Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Dalkey Archive Press
It is perhaps surprising that the stultifying conformism of mid-century Ireland – to church and to state – has not been the focus of more satire in the tradition of Kafka. But if Myles na Gopaleen was the court jester of the era, Máirtín Ó Cadhain might be seen as the more serious vivisector of Irish society.
Ó Cadhain’s The Key (An Eochair in the original Irish) follows the travails of J., a menial paper keeper in some unspecified Civil Service department. J diligently absorbs the wisdom of his objectionable superior S., who instils in him a fearful respect for paper and the order of things. When J gets trapped in his windowless office – his only key snaps off in the lock – the weight of Irish society is thrown against the door to free him. Priests are called, party politicians grandstand and bicker, journalists scribble away, while officials from the Office of Public Works trudge through protocol to no avail. As no precedent exists, all are paralysed until orders come from the top of the Civil Service’s byzantine chain of command. All the while J. is haunted by thoughts of female hands stroking trouser legs, and an unspeakable act committed in a pub laneway during his dissolute youth.
With his broken key, Ó Cadhain draws great humour from the depths of one of Ireland’s most creatively repressive periods.
Words: Ruairi Casey