What would Réics Carló do?

By Peter Berresford Ellis – June 1988 – The Irish Democrat

Peter Berresford Ellis is a journalist, historian, Celtic scholar and novelist who also publishes under the pseudonyms Peter Tremayne and Peter MacAlan.  His breadth of scholarship on Celtic history, language and culture is unmatched with work ranging from Cornish grammar to medieval Scottish history.  He is a strong advocate of the role of popular fiction in cultural life. As Peter Tremayne, he is the author of the international bestselling Sister Fidelma mystery series. His work has appeared in 25 languages.

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.

In this column (November, 1987) I have already, made the point that we cannot afford to ignore popular literature, particularly its effect on creating and confirming our prejudices. What is more, we should not ignore Irish popular literature for without a popular literature in the Irish language, the goal of restoring the language to its proper place in Irish life will remain a vain one.

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 Ó SANDAIR has published over 160 books in Irish. He is the most prolific Irish language author of this or any generation. He, almost single-handedly, has turned Irish into a popular literacy form rather than a language for a literacy elite. He has returned the language to be an expression of the people.

In most countries Cathal Ó Sandair would be honoured by any government that claimed to be working for the restoration of the national language. He would, by now, have been given a literacy sinecure, a pension or some award and become a national figure. But Cathal Ó Sándair has been neglected and rather shabbily treated. At the height of his popularity he was almost forced to emigrate in order to earn a living.

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.’

There is a curiousity here. At this precise period in time, Brian O Nuallain, better known as Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, claimed he was getting £50 a manuscript for writing Sexton Blake thrillers. The first Sexton Blake story by Hal Meredith had appeared in 1893 since when some 200 Sexton Blake novels, written by many different writers, have appeared.

Cathal’s detective creation was an instant success. To date he has published over fifty Réics Carló thrillers, all issued by An Gúm. Reics has also issued in comic strip form and has been serialised on several occasions on RTE.

MANY children in Irish language schools since 1942 have confesses that while they should have been tackling the pious prose of works such as Mo Sceal Fein (by An tAthair Peadai 6 Laoghaire) they were reading under the cover of the desk tops the more riveting adventures of Réics Carló.

Réics Carló was not Cathal’s only literacy creation. There was a Science Fiction series featuring ‘Captaen Speirling’; a western adventure series with ‘Reamonn Óg’ and blood and thunder on the high seas with ‘Captaen Toirneach’. There were countless other titles.

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.’

TO say that Cathal was prolific would be an understatement. As well as his amazing outflow of novels and short stories, there is his jouralism which has appeared in Inniu, Comhar, Feasta, on RTE, in the Evening Press, Irish Press, Evening Herald and Irish Independent. He also wrote the first Irish language cartoon serial to run in the Evening Herald – An tEiteallan Dofheicthe — The Invisible ‘Plane.

Cathal was instrumental in starting the first Irish language book club — An Club Leabhar Nua Eireann. As well as his bilingualism in Irish and English he admits to ‘a journalist’s smattering’ of French, German, Russian, Spanish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish. He is particularly fascinated by the Celtic cultures.

In 1954, with Réics Carló books having sold a phenomenal 100,000 (an amazing sales figure for Irish language books) Cathal decided to leave the Civil Service an attempt to earn his living as a full-time writer. Earning a living as a writer is a precarious business in any language but to write solely in lrish and earn a living requires more than talent and courage. Within a short time Cathal was forced to seek a job to subsidise his writing.

BUT would anyone in Ireland offer this amazingly gifted writer a job? Surely the Irish Government would offer a stipend to keep the country’s most prolific and popular author in the national language subsidised in order to continue his work? Not even an attempt to rejoin the Civil Service proved successful.

In desperation, Cathal Ó Sandair announced that he would have to emigrate to Canada. His announcement has led to the erroneous entry in A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers (Brady and Cleeve) which states that he went to Canada but returned later. In fact, Cathal was finally offered a job with the Civil Service and remained there until his retirement, aged 65 years, in 1987.

But imagine any other small country in the world which would almost allow its most prolific writer in its national language to emigrate because he could not earn a living within the country!

It is sad that none of Cathal Ó Sandair’s books have been translated into other languages, not even in Ireland’s sister Celtic tongues. Certainly there has been recent scope for potential translations for Réics Carló has had many recent adventures among the other Celtic peoples: Reics Carlo ar Oilean Mhanann (Réics Carló on the Isle of Man); Reics Carlo in Albain (Réics Carló in Scotland); Reics Carlo i dTír an Dragain Dheirg (Réics Carló in the Land of the Red Dragon) and Reics Carló ar Lorg an Rí Artur (Réics Carló in the Steps of King Arthur).

‘Sometimes,’ Cathal Ó Sándair once told me, ‘I imagine that if I had independent means I might spend a lot of time travelling between various Celtic regions.’ He is particularly interested in what is happenning among the Celtic peoples and supports the Celtic League.

HE lives in Dublin, a modest, retiring man who has not gone out of his way to court publicity (perhaps that is a fault for a popular author in this day and age?) nor has he taken advantage of the tremendous popularity of his literary creations to promote himself as an individual. With unpretentious self-effacement, he is often amazed at the influence his books, particularly the Réics Carló adventures, have had on Irish-speaking people during the last four decades.

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.

IF a language is to be revived as a means of popular expression then it needs to be a vibrant, living literary expression, reflective or the thoughts and concepts of the people, not of a minority literary elite. A language, if it is to be revived, needs a popular literature. It needs a literature of entertainment, of laughter, as well as the more weighty and worthy tomes. Above all, it needs a children’s literature which will attract and absorb them rather than repel and bore them and make them implacable enemies of their own language.

To create such a popular literature is what Cathal Ó Sándair has been trying to do. During the last four decades, those readers who have been fortunate to find his books have discovered that Irish literature can be something to enjoy and have fun with.

It is my hope that one day, may it be sooner rather that later, there will be some recognition for Cathal Ó Sandair, for his work in this field. As I have said, in most other countries he would have been awarded a pension, a literacy sinecure of some sort. There would have been some literary award instituted under the name for contributions by a writer to popular or children’s literature such as the Kate Greenway Award in England. But it seems that the Irish Government can still exhibit an apparent sense of shame about the Irish language, especially when anything is done which may seek to turn it back into a popular vehicle, back into the language of the people, the caint na ndaoine.

Cathal, gura fada faoi bhlath thu gan easpa ar go shlainte!