Book Review: A Ghost in the Throat

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an award winning poet. She is also mother to four children born within a six year period. A Ghost in the Throat chronicles her life during her offspring’s baby years, when she became obsessed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, author of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (the Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire), which has been referred to as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’ It is a school text in Ireland, one that Ní Ghríofa developed a crush on as a teenager. In 2012, while taking a break from her household chores to express milk she donated for poorly babies, she rereads the poem and ponders on the life led by this other mother who has been dead for centuries.

Her ponderings lead to sporadic research. The author discovers that although many have studied the poem closely – there are multiple translations – few show interest in its creator.

“the more I read, the sharper my rage grows. This feeling glues itself to the introductory paragraph that often precedes the translations, flimsy sketches of Eibhlín Dubh’s life that are almost always some lazy variant of the same two facts: Wife of Art O’Leary. Aunt of Daniel O’Connell. How swiftly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.”

Ní Ghríofa describes A Ghost in the Throat as a female text – notably, not a feminist text. She glories in her ability to create and nurture the tiny miracles that are her children. Her days are spent: mopping and scrubbing, wiping and feeding, on laundry and dishes and caring for her children. There is none of the more typical apology for being a housewife. She acknowledges the fatigue and fretfulness of the role but derives pleasure from giving herself to other’s needs. She writes of these days with a lyricism that is astonishing.

“My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink.”

To find Eibhlín Dubh, it became necessary to delve into the male texts as these were all that existed. Ní Ghríofa then set about excising the men and their concerns to see what remained. She discovered a mother and a twin sister – lives unremarked by most researchers. She visits places where they lived but often finds little remains.

“Now: nothing. Another grand deletion this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.”

The author writes of her own past as well as on motherhood and the household tasks that fill her days. Her words are steeped in the importance of family and the sense of place in the world that they instil.

“My family had lived within these hills for centuries […] every path I followed had been written by the bodies of others, the course of every track sculpted by the footfall of those who came before us.”

As time passes, Ní Ghríofa’s obsession with Eibhlín Dubh verges on the unhealthy – a trait that is not unknown to her – and yet what she discovers is fascinating to read. Entwined with the historical details she uncovers are the challenges she herself faces as her fourth child makes its way into the world. Yet still she wants more babies – concerned with what she will become if not nurturing children.

Eventually she must accept that she has found everything available to her about Eibhlín Dubh. She must also accept another ending in the life she is leading. The book closes with the poem that set her on this journey – transcribed in both Gaeilge (Irish) and an English translation. As this work has been quoted throughout, to read it in its entirety is to immerse oneself in a now valued text.

The Caoineadh is as deeply personal for its author as A Ghost in the Throat is for Ní Ghríofa. In weaving the stories of these two women together, the tapestry of the lives of mothers is exhumed from the detritus they perennially exist under, demanding attention rarely received. Engaging content and elegant prose ensure reading is a pleasure. An extraordinary book that deserves wide attention.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tramp Press.