Gearóid Denvir
Scoil na Gaeilge, NUI Galway

Creative Commons 4.0 by Gearóid Denvir. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Cré na Cille (Irl, 2007)

Director/Stiúrthóir: Robert Quinn

Producer/Léiritheoir: Ciarán Ó Cofaigh

Writers/Scríbhneoirí: Macdara Ó Fatharta, Robert Quinn

Cast/Cliar: Bríd Ní Neachtain, Peadar Lamb, Macdara Ó Fatharta, Máire Ní Mháille, Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, Diarmuid Mac an Adhastair, Máire Uí Dhroighneáin, Tom Sailí Ó Flaithearta, Peadar Ó Treasaigh, Máirín Uí Neachtain, Darach Ó Dubháin, Seán Ó Coisdealbha.

Director of Photography/Stiúrthóir Grianghrafadóireachta: Tim Fleming

Designer/Dearthóir: Dara McGee

Music Composer and Arranger/Ceol cumtha agus cóirithe ag: Jim Lockhart

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-1970), the Irish language writer from the Connemara Gaeltacht, was one of the dominant literary and intellectual personalities of his time in Ireland. Had he written in English, or had he translated his work, he would certainly be spoken of today in the same terms as Yeats, Joyce, Synge, Friel, Heaney and other canonical Irish writers in English. As is obvious from all his published work, both creative and discursive, Ó Cadhain’s Gaeltacht origins deeply influenced his philosophy of life and worldview. His Connemara was no land of fairytale and legend, no Tír na nÓg, no place where comely maidens and sturdy youths dance at the crossroads. His novel Cré na Cille, published in 1949, is significantly more modernist in tone and outlook than his earlier traditionalist work. Situated in his own ‘local organic community’ it announced the arrival of Ó Cadhain as a major writer whose work would be read and discussed as long as literature in Irish continues to exist.

The narrative of Cré na Cille is shaped by an audaciously original conceit; a series of monologues, dialogues and conversations amongst the underground ‘un-dead’ of a Connemara graveyard including the newly-buried Caitríona Pháidín. As various new corpses arrive, the story unfolds of Caitríona’s lifelong hatred of, and bitter conflict with her sister Neil, and of her unending, and ultimately futile, battle to outdo her.

The book is an acerbic, satiric and darkly comic depiction of some of the rather less pleasant side of human nature told with earthy, Rabelaisian humour. Ó Cadhain’s portrayal of Caitríona Pháidín runs contrary to the idealised construct of Irish womanhood common to his time and his vision of society is greatly removed from the image of rural Ireland that emerges from the work of most of the traditionalist Irish-language writers of his time. It has more in common with the work of writers like John B. Keane (notably in The Field) and Patrick Kavanagh (whose Tarry Flynn Ó Cadhain reviewed favourably in 1949, the same year Cré na Cille was published).

Since its publication, Cré na Cille has succeeded in crossing the borders of literary and artistic genre and its popularity has not been confined to the written word. The spoken medium was most apposite, especially in the light of the novel’s roots in the oral tradition. As with the manuscript tradition in earlier times in Ireland, the book was read aloud in many houses in the Connemara and Aran Gaeltacht after its publication in 1949 and Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcast it as a very successful serial drama in 1973 (recently re-issued in CD form by Cló Iar-Chonnachta). A stage version was produced in 2002 and 2006 by Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, both of which sold out — an unusual occurrence for an Irish language play. The Kerry artist Pádraig Ó Mathúna has also painted a series of haunting pictures which recreate vividly the atmosphere of the graveyard and depict eerily its ghostlike inhabitants and which can be viewed in Áras na Gaeilge at NUI, Galway. And now, finally, Robert Quinn has brought this most verbal of works to the screen.

Ó Cadhain’s greatest success in the novel is perhaps the richness and scope of the language of the book which, while based on what he calls the ‘earthy, racy, polished’ speech of his own dialect, is far removed from what earlier writers called the ‘speech of the people’ in a literary context. All that the inhabitants of the graveyard have at their disposal is their speech; the power of the spoken word as a means of both self-revelation and self-protection. Moreover, much of what they have to say is but talk for talk’s sake, as if they are constructing a wall of words around themselves as a form of protection against loneliness and aloneness. All the characters return to the same issues and statements again and again throughout the novel: Caitríona talks constantly of Neil and of her own desire for a cross of island greenstone to mark her grave; An Máistir Mór, the local schoolmaster, talks of nothing else but his young widow’s betrayal of him when she married the local postman, Bileacha an Phosta; Nóra Sheáinín, the uneducated mother of the wife of Caitríona’s son, babbles continually about matters of culture and literature.

This use of language is a fundamental part of the comic and satiric import of the novel (successfully transported to the film, as we shall see) and is grounded firmly in the Irish comic tradition from earlier texts such as Fled Bricrenn,Aisling Meic ConglinneParlaimint Clainne Tomáis, down as far as Cúirt an Mheon-Oíche, the comic Rabelaisian court poem by Brian Merriman in the 18th Century, and on into Ó Cadhain’s inherited oral tradition in the Connemara Gaeltacht.

The musicality of the language, the accumulated power of the words themselves, and the bombastic, argumentative style of the novel (again successfully recreated in the film) carry the narrative forward as if in a headlong rush. There is no need to understand every word in the strictly semantic sense as the language also functions at what might be called the level of sound symbolism. Cré na Cille does not seek to convince the reader/listener/viewer on an intellectual or conceptual level. Its import is on an emotional, primordial, mantraic, almost sublingual level, as with music, for example, or incantation. The power of language and argument overcomes any reasoned or reasonable approach in an almost ceremonial manner, particularly when the likes of Caitríona or An Máistir Mór let loose with a vituperative tirade of personalized abuse.

The film adaptation of Cré na Cille was produced by ROSG, a Connemara based production company, and directed by Robert Quinn, son of film-maker Bob Quinn. The film was shot in 2006 as one of a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ó’Cadhain’s birth. In early 2007 it made the final 16 (from among hundreds of entries) at the Shanghai International Festival and was shortlisted for the Best Feature Award at the Magners Irish Film Festival in Boston. It was broadcast nationally on TG4 on St. Stephen’s Day 2007 and is scheduled to be screened at festivals in Montreal and Tokyo in 2008.

The film version of Cré na Cille is far removed from the inane, homogenised mid-Atlantic idiom of much of latter-day Irish cinema and even further from the quasi-Syngian view of rural Ireland with its folksy, stage-Irish kitchen drama. Given its subject matter, the film could easily have descended into some unreconstructed Kiltartan, a read on the world at a considerable remove from the worldview of Ó Cadhain’s original novel and most of his other works. Despite the fact that the opening wake scene, with its merry fiddlers and de rigueur rendition of the classic ‘Amhrán Mhuínse’ flies somewhat close to that particular wind (in a manner redolent of scenes from the film version of The Field), Robert Quinn’s sure-handed direction ensures that Cré na Cille does not meet Kiltartan.

The script, by Mac Dara Ó Fatharta (who also adapted the novel for the stage) and Quinn, was developed in a manner faithful to the aims and scope of the original novel and reworked successfully to enable the transfer from the written/oral to the visual/oral. The film has, of necessity, lost some fundamental elements of the original: the mysterious god-like voice of Stoc na Cille does not feature; the background choir of voices is not heard commenting on the affairs of the graveyard; and the versified parts of the original are not included. However, the film remains true in the main to the original storyline and overall message of the novel, while at the same time successfully making the genre leap from page to screen to produce what is undoubtedly one of the best — perhaps even the best— film ever made in the Irish language.

This was no easy cinematic challenge — to translate what is essentially a drama for voice into a visual medium. The well-known writer and critic, Alan Titley, stated in jest in 1981 that it would take a very creative Swedish director to produce a film of Cré na Cille. Lo and behold, we now have a full-length 94 minute feature film based on the novel – and not a Swedish director in sight! Much of the credit for the significant artistic success of the film must go to Robert Quinn – indeed, it would be difficult to imagine another Irish director who could bring to the project the same cinematic creativity and intuitive understanding of the work of Máirtín Ó Cadhain and the world from which it grew. The principle difference between the novel and the film is the introduction of scenes from the real world above ground. In the novel these incidents are recounted by characters during monologues or conversations with other corpses in the graveyard. The film visually reconstructs and re-imagines these scenes while at the same time retaining the actual speech of the characters verbatim from the novel, thus retaining the linguistic authenticity of the original. The opening scene, the death and wake of Caitríona Pháidín, is one such re-imagined episode and sets the tone and parameters for the remainder of the ‘life’ — as opposed to ‘death’ — scenes.

This re-imagining of these scenes above ground leads directly to one of the most striking creative achievements of the film which is the wonderful contrast of light between the lively, light filled, colour scenes of authentic Connemara life of the 1920s and 1930s, as against the dark, stark, black and white world of the subterranean graveyard. This contrast is further accentuated through the many wide-lens action shots above ground which are constantly juxtaposed with the close-up, almost portrait-like shots with constrained movement in most of the underground scenes.

Language both as a medium of communication (or lack thereof at times) and of public self-declamation is a fundamental part of the novel Cré na Cille. Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that the cast of the film be totally comfortable with and in the language of the script. Unfortunately, one of the main criticisms of many stage and film productions in Irish over the years has been the lack of a comfortable command of the language among many actors which leads quite often to almost unintelligible utterances on stage and screen, and often to the utter embarrassment and confusion of audiences if not of the actors themselves. The film version, however, remains true to the linguistic creativity and richness (some would even say difficulty) of the original novel and bravely does not attempt to make compromises towards language learners or second-language Irish speakers with a non-native language competence. This is no mere tokenistic exercise. It is worth noting, in this context, that the English subtitles are sufficient unto their task without descending into Hiberno-English. The present reviewer, and I am sure many others among us whose language of first choice is Irish, would hope that a version with optional subtitles might become available when the film is released on DVD.

Robert Quinn and producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh consciously and successfully avoided this fundamental linguistic pitfall and succeeded in casting the best acting talent available. Without any shadow of a doubt, not to have done so would have scuttled the integrity of the entire project from the outset. Most of the cast of Cré na Cille have served long and fruitful apprenticeships both on stage and, in latter years, in the Irish language TV and film sector which has blossomed since the establishment of TG4 (originally TnaG) in 1996. They are all, without a single exception, completely at ease in their acting and linguistic ability to deliver their roles successfully to the highest of standards. Most of the main actors also played in the above-mentioned productions by Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, from which the original concept for the present film version of the novel emerged in the Ó Cadhain commemorative year.

Bríd Ní Neachtain is frighteningly unforgettable in the main role of Caitríona Pháidín, as she was in the original stage version. Her darkly comic, cantankerous presence, and in particular her piercing eyes, dominate the film just as Caitríona Pháidín dominated all those around her in her life above ground and in the graveyard. Peadar Lamb as An Máistir Mór also delivers a virtuoso performance — his ritualistic, incantatory declamation against his wife when he discovers that she has married Bileachaí an Phosta (Seán Ó Coisdealbha) is a particular tour de force similar to a poetic malediction from older times, just as Ó Cadhain himself intended. Mac Dara Ó Fatharta (Beairtle Chois Dubh), Joe Steve Ó Neachtain (Tom Rua) and Diarmuid Mac an Adhastair (Tomás Taobh Istigh) also deliver strong, convincing performances, particularly in bringing the comic element in the film to the fore. Moreover, all of the “minor” or walk-on characters (such as the un-named gravedigger and the keen-woman, Bid Shorcha) are perceptively cast and provide the small, authentic, background detail which underpins and validates the entire film.

Cré na Cille was delivered on an incredibly low budget of €1.1 million. The project was co-funded by TG4 and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland with support from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Shamefully, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board refused to support the project at any stage despite its obvious artistic and cultural significance and the track record of its participants — an indictment, perhaps, of the Anglo-centric or mid-Atlantic philosophy that drives that same august body! Ó Cadhain’s novel grew out of an inherited, communal, oral tradition allied to his own firm grounding in and understanding of modern literature and thought. With the demise of reading, or what might be termed the death of the book in a digital society, in particular in the case of lesser-used or minority languages such as Irish, Cré na Cille has now been in a sense returned to its roots, albeit through the convoluted post-modern process of re-mediation through the medium of film. If Ó’Cadhain is not being read, he shall at least be heard and seen! He himself would, I believe, be content, as would the ethereal Stoc na Cille who proclaimed constantly throughout the novel, ‘Éistear le mo ghlór! Caithfear éisteacht!’, ‘Listen to my voice! You must listen!’