Some people think Irish crime fiction began around 7.5 years ago, as economic boom turned into stagnation and austerity. Not a bit of it. Irish crime novels are as old as, well, Cathal Ó Sándair for a start.
Ó Sándair (1922–96) was born in Weston Super Mare in England but moved to Ireland when he was a kid. He went on to create the character of Réics Carló, still the most famous detective in the Irish language.
The first of these Irish-language novels appeared in 1943. Bear in mind that both Ó Sándair and the new Irish State were barely two decades old at the time.
His books were – as far as I know – all published by An Gúm (literally “The Project” or “The Scheme” in Irish, and pronounced “goom”), a State-sponsored publisher of original works in Irish as well as translations.
Douglas Hyde – a leading figure in the Gaelic revival and the first President of Ireland – once claimed that in 1893 there were only six Irish-language books in print. By contrast, within its first eight years An Gúm had produced 234 titles, totalling 180,000 copies (according to the Irish Press of 17 November 1934).
Even so, An Gúm was often slagged off for various reasons: too many translations and not enough original work by Irish writers… too many kids’ books and not enough serious stuff for the grown-ups… and too many quality issues, amid claims that An Gúm produced books that “nobody would want to read in any language” (the Irish Press again, 1 October 1937).
An Gúm also produced the Foclóir Póca (pocket dictionary), in a handy size and far more up-to-date than many a big fat hardback dictionary. Yet we live in a land where words can be explosive and official dictionaries can be highly contentious things, even wee pocket-size ones.
But that’s another story. Back to Ó Sándair. He was immensely popular. Besides his detective novels he churned out tons of westerns featuring cowboy Réamonn Óg, and outer space fantasies with spaceman Captaen Spéirling, and swashbuckling pirate tales, and boarding-school adventures where boys and girls would always save the day (days needed saving back then), and even genre-crossing bits and pieces (his detective Réics Carló even went to the moon in one caper).
In fact Ó Sándair was the most prolific Irish-language author of all time. He was probably one of the most prolific Irish authors in any language. He is reputed to have published 160 books (and sold more than 500,000 copies, not bad for a so-called “minority” language).
An Gúm has published around 2,500 books since its establishment. So this one author alone with his gumshoes agus gunslingers as Gaeilge has accounted for some 6% of its entire output, or one in 20 of these Irish-language titles.
As for his books’ cover artwork, let history be the judge of that…