Book Reviews

"A Ghost In The Throat is unlike anything else I’ve read... In anybody else’s hands it wouldn’t work, but Ní Ghríofa is such an original and unpretentious writer that I was happy to gallop alongside her."

Reviewed by: Aingeala Flannery

A poetic cocktail of autofiction and history.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is best known as a poet who writes bilingually in English and in Irish. I first came across (and was beguiled by) her prose in The Dublin Review, which published the essays Milk and The Dissection Room, both of which appear in this, her prose debut.

Ní Ghríofa wrote A Ghost In The Throat in a multi-storey carpark after she dropped her children to school. In it, we learn that while pregnant with her youngest child, Ní Ghríofa developed an obsession with Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, an 18th century lament by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill who, upon finding her husband murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and puts a hex on his killers. The lament, according to Oxford Poetry Professor Peter Levi, was ‘the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole eighteenth century’, and it becomes a constant companion to Ní Ghríofa as she ruminates on her own experiences as a woman, poet, mother and wife. She’s compelled to find out more about Eibhlín Dubh; a figure history remembers as the wife of Art O’Leary and aunt of Daniel O’Connell, and to correct an imbalance that ‘places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.’

This is a female text, Ní Ghriofa tells us, as she sets off on her quest. Amidst the sleuthing, there are musings about motherhood and marriage, and the spirit crushing domesticity that accompanies that particular contract. A woman can never give enough. Ní Ghriofa donates her breastmilk, she leaves her body to science, she risks her life to peel a drunk teenager off the middle of a road. The family move from rented house to rented house and she tosses jigsaws onto the floor to occupy her children, while she scrapes calcified porridge off the kitchen walls, and reassembles the fragments of Eibhlín’s life, jumping with awesome agility over piles of dirty laundry to Penal times, via historical archives and folklore.

Magically, she finds a thread that connects these things with each other, and her with Eibhlín Dubh Ui Chonaill. This is a shape-shifting, genre-defying book, a poetic cocktail of autofiction and history that sometimes reads like a detective novel. It shouldn’t work, and in anybody else’s hands it wouldn’t work, but Ní Ghríofa is such an original and unpretentious writer that I was happy to gallop alongside her, encountering on the way: her biker husband, a string of money grabbing landlords, midwives and public health nurses (sometimes helpful, sometimes patronising) and a cast of 18th century villains and old Irish nobility.

A Ghost In The Throat
is unlike anything else I’ve read, it reminded me at times of Flann O’Brien and also made me think of Eavan Boland. I’ve lived but not managed to articulate some of the experiences Ní Ghríofa recalls, among them the violence of childbirth and the exhaustion that follows it. I, too, remember reading Caoineadh Art Ui Laoghaire as a teenager and not understanding the grief or the desire at its heart. A Ghost In The Throat is, like Eibhlín’s dark lament, a female text. I’ve lost count of the number of women I gave this remarkable book to as a birthday or Christmas present in 2020.

Aingeala Flannery is a writer, broadcaster and arts producer. She manages the Laureate na nÓg project for Children’s Books Ireland. She also is also producer/presenter of The Dublin Review Podcast.

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