mhúinteóir (scoile)”. What o’cadhain wrote strikes me as livelier than fágáil mar páipéar bán and it is clear, if O’cadhain is the speaker, that Dublin is the blank sheet in his formulation,

  17. ina = i(n) “in” + a [possessive pronoun]

    Ó Dónaill 1977 sv i

    3. (With possessive pronoun)
    (a) (Of status, function, etc.)
    (b) (Of state, condition) Irish English “in one’s health”
    (c) (Of manner, likeness) ~ “like”, “as”
    (d) (Of arrangement, numbers, parts; after verbs of dividing, changing, etc.) ~ “in” [pairs, hundreds, pieces]

    Related to 3a is Irish English “for the day that’s in it”

  18. Ó Dónaill 1977

    Boy, that’s a great resource.

  19. per incuriam says

    breac as a verb can just mean to write, especially in the sense of jotting down quickly.

    There’s also breacadh an lae = dawn, daybreak.

    Cue Dineen: “breacaim, -adh […] I begin to brighten (as the day)”.

    Barmbrack = a loaf with bits in it. The first element being a rare enough instance of an Irish word transparent to speakers of Welsh and Breton.

    To give his readers that same jolt now a translator must up the voltage in his search for English equivalents for what seem to be neutral Irish words and expressions

    Tabhair briseadh dom.

  20. having developed largely free of the absurdities and excesses of Latinate classism and Victorian respectability, Gaeltacht Irish never needed to develop separate registers of acceptable and “dirty” words to denote body parts and their functions.

    This would make Irish quite unusual – can anyone confirm whether this is actually true?

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    It is true that euphemisms are and were not required. But there is and was an awareness of what one says when “gentlemen” are present. Thus the Tailor of Eric Cross’s “The Tailor and Ansty” was heard to report after one evening “bhí oíche mhaith shalach againn”, I. E., we had a good dirty evening, expressing a mixture of pleasure and shame at having told certain stories with Cross there to hear them.

  22. It sounds much like Middle English, where ca. 1400 a technical book on surgery translated from the French explained: “In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte” (per the OED). If there was a vulgar word at the time, it was not written down and so is lost, but I bet there wasn’t.

  23. Indeed – see also the original names of, say, Magpie Lane in Oxford and Grape Street in York, previously named after their main industry.

  24. >largely free of the absurdities and excesses of Latinate classism >and Victorian respectability, Gaeltacht Irish

    Is this an argument that “obscene” language is a miscarriage begot of prudery? We find registers of profanity in every tongue, culture, and era. No fuss, not aberration—to cuss is apt oration.

  25. Are you familiar with every tongue, culture, and era, then? Impressive.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Is this an argument that “obscene” language is a miscarriage begot of prudery?

    It’s an argument that the perception of the words for genitals & excretion as obscene, not to be uttered in polite company, is a miscarriage begotten of prudery, so that a separate register of profanity is only found in cultures that have acquired such prudery – which apparently happened after 1400 in English.

Speak Your Mind