In A Ghost in the Throat Doireann Ní Ghríofa chronicles her personal response to a famous eighteenth-century poem in captivating prose and lays bare her own life while discovering that of the poet who wrote it.
In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet.
In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.
Translated many times over and described as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century,’ by the late poet and former Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Peter Levi, I hadn’t even heard of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire / the Keen for Art O’Leary, the catalyst behind A Ghost in the Throat, or its poet—the eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill—before reading Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s book.
I flipped straight to Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, which is included along with the original Irish (or Gaelige) at the end of A Ghost in the Throat, needing to get a feel for what the poem was like before seeing how it affected her, her response being potent enough to fill an entire book.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa begins by telling us that “This is a female text.” This opening section reads like an incantation, as if she is summoning the poet Eibhlín Dubh, that other woman from the past, to join her and the reader on these pages. And this feeling persists throughout the book, as Ní Ghríofa tunes into her own life and its rhythms, while reaching back through time to try and discover those of another woman, another mother, wife and poet.
I was relieved that they didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. It helped these women’s stories and lives seem more accessible to me—neither a poet or a mother—that Ní Ghríofa’s first experience of Eibhlín Dubh was not a lightning bolt moment of instant connection but her schoolgirl self being distracted by daydreams and song lyrics rather than the renowned eighteenth-century lament to which their teacher introduced them in class that day. I felt as if I might be up to going along with her on her journey of discovery when my head had been similarly filled with such fleeting fancies.
Another way into the text for me was through Ní Ghríofa’s continual list-making. My own lists might not contain quite so many domestic chores (read: nowhere near as many) as hers but they’re equally mundane and comforting. I enjoyed reading how she chronicles her daily life as a wife and a mother, those routines too often not deemed noteworthy or of any significance/importance, and so rarely written down or found in records that women’s lives can often disappear along with these omissions, as Ní Ghríofa finds while chasing down Eibhlín Dubh’s life in all its love, loss and grief.
Ní Ghríofa’s lyrical writing lifts these two women’s lives out of the ordinary, while also giving them space on the page. She shows us how both their lives now shape and influence the rhythm of her own days, and gives us a real sense of her wonder and the contentment this duality often, although admittedly not always, brings. What makes the research task she undertakes here all the more remarkable is how she manages to do so with the real-life competing demands on her time and attention, sometimes even in the face of traumatic events, and all while usually utterly exhausted.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat begins with her attempting a translation of Eibhlín Dubh’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. She freely admits to not having any formal qualifications that qualify her for this daunting task but she embarks upon it anyway, with admirable enthusiasm and a keen desire to better know her fellow poet. I was amazed at how invested Ní Ghríofa becomes in this project, especially with everything that happens in her own life. She carries the manuscript around like a talisman—the one constant in her life through all life’s ups and downs—and the rabbit holes she chases her quarry down, weaving her way through a warren of research, all the while seeing leads crumble before her and coming up against dead ends. What’s remarkable is how resourceful she is at finding a way back into Eibhlín Dubh’s life when she seems stumped. Time and again, she has to accept the gaps she cannot fill, until she finds a new angle and, reading between yet more lines, she’s once again in pursuit of this wisp of a woman poet across the ages.
This is a haunting and mesmerising story and reads almost like a fever-dream at times. It’s one poet’s attempt to know and understand another across time; it’s one woman’s obsession with the life, love, loss and grief of that same ghost from the past; and it’s also Ní Ghríofa’s own life laid bare in all its domestic mundanity and glory. A Ghost in the Throat is completely and utterly beguiling and I can only recommend that you let Doireann Ní Ghríofa into your life as she leads you in Eibhlín Dubh’s lament.
Thanks to Helen Donaldson and Tramp Press, I have a paperback copy of A Ghost in the Throat for one of you lovely lot. Comment below to go in the draw and the squirrels will pick a winner first thing on Monday morning.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a poet and essayist. Her most recent book is the bestseller A Ghost in the Throat, which finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann is also author of six critically-acclaimed books of poetry, each a deepening exploration of birth, death, desire, and domesticity. For more, go to her Author Website or follow her on Instagram.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Tramp Press and is available as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones.
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