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The Dregs of the Day by Máirtin Ó Cadhain

Published in Ireland in 1970; Alan Titley translation published by Yale University Press on September 24, 2019

The scholar who translated The Dregs of the Day from the original Irish tells us that Máirtin Ó Cadhain “is recognized as the foremost author in Irish of the twentieth century.” He primarily wrote short stories, but The Dregs of the Day is long enough to qualify as a novella.

The protagonist is identified only as N. He works in the civil service, although he has taken quite a bit of time off because of his wife’s illness. Now his wife has died and N. is flummoxed. Her lifeless body awaits attention. His wife’s sisters expect N. to make arrangements for someone to prepare the body and then transport it to a church for burial, but N. isn’t sure how to go about doing that and doesn’t really want to spend the money. He needs a nurse and an undertaker and a casket and a priest, but he’s not certain of the order in which he should acquire everything he needs. He stops in a pub for advice, and after a few drinks stops in a department store where there seem to be so many items on sale that he should buy. Sadly, a robber makes off with his wallet before he has a chance.

As N. decides whether to go home and face his wife’s corpse (not to mention his sisters-in-law), he has a number of diverting encounters. He has sex with a woman while pondering his indifference to both the sex and the fact that his dead wife awaits him at home. He chats with a security guard who is charged with beating up clerical students who try to sneak through the windows of a whorehouse. By dawn, he has been kicked out of the department store, kicked out of a charity, kicked out of the property where the security guard finds him snoozing, and kicked out of a church. N. can’t quite bring himself to return home and might not get his act together in time to attend his wife’s funeral, assuming his wife’s sisters arrange it in his absence. He wonders idly whether he might be endangering his civil service position, leading to a funny description of life in the civil service.

As the novel nears its end, N. makes his way to another pub with an American sailor who extolls the virtues of America, where everything is free, particularly for the Irish population of Boston. N. considers whether the life described by the sailor might be better than the one he is living, although it seems clear that N.’s problems do not arise from his country of residence but from his own ineptitude or indifference.

The Dregs of the Day is a dark comedy. The tragedy of death lurks in the background as N. lurches from one preposterous situation to another. N. is a sympathetic character if the reader can forgive him for being appalling. N. doesn’t have an evil heart, but he might not have any heart at all. He seems to have little regard for anyone, including himself, despite being entirely self-absorbed. He could solve his immediate problems rather easily just by going home (where surely his sisters-in-law would tell him how to solve the remaining problems, or simply take over and do it all themselves), but he cannot resist his impulses, none of which lead him in a sensible direction. He is seemingly blown by the winds of chance, unable or unwilling to resist the directions in which he is blown. The reader’s sympathy derives from the sense that N. is entirely lost, not because his wife has died but because he doesn’t know what to make of the world, what to care about, what to do with his purposeless life. We all know people like that (most of them drink too much), and Máirtin Ó Cadhain captured them brilliantly in the character of N.


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