What Would Réics Carló Do?

The Cathal Ó Sándair website, which “aims to celebrate the life and work of Cathal O Sándair (1922-1996) and his characters,” has an essay by Peter Berresford Ellis first published in June 1988 in The Irish Democrat, What would Réics Carló do?, that introduced me to this apparently largely forgotten author:

IN ‘The Irish Post’ readers’ letters column, a contributor recently asked, in an aside, what would Réics Carló have done in a particular situation. As any reader of popular Irish literature (I mean popular literature in the Irish language) knows, Réics Carló is Ireland’s answer to Sexton Blake. The unexpected reference set me thinking about Reics and his creator, writer Cathal Ó Sándair. […]

Certainly, Réics Carló has been one of the most popular literary characters in Irish juvenile reading for four decades. The books are, indeed, the most popular Irish language books ever written. Sad that outside of Irish speakers, very few Irish peojrie would recognise Réics Carló in the same way that they would recognise the English Sexton Blake or the American Nick Carter. That is why I was particularly intrigued to see his name in a letter in ‘The Irish Post’. […]

Cathal was actually born in England in 1922 of an English father and an Irish mother. His mother was from Dublin and it was in Dublin that Cathal received most of his education before joining the Irish Civil Service, working in Customs and Excise. He began writing when he was still young and was only twenty-years-old when his first thriller Na Marbh a d’Fhill (The Dead Return, 1942) was published. It featured his detective hero Réics Carló who, as Cathal freely admits, was ‘an attempt to create an Irish Sexton Blake.’ […]

Cathal Ó Sandair created a popular literature for juveniles, providing them with the type of fare they wanted to devour and not the heavy pious tomes their elders thought they should read and which bored them out of their minds and added to their rejection of the Irish language. A certain well-known Irish author recently told me: ‘If we had all been raised on the stories of Cathal Ó Sándair as children then the Irish language might be in a more secure position today.’ […]

Once again, I emphasise that it is a sad comment that he had not received any higher literary acclaim in his own land. There is a particularly snobbish element, not confined to Ireland, that because a person writes ‘popular fiction’ it is not worthy of serious literary comment. What was Shakespeare doing but writing ‘popular fiction’? In Irish one is expected to turn out esoteric elitism and not something for the enjoyment of the majority of the people.

I recall the criticisms levelled at my illustrious fellow columnist, Donall Mac Amhlaigh, when his now classic book Dialann Deorai was published.

He was accused of using ‘rather colourless language’ which was unfavourably compared with the literary richness of Mairtln Ó Cadhain. Mac Amhlaigh was writing in the everyday language of the people and not in a bygone literary style. At least Eoghan Ó Tuairisc put his finger on matters when he recognised this fact and wrote: ‘Mac Amhlaigh, I see now, is one of the real revolutionaries!’

It is not the first time the critics have cavilled at writers changing from the archaic language of literary elitism to the language of everyday life. In happened in Ireland in the 17th Century when complaints were made that Bedell’s Irish translation of the Bible (1685) lacked ‘the purity of literacy Irish’ and was therefore a bad translation because it was written in the caint na ndaoine — the language of the people. That work actually marked the change from bardic literature to modern literature. Mac Amhlaigh’s work marked a similar change and so does the work of Ó Sandair.

The very brief Wikipedia article explains that he was born Charles Saunders and his family moved to Ireland when he was a child; for some reason it devotes one of its few sentences to this factoid: “His uncle was a professional boxer named Darky Saunders, who once fought Jimmy Wilde.” I wonder how the name Réics Carló comes across in Irish; it’s obviously foreign (I presume Réics = Rex and Carló is, well, Carlo), but what kind of connotations does it have? At any rate, my thanks to Trevor Joyce for sending me the link back in 2015!


  1. Always the leap to Shakespeare. Maybe Sándair should receive exactly as much attention as – I have to look these up – as Harry Blyth and John R. Coryell, the early authors of Sexton Blake and Nick Carter stories. I had to look up those characters, too.

    Having said that, this article and your post are immensely interesting. Rex Carlos, but Irish!

  2. I certainly recognize Réics Carló just as readily as the American Nick Carter. Who the hell is Nick Carter?! (I presume he doesn’t mean the Backstreet Boy.)

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    He’s the American Réics Carló.

  4. The first English translation does indeed name him Rex Carlo. There is an Irish county and town named Carlow, which sounds the same, but the Irish Ceatharlach is somewhat different. (In anglicisations of Irish names -ow originally indicated schwa; since this spelling-to-sound is now generally stigmatised in English, the GOAT vowel is used instead.)

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I am advised by the internet that the villains Sexton Blake had to deal with over his lengthy career include the likes of “the Byronic master thief Zenith the Albino (who had crimson eyes), Dr Huxton Rymer, and Leon Kestrel, the Master Mummer.” What Goidelically-named villains did Réics Carló end up tangling with?

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Short answer: archenemy = Randa Dal
    Here is a link from Irish Wikipedia which lists O S’s books and mentions R’s daughter Fionnuala, who appears in them together with R.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I am impressed by the word for archenemy (phríomhnámhaid)! I am separately advised by English Wikipedia that Sexton B.’s adversary Zenith the Albino was some sort of role model for the more recently discovered Elric of Melnibone.

  8. As for Nick Carter, he was basically the Shadow without the supernaturalism. Street & Smith, best known for Astounding/Analog, published both of them.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    príomh = first, “prime”
    námhaid = enemy
    The article also mentions Brian Ó Ruairc, R’s young assistant and the “Gradam Reics Carló” , a prize awarded for books for young readers in Irish.
    There is a Reics Carló book based on the Isle of Man, and one of the baddies is called Bilí na Scine.
    I don’t own any of the books, and I am unable to find lists of characters, so I don’t know if this is a typical name. Randa Dal is supposed to be Oriental, it has a hard aspect (no slender consonants).
    There are more biographical details under the author’s Irish Wikipedia entry.

  10. David Marjanović says


    Anyway, are those OCR errors in the quote? “Mairtln” has to be Mairtín, “peojrie” seems to be people

  11. True, but I didn’t want to start correcting because I didn’t know if I could tell what was an error and/or what it should be.

  12. námhaid (f) is a variant of namhaid (m) but I presume that’s grammatical gender not “natural” gender — Randa Dal is male AFAIK ; his name sounds more South Asia than East Asia.

  13. @J.W. Brewer: Whenever I see references to albinos with “evil red” or “crimson” eyes, I automatically think of Elric—and not in a good way. The first time I tried reading Elric, I started at the beginning of the in-universe chronology, with, “It is the color of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the color of bone,” and I was already questioning whether I wanted to read this. I had to wonder whether Moorcock had ever seen an albino—or whether his color vision was entirely normal.* (I had previously read The Ice Schooner, in which the blood of one of the great whales that still lives on the ice was described as purple.)

    I gave up pretty quickly, and I only came back to reading Moorcock about a decade later, when I started reading the Elric stories in the order they were written, rather than the order they take place. I also stopped when I got to the end of the Stormbringer fix-up, since that was the climax of the entire cycle. That was not too bad, although I would recommend skipping “Kings in Darkness,” as I found it boringly tacky, and it adds nothing to the mythos. And even the four novellas that make up Stormbringer are rather formulaic, in that each one features a mass battle segment and a separate small-party quest segment.

    * Not that there is anything wrong with abnormal color vision; I have red-green colorblindness myself, and it’s not much of an impediment. Moreover, probably as a corollary, my color vision is not exactly the same between my two eyes. Certain browns look redder to my left eye and greener to my right.

  14. David Marjanović says

    námhaid (f) is a variant of namhaid (m)

    Whoa. What next, grammatical tone?

    How did that happen?

  15. John Cowan says

    I went and looked over WP’s Moorcock bibliography, and was surprised to see how few of them I had read. The Jewel in the Skull (Dorian Hawkmoon 1), Gloriana, much later the Oswald Bastable trilogy. And this despite having numerous friends in my younger years who were obsessed with Moorcock, Elric, and Law & Chaos (attorneys-at-law).

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    I read rather a *lot* of Moorcock in my teens. Elric seemed to have the biggest brand identity in the larger world but the Elric books as I read them didn’t seem any more impressive than Corum or Hawkmoon or Erekosë etc. I probably stayed longer with the ones that left D&D-type settings behind for something zanier (Bastable, Jerry Cornelius etc).

    Although in this thread I was separately thinking more of Tolkien because Phríomhnámhaid sounds rather like the name of some Tolkien baddie. Maybe one of the Wrong Sort of Numenorean, collaborating with Sauron?

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    Excerpted from eDil, entry náma(e)

    n s. namae
    g s. namat
    a d s. námait , (namait, namhait, namaid v.l.).
    n p. namait . namit
    a p. naimtea, naimdea, námtea, . -náimta, náimtea, (náimtiu, naimdiu v.l.). naimtiu, naimde
    g p. nnamat
    d p. naimtib, náimtib

    Similarly declined throughout Mid.Ir. period.námha (m. and f.)
    n p. námaid, náimde (incorrect)
    g p. námad

    Mod. Ir. námha, occas. námhaid
    g s. námhad

    So already in Middle Irish there were two possible genders and even earlier there was in some cases forms with and without the fada on the first a, as well as a t/d that appears and disappears (this is not a regular declensional feature). I could speculate a (neuter?) verbal noun *namants from a dead verb cognate to Latin verb amare; since the verb was aleady dead people backformed nominal namae (either m or f, because neuter was also dying?) and were stuck with the irregular d or t in other forms. Re the fada on the first a, this may be a case where there were allophones or dialectical variation. For modern Irish the nominative was reformed with the d, which won over the t.

  18. I could speculate a (neuter?) verbal noun *namants from a dead verb cognate to Latin verb amare
    If things haven’t changed since my Old Irish lessons back at university, that’s the generally accepted etymology – it basically means “not-loving” = “enemy”.
    I don’t remember hearing about the long and short vowel variation in the first syllable, but that’s the kind of detail that was probably discussed in more advanced courses.

  19. Phríomhnámhaid sounds rather like the name of some Tolkien baddie

    Tolkien is well-known to have disliked Irish (not Ireland or the Irish people, only the language). The formal and semantic resemblance of Black Speech nazg ‘ring’ to Irish nasc ‘link, tie, tether’ (in Old Irish also ‘ring, component of chainmail’ and ‘bond, legal obligation’) is remarkable, and indeed was remarked on by Tolkien himself as a clear case of unconscious association. The nazg worn by each of the Nazgûl thus was not only a circular object, but their tie or link back to the Dark Lord, who had bound them into their undead condition by offering them Rings of Power in the first place.

    I note with characteristically Tolkienian pleasure that ‘hyperlink’ in Irish is hipearnasc.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Tolkien is well-known to have disliked Irish

    Very odd. Still, de gustibus …

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    “Finally, I would like to add further to his list of linguistic dislikes; “Portuguese is such an unpleasant language me seems”! – Yours, etc,

    (the quote is from a private letter from Tolkien to J. Hogan, the father of Tom).
    I think Tolkien may be expressing a lack of enthusiasm for the language on the basis of a particular musical tradition, i.e Irish sean nós or Portugese fado, which could be characterised as acquired tastes. Here I would note that Welsh choral and solo singing would seem to have an edge in mellifluity, as David E will no doubt confirm.

  22. Tolkien called Irish “squashy.” I think he would have said the same of Portuguese. Spanish and Welsh, on the other hand, were pleasantly crisp. The parallel Spanish : Portuguese :: Welsh : Irish has been remarked on by others, not in connection with Tolkien.

    Also remember that Fr. Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s guardian, was part Spanish and part Welsh.

  23. What did he think of French? I would classify it too as “squashy”; certainly not woody.

  24. John Cowan says

    Tolkien disliked the French language and French cuisine, but liked France itself and the French people. I have not read his opinion of Portuguese, if indeed he expressed any.

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