Book Review of A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Tramp Press €16.00

The verbs most commonly associated with haunting are to persist, to linger. A lingering persistence certainly describes the haunting of poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa within this slim volume of titan magnitude. The ghost of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the 18th century noblewoman, aunt of Daniel O’Connell and poet remembered for her lament over her slain husband’s body, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, first moved Ní Ghríofa as a child in school. She reappeared in Ní Ghríofa’s early years of motherhood while rearing four small children, her days measured out not so much in coffee spoons as in foul-smelling nappies and squashed bananas. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is to persist and linger in Ní Ghríofa’s consciousness, haunting her until she has wrung every scrap of information on Eibhlín out of every single source she can find. The research takes years and yields meagre enough fruit in terms of hard historical facts about Eibhlín, but it has produced this most remarkable, profound and brilliant work.  

 “This is a female text” is a leitmotif that appears throughout the book. It is a text about a woman, written by a woman, one who is repeatedly distressed at the fact that women – no matter how significant or strong so many of them appear – are consistently written out of the history books. The ghost in Ní Ghríofa’s throat gnaws at her continuously, leaving her sleepless at all hours while she searches the internet for more clues, hauling her babies into the hallowed silence of library reading rooms, skipping showers and meals for another few stolen moments of literary sleuthing. “I may be an inept detective” she writes “but I am a devoted servant”.

There are moments of doubt, too, as her search becomes, by the author’s own admission, an obsession. “How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?” How dare she, indeed, but without her daring and indeed her devotion, the world might have been left without this precious ode.

As much as it is an essay about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, her family of origin, her husband Art and her children (those who could be found), this book is a hymn to mothering, an extended reflection on the myriad chores borne daily by a mother of small children, from breastfeeding to preschool. The text is very much a 21st century one, haunted though it is by an 18th century ghost. And this is the wonder of the book; that a chronicle of the contemporary everyday, of smartphones and internet, of drunken student episodes in the past, of near-accidents in cars, of trips to playcentres in industrial parks, can sit so comfortably, cheek-by-jowl, with Eibhlín Dubh’s world of brave soldiers on brave steeds, of arranged marriages among the Irish elite, of grudges settled with swords and muskets, of the ancient undertow in the ocean at Derrynane.  

Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of the epic poem is included in the book and it’s a fierce and passionate one. This is a fierce and passionate work, very much “a female text”. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an acclaimed and award-winning poet and has received many accolades. But this work, only a few weeks published, is really a thing apart and is already being hailed as a classic. For what it’s worth, it has my vote. The ghost in Ní Ghríofa’s throat took my breath away.

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