A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Tramp Press, 224 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1916434264
“The Horse Under the Hearth” is an arresting poem that figures in Clasp, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s first English-language collection of poems. Voiced for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, it recounts the burial of a horse’s head. It is a poem of loss, grief and decay, wound tight with the rapture of love, and the strictures of the terror caused by her husband, Art Ó Laoghaire’s, death. Clasp signalled to the world the cross-linguistic talent of Ní Ghríofa. Those who disregarded her work in Irish, perhaps feeling that it was much ado about talent in a nothing language, were forced to pay attention to the undeniable virtuosity of her English-language poems. In this new book her uncanny ability to channel Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in that poem is explained. The titular ghost is none other than Eibhlín Dubh herself; her lament, “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, has haunted Doireann Ní Ghríofa from the age of eleven.
The Ghost in the Throat is a layered text that mingles memoir, history, poetry and the pursuit of the elusive Eibhlín Dubh. Seventeen chapters take us from the ambitious, programmatic statements of the first pages through the life of the author and its subject. Indignant that Eibhlín is forever referred to as the appendage of a male relative (wife of, daughter of, aunt of), Ní Ghríofa tracks her subject through the letters of her brothers, the pages of local journals, the court proceedings, determined to make her emerge from the shadows of history. Eibhlín Dubh’s life has all the ingredients of a gothic novel: love at first sight, marriage against her parents’ wishes to the dashing hussar who defies the Penal Laws and rides his fine steed across Co Cork. Ó Laoghaire’s taunting of the powerful sheriff of Cork results in an ambush. He is killed. Eibhlín Dubh’s powerful lament for her beloved was passed on as a recitation over the generations. Ní Ghríofa translates the text (it figures at the end of the book) and gives life to both the body of the poet and the tale of her composition.
Ní Ghríofa deliberately abolishes the distance that a professional historian or literary scholar would put between herself and her object of study. In shedding light on Eibhlín Dubh, who becomes Nelly via family letters, Ní Ghríofa releases her from the opaque darkness of history. She focuses on adding imaginative texture to the bare bones available to the historian by connecting her story to that of Nelly. Above all she identifies them both as women and writes what Ní Ghríofa states repeatedly is “a female text”, just as Nelly’s lament was passed on from the echoing of one female body to the next over time.
The female text charts Ní Ghríofa’s desires, her despair. She writes about her life as a woman and as a mother, detailing the devotion and abjection of motherhood in graphic descriptions of the all-encompassing drudgery of domesticity: the repetitious cleaning of spilled juice, spit, the endless blocks to be picked off the floor, the tiredness that follows sleep interrupted by night feeds and crying babies. This is Ní Ghríofa’s choice, she claims that “In such erasure lies joy.” She also outlines the economic consequences of being dependent on one salary, the itinerant life of her family forced to move from one house to the next whenever greedy landlords terminate their contracts in order to increase the rents for the next tenants. She brings us back to key moments in her life: as a child, as a schoolgirl, as a student depressed and downhearted when her course of study (dentistry) turns out to be not for her. In each case, she demands our attention with the imperative “look” placed at the beginning of the segment and a present tense that functions as a time machine casting us back to the relevant segment in her life or in that of Eibhlín Dubh.
The female text and the white writing of Ní Ghríofa’s tattoo, which she has inked on her body after deciding to donate her body to University College Cork, are inspired by the writing of Hélène Cixous. Ní Ghríofa quotes her in reference to the tattoo: “there is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink.” Ní Ghríofa details her breastfeeding habits, the transmission of her own breast-milk to unknown sickly babies who benefit from the human milk-bank. Cixous is a key influence. Her essay Le Rire de la Méduse, published in 1975 (and translated as The Laugh of the Medusa by K & P Cohen) declared that “Woman must put herself into the text ‑ as into the world and into history ‑ by her own movement”. Cixous requires the woman writer to return to the body and to proclaim the desires of the body. These are certainly qualities and characteristics that A Ghost in the Throat displays, for although Ní Ghríofa writes at length about the joys, sorrows and difficulties of motherhood she also shares her sexual desire, her lust, her pleasure in passages where she lays bare her own desires and her husband’s fears.
A Ghost in the Throat is a singular book that highlights Ní Ghríofa’s fearless talent. Her writing in this her first prose work is as compelling and accomplished as her best poetry. The book reveals her as a writer who is willing to take risks, to push back boundaries, refusing to let herself be hemmed in by the demands of genre, gender, or tradition, driven by a poetic mission that not all will understand. How many mothers of four small children would continue to pursue her art and her obsession for a centuries-old poem, on her phone, in the car, while breast-feeding, while pumping her milk in hospital as her premature daughter hovers between life and death? Her persistence matches the enduring tenacity of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, which lasted despite not being written down for generations. Ní Ghríofa reminds us that Peter Levi recognised it in his lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry “ as the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole eighteenth century”. A Ghost in the Throat is a fitting tribute both to the poem itself and the woman who spoke it into being.
Clíona Ní Ríordáin is professor of English at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches translation studies and literature. Her most recent book is English Language Poets in University College Cork 1970-1980 (Palgrave, 2020).