Perhaps the most striking thing about Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, apart from how uncategorisable it is, is just how effortless it seems. The words lie on the page with a lightness and ease that belies the hard work of putting them there. And Ní Ghríofa doesn’t shy away from telling us about that hard work, as she shouldn’t. She shows her workings – how hard it is to research when it’s not your full-time job, how long it took her to complete the work (if it can ever really be considered complete), how she didn’t know for a long time what the point was of her endeavours to find out about both the corporal and spiritual lives of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, author of the epic lament the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Ní Ghríofa unspools on the page a poetic exploration of two women’s lives, two women’s bodies- her own and Ni Chonaill’s. From menstrual blood to the spilled blood of a murdered husband, the often secret and hidden workings of the female body are laid bare here, to great effect. We learn of the cacophony of neo-natal intensive care units, and the tense silence of wakes. The agony of losing a great love stands in contrast to the pain of a great love taking away choices from you. Across the centuries, the yawning chasm of women’s interior pain is exposed in all its messy contradictory glory.
The real power of this book lies in Ní Ghríofa’s imagination. Unlike many historical novelists the author tells us when she is filling in the blanks in the record, using her deep well of empathy to sketch a scene that there is no mention of in archival writings, or to reconstruct how the protagonists of the tale may have felt. And as a reader, we want to believe these retellings, we don’t want the veil to be lifted from our eyes to reveal what these archives contain of female lives – scant little. Ní Ghríofa both relishes in and fights against these mysteries – by reconstructing them but also by illustrating for us how absent female texts are from our histories. A telling moment occurs when she tells us of an anecdote about later generations of Ní Chonaill’s family burning letters and diaries – women, destroying texts in order to take control of them. That is female agency in the 19th century.
Ní Ghríofa guides us unflinchingly through her own life – her countryside childhood, her stubborn desire to study medicine, the all-too-familiar university collapse – to the point she finds herself at when researching and writing this book – motherhood. We are shown the great spiritual fulfilment that she finds through pregnancy and motherhood, but this is subtly contrasted with the relinquishment of self that she relishes in. She is a slave to to-do lists, she is at her children’s beck and call, she craves another pregnancy despite having four children under the age of six already. Through this, researching Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill offers her an escape, and a means to express her own thoughts and ambitions, to perhaps consider herself a real writer. Ní Chonaill haunts Ní Ghríofa’s waking moments as well as her sleep, just as she haunts the landscapes she once walked in, the houses she once lived in, and the texts that she is largely absent from.
Can we ever leave our ghosts behind? Ní Chonaill certainly couldn’t and that’s why she composed the famous poem that has sealed her place in literary history, the thirty-six-verse keen for her murdered lover; Ní Ghríofa translates this poem from its native Irish, a translation which is included in the back of the book. Perhaps in its own way, this serves as Ní Ghríofa exercising the ghost of Eibhlín Dubh.