The Ordinary and Extraordinary Hidden Lives of Women

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Doireann Ní Ghríofa: A Ghost in the Throat, Tramp Press, Dublin and Glasgow, 2021.

ISBN: 10 1916434274

RRP: $29.75

A Ghost in the Throat is an achingly moving and genre-bending work. Its many parts incorporate autobiography, historical fiction, translation and literary reclamation, as well as a detective-style ‘who-was-she?’ And it also writes a chapter in the history of women’s lives in the eighteenth century, and her own in the twenty-first century. And it is furthermore emphatically feminist and poetic. As she puts it in the opening sequence:

‘THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT…. This is a female text borne of guilt and desire, stitched to a soundtrack of cartoon nursery rhymes…. This is a female text, which is also a caoineadh: a dirge and a drudge-song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn. Join in.

A Ghost in the Throat is a book that ended long before I was ready to take my leave of the subject.

Tomb of Art O’Leary, Kilcrea Friary. Photo by Finola Finlay, Roaring Water Journal

 I first encountered Eibhlinn Dubh Ní Chonaill over the grave of her husband, Art O’Leary, on a cold, misty summer’s evening in 1983 at Kilcrea Friary (Kilcrea, Co Cork). Professor John A Murphy declaimed the poem (it is very long) from memory, and in English (probably Ó’Tuama’s and Kinsella’s translation from An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, 1981).  It was an electrifying experience. Who knew that the voice of an eighteenth-century Irish woman could be so erotic, so urgent, so uncompromising in her defence of a husband who had been outlawed unjustly?  I didn’t.  For me, this long summer of Covid has been a time of listening to normally silenced eighteenth-century women (I’ve not long finished reading Defoe’s Moll Flanders, first encountered in my teens, and been astonished by how resourceful they had to be to survive the system that treated them as a lesser appendage to men). But this account is out-of-the-box.

What makes this book so special?  It’s partly the weaving of the two main narrative strands: the personal and the historical. Ní Griofa offers the readers highly sensuous memories of life as a nursing mother addicted to its pleasures – the self-giving erotics (as well as the brain fog and endless cleaning) of being the mother of one small breastfeeding child and two older siblings. The obsessive list of quotidian chores to be crossed off – school run with shoes on feet, mop, hoover, (breast) pump, bins, dishwasher, laundry, toilets, milk/spinach/chicken/porridge, school run, bank and playground, dinner, baths, bedtime – bespeak not only exhaustion but also bliss. The tasks are necessary and valuable in their own right, but also because they prompt deep meditation on the nature of motherhood. It is a subject Doireann Ní Ghríofa had tried unsuccessfully to render in poems, but in this book, commits to the longer form – astoundingly successfully and often in poetic terms. The prose is concrete and grounded and, not contradictorily, philosophic, full of awe and wonder at the process of nurturing the young. Far from being narcissistic, this pressed young mother finds time to breast-pump her surplus for mothers who cannot sustain their newborns in neo-natal ICUs in Cork.

The routine of mothering multiple children is mind-numbing and lonely, but it leaves her time during the precious breastfeeds of her daughter to pursue her other (and historical) obsession, Eibhlinn Dubh, a woman known to history mainly through her connection to men, in particular, her dashing lover and husband, Airt Uí Laoghaire (Art O’Leary), murdered in an ambush during the penal era in 1773, and her extraordinary lament for him, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. This long poem, written for his wake and burial by an angry grieving young wife, survived in the oral tradition for 100 years before being committed to paper by a learned woman, Nora Ní Shindile, and thereafter many times translated and re-rendered in various media, including Ní Griofa’s book. Sleeping with a translation under her pillow, it was easily retrieved for night feeds, and ‘before long, the poem began to leak into [her] days’. Apart from her poem, Eibhlínn, despite belonging to the well-to-do family of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell (she was his aunt), is shadowy in the historical record, defined by the men in her life. Hence the need for this account to be fictionalised. The gaps in the historical record need to be filled by the author, imaginatively, and with an eye to good historiography. It’s a tour de force of transparent re-imagining, which relies heavily on the male-focussed record and the poem, and those few historical relics (mainly relating to Daniel O’Connell) which survive, but adds eloquent value and a female consciousness to the record.

As she intones the poem in Irish, the girl-child at the breast mimics her cadence and the maternal bond with her daughter begins to be forged, named and uttered. In discovering the voice of Eibhlínn, Doireann self-consciously empowers her own voice and that of the pre-verbal child, who becomes her ‘steady companion’.  The generational bond is important in the two stories. Two structural metaphors help to bind the two narratives: the first is of a scalpel-cut in her index finger (one she later uses to read books) in the dissection room where Doireann learns to peel back and analyse the hidden layers of the body’s architecture/anatomy. The scar will later mirror an injury Eibhlínn incurs seeking favour for a son from a hostile brother. Reclaiming Eibhlínn involves scouring the son’s letters, reading them slant, for shadowy female companions – a twin sister and a witty mother in particular, an embryonic sisterhood, all but disappeared in the historical record, but intimately linked like a paper-doll chain. Derrynane is these days home to a Daniel O’Connell museum, but it was home to Eibhlínn’s mother and twin and herself before that.  

Another structural metaphor that links Doireann’s autobiography with Eibhlínn’s imagined (and researched) biography leans in a more positive direction, and it’s that of bees and the hum of home-making and occupying a home, and nourishing the occupants with something pollen-like.  The identification with the bees began early for our writer with grass-castle making and awareness of the work going on around her in the hive and flowers of the field. The plain ordinary work of women is honoured in this remarkable book.

This is highly accomplished writing, and will interest not only literary readers but also those interested in history. I’ll be looking for more by this talented and thoughtful writer. 

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective.