DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA A Ghost in the Throat. Reviewed by Anna Verney
Contemporary Irish poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa explores the life and work of eighteen-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.
Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut A Ghost in the Throat is both intimate and scholarly, ranging across multiple literary forms. Clothed as her account of the life of eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (also known as Eileen O’Connell) and of translating Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary), the book is stitched into something more complicated and haunting: a revisionist biography, an essay of scholarly process and a lyrical memoir of motherhood. Ultimately it serves as a testament by two women born three centuries apart to the power of speaking or writing one’s own life in a world in which much of female experience is erased.
At home ‘in the milking parlour’ with her two small children and another on the way – expressing, tidying, soothing – Ní Ghríofa becomes devoted to a poem, so obsessed with it in fact that she invites ‘another woman’s voice to haunt [my] throat a while’. The poem is a caoineadh, a keen or lament, its words composed and sung by Ní Chonaill on the murder of her husband Art Ó Loghaire (O’Leary) by the English sheriff of Cork, Morris. Before it was transcribed, the Caoineadh was preserved orally, ‘reverberating through a succession of female bodies … over years and years and years’. It is now considered one of the great poems of its time.
In Ní Ghríofa’s translation, the poem is mesmerising: snippets are interspersed throughout A Ghost in the Throat before it appears in full at the end. Begun as an account of a woman falling in love, the Caoineadh is imbued with a romantic, lascivious ache, more powerful in that it will remain unsated:
The day I first saw you
How my eye took a shine to you,
How my heart took delight in you
And never did I regret it,
for you set a parlour gleaming for me,
bedchambers brightened for me,
an oven warming for me…
and duck-down slumbers for me
what a man to share a saddle with,
what a man to spark a child with.
From these lush beginnings, the poem proceeds as we know it must – to shock, grief, and mourning. In dispute with Morris, Art leaves his wife and babies to confront the sheriff. His horse returns, ‘her reins trailing the cobbles, and [Art’s] heart’s blood smeared from cheek to saddle.’ Ní Chonaill rides to her husband, finding his body tended only by a ‘crumpled old hag’. In an unforgettably visceral image, Ní Chonaill leans down to drink his blood from the earth: ‘I couldn’t wipe it away, couldn’t clean it up, no, no, my palms turned cups and oh, I gulped.’
From Art’s death, its aftermath of ‘cold stone and earth’, Ní Ghríofa turns to the life of his poet wife in an attempt to resurrect of it what she can. What she finds in the archive is darkness: endless gaps among fragmentary particulars about Ní Chonaill in male-authored documents – a coroner’s report, wills, bibles, and family letters about financially sustaining the ‘Widow O’Leary’. Eventually, her name ceases to appear.
Straining against the silence, Ní Ghríofa searches for physical remnants of Ní Chonaill’s existence, visiting first the remains of her mother’s home, next her last residence, then searching for her grave and finding none.
Finally – madly, futilely – she seeks traces of Ní Chonaill among the furniture in the home of her famous nephew, the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell. Unlike his aunt – a woman – O’Connell was of course ‘a great man. O, a great man’, his home immaculately preserved on his death and repurposed into a museum. In contrast, what Ni Ghríofa finds of Ní Chonaill amounts to piles of rubble: ‘There’s no evidence left of her life, nothing left to find.’
If A Ghost in the Throat were only a biography of Ní Chonaill, the reader would perhaps be left disappointed here, but there’s more in Ní Ghríofa’s writing to hold them to her tale. Interwoven with her scholarly pursuit of evidence of the poet’s life is Ní Ghríofa’s own daily existence. As she tells us:
This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores. This is a female text borne of guilt and desire, stitched to a soundtrack of cartoon nursery rhymes.
Ní Ghríofa researched and wrote the book while raising four children under six. None of this process is erased. She daydreams about Ní Chonaill in the school carpark (‘my son found me in the rain’), makes runs to the library with a baby strapped to her front (‘here I come … a milk-stained blouse … a nappy-bag spewing books’), and stitches together Ní Chonaill’s life while breastfeeding (‘my mind responded to the milk by rushing back to the scattered jigsaw of Eibhlín Dubh’s days … In her sleep, my daughter gulped.’)
Like Ní Chonaill, Ní Ghríofa’s writing about the ordinary is incandescent. And it is in the ordinary that Ní Ghríofa finds her answer to the gaps in the historical record of Ní Chonaill’s life. When Ni Ghríofa is left with hands full of smoke to tell Eibhlín Dubh’s story, it is these commonalities of female experience – romantic love, sexual desire, motherhood, domesticity – that she uses to weave together the lost moments of the poet’s life. She reaches back to the eighteenth century from the twenty-first, ‘stitching frills’ together from daydreams:
I try to imagine the small treasures of her days, all she saw and took joy in: watching her sons begin to run, to ride, to read, their faces lit with Art’s old smile. The flight of bats and swallows. The branches reaching higher each year, their leaves turning gold, falling, and then budding green again.
All the remembered fragments of her dreams, all her frustrations, her money worries, her lists, her days of egg-pains and brass-polishing … her days of brave faces and darning … her days of loneliness, her days of laundry. Her children, waving back at her from the garden … always waving as they leave.
She finishes, ‘They wave, her boys. They wave and wave.’
In this way, Ní Ghríofa pulls together an evocative picture of Eibhlín Dubh’s life that feels both richer and more truthful than any straight biography could. And while Ní Ghríofa wrote, Ní Chonaill also served her, as a companion both through life’s ordinariness and its near tragedies, a photocopied copy of the Caoineadh kept under her pillow through her newborn daughter’s near-death in the NICU and a breast cancer scare. This companionship is founded not only on the commonalities of female experience, but the capacity of both women to write about that experience so fully. Companionship, an entwining of lives, is found in both women’s attention to the ordinary fabric of female life among the sublime and tragic. There is a lesson here in the value to be found in writing life as it is. As Ní Ghríofa tells the reader:
This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little. This is a female text … a chorus and a hymn. Join in.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa A Ghost in the Throat Tramp Press 2020 224pp
Anna Verney is a writer and lawyer based on Gadigal land, completing a Masters of Creative Writing at The University of Sydney supported by the Janet O’Connor Scholarship for promising women writers. You can find her at: https://akv113.wixsite.com/anna-k-verney.
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