A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
If “cat got your tongue” is the euphemism for not finding your words, then “a ghost in the throat” is its opposite. Author Doireann Ni Ghriofa defines it best in her titular combo of auto-fiction and essay as she explores her need to write about Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, the eighteenth-century noblewoman and poet of Ireland’s classical keen, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, or The Lament for Art O’Laoghaire, is Chonaill’s account of the romance and death of her husband, and is taught in Ireland’s literature curriculum as one of the greatest poems written in the country’s history. However, Ghriofa points out that this is one of the few texts written by Chonaill herself. How can someone so famous have little to no other accounts written about them? Ghriofa’s book chronicles her search for the story surrounding Chonaill’s life while intertwining her own experience of hardship and motherhood during her years of research. Her prose does its best to put into words the yearning need to give voice to the silenced artists of the past.
Ghriofa makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that her book is written as a “female text,” to use her own language. She points this out early on to denote how miniscule the information about Chonaill is other than in her male family member’s letters and scholastic research conducted by men. The accounts of past and present by men do little to flesh out the independent and passionate nature of the famed poet, leading Ghriofa to use her own experience as lover, woman, wife, and mother to fill in the speculated gaps in Chonaill’s life. The beautiful prose Ghriofa uses leads the reader on a journey of self-discovery, the same way that Ghriofa’s encounter with Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire radically changed her life.
Ghriofa uses the sensuality and pain of her own body to describe the hidden musings of Chonaill. Did Chonaill have the same pangs after birth? The pride of a mother? Sorrow in the face of hardships? Ghriofa introduces the reader to vignettes from her own life that she feels would parallel or represent the poet’s own. Ghriofa details how she used her routines and the more mundane tasks to distract herself from the years of economic hardship her family experienced in the early years of her motherhood. The simple pleasures she took from doing the laundry or feeding her babies gave her a sense of control in situations out of her reach. Ghriofa wonders in these periods of respite if that is how Chonaill felt in her situation as a noblewoman when so much of her life was controlled by men. However, the independent spirit that Chonaill exercised gives Ghriofa equal strength in following her heart, and her desire to squeeze in research during this hectic period of her life.
The biggest part of the text comes when Ghriofa gets into the intimate part of her research surrounding the marriage and death of Chonaill’s husband, Art. The pain and sorrow Chonaill must have felt resonated with Ghriofa deeply.Ghriofa relates these feelings to the grief she felt when her daughter was born with health complications and had to spend a period of time in the ICU. As Chonaill laments how she wished her body could have protected Art, Ghriofa painstakingly opens her wounds from the period to demonstrate how helpless she felt when she wasn’t able to feed her own daughter. Choniall said it best in her poem:
“An ache, this salt-sorrow of mine
that I was not by your side” (137).
Ghriofa’s hardships fuel her desire to tell Chonaill’s story and understand who she was as a person. Besides her poetry, how is the world to know how she treasured her sister or her children? The death of Art O’Laoghaire, as per the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, showed a woman who loved fiercely and steadfastly. In the historical records from the time, none of this is expressed by her male family members, and no personal accounts from Chonaill herself have come to light to give her voice its due diligence.
Ghriofa’s intense desire and need to fully inform the reader about Chonaill’s life and work contributes to the recent movement to unearth and spotlight long forgotten female figures of history. Ghriofa’s research and closeness with a long dead subject gives a thorough examination of the noblewoman beneath the surface her poetry and spare references by others. Ghriofa also motivates herself by wanting to leave something behind for her own daughter, a piece of herself in textual format. By shining a light on Chonaill’s life and working to give her own voice space in the world, Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat magnificently captures the emotion and depth of womanhood. Its language and tribute to the famous work of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill has given a new generation of readers the kindling to allow the past to shape their present and future.
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