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'It's so astounding that a woman can disappear to that extent': Rediscovering the author of Ireland's greatest love poem

The Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa explores the life of the writer Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in her lauded new book.

Image: Bríd O'Donovan

“THIS IS A female text.”

So opens – and closes – Irish author Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s new book, A Ghost In The Throat, a work that’s unlike anything you’ll read this year. 

A Ghost In The Throat, which is published by the astute team at the independent publisher Tramp Press, is Ní Ghríofa’s first full-length prose work. Before now, people have known her as a poet who writes in both Irish and English. Born in rural Co Clare and now settled in rural Co Cork, she’s a writer who is deeply attached to landscape and heritage, and who has given a voice to women’s inner lives in her poetry collections.

With this new publication, she gives voice to a woman who lived over 200 years ago. That woman is Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the author of Caoineadh Art Uí Laoghaire. The caoineadh is a lament for her beloved husband Art, who was murdered at Carraig an Ime in Co Cork by a British official in 1773. The 390-line lament has been called one of the greatest laments ever written, and has a distinctive place in Irish literary history. 

A shadow in the past

Ní Ghríofa found herself somewhat obsessed with Ní Chonaill’s story: her marriage to Art, the love and desire between them, the grief that poured into the caoineadh. She set about researching her, and wrote about the emotional journey it sent her on.

She discovered that, like many women in Irish history, Ní Chonaill was little more than a shadow in the past. Ní Ghríofa found herself reading letters written by Eibhlín’s brothers which contained little mention of their sister. No matter her standing in society (she was a Co Kerry noblewoman), or the fact her poem drew such praise, Ní Chonaill was allowed to become a ghost.

There’s a sense when you read the book that Ní Ghríofa is the host or embodiment of the poet; that she has temporarily been taken over by Ní Chonaill to redress this imbalance.

Alongside the story of Ní Chonaill, Ní Ghríofa tells her own story. She brings the reader with her into the past. In we go to the rooms of UCC where she struggled with her initial studies; into her mind to witness her mental health as it waxed and waned; into her home where she nursed her children; even into her bedroom to sense the desire between her and her husband.

Tramp Press A Ghost in the Throat

Difficult to resist

Ní Ghríofa told TheJournal.ie that when she started writing A Ghost In The Throat, “it felt like I was almost being drawn along on a journey that was very difficult to resist, because the power of the pull of it was so strong”.

“I needed to follow that and it’s strange to me now…  it’s strange how powerfully I was drawn towards that subject.”

Every day she would drop her children off at school and drive to the roof of a local free multi-storey car park. There, she would write, after carving out a space for herself and Ní Chónaill in amongst the domestic demands of life. 

There were some who encouraged her not to pursue with turning A Ghost In The Throat into a book. It was too hard to categorise, they thought – a hybrid of prose and poetry, not an easy sell. But there were those who saw the value to it, and the reviews of the book have indeed shown that its uniqueness is being embraced.

Ní Ghríofa felt like the natural home for the book was Tramp Press, which has a ‘Recovered Voices’ strand where it publishes neglected texts by authors like Charlotte Riddell and Dorothy McArdle.

She believed that Ní Chónaill’s “ghost would be cherished and cared for within a publishing house like that”. But at the same time, “it just seemed too much to hope for”. When Tramp Press confirmed they wanted to publish the book, Ní Ghríofa said her “head went on the table in front of me and I just started crying like a big eejit”.

Though Ní Ghríofa did a huge amount of research into Ní Chónaill’s life, she said that “I’m not a historian and I’m not a scholar, and I go to great lengths within the book to own that”.

The biggest obstacle Ní Ghríofa encountered “is the fact that there really are so many huge gaps and silences around the lives of women”.

“When you consider that this poem is such an important part of [Britain and Ireland's] shared literary history, and so well recognised in terms of institutions and universities and scholarly writing, the fact that the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill can be marked so much by silence seems so strange,” she said. 

I know it’s a bit simplistic to say, ‘well imagine if this was a work by a man’, but sometimes I like to think that way. If this was a poem that was this lauded and had been composed by a man, I feel fairly certain that we wouldn’t have forgotten where he was buried.

Press-DoireannNíG-0J4A0154-Edit Source: Bríd O'Donovan

The book shows how frustrating it was to see Ní Chonaill being forgotten about. “It just seems so astounding to me that a woman can disappear to that extent,” said Ní Ghríofa. She journeyed to places connected with Ní Chonaill’s life, like her marital home, “to see if Eibhlín can still be found, or to see what can still be sensed or felt”.

“Which is maybe one of the most radical acts against scholarship that I do with the book,” she added. “It’s the story of bringing a female body, a living female body, to where a female body once dwelled and seeing what the second female body can still feel, not see.”

Ní Ghríofa said she came to writing “late in life”, in her late 20s after she had her first child. She wrote her first poems following the death of her grandfather. In her grief, she found a poem welling up in her – one she first thought was something she learned in school, but then realised it was from her own psyche.

“I’ve always felt like it was a gift, you know, and I’ve always felt like it had come in some elements from elsewhere,” said Ní Ghríofa. “And everything changed for me that night.” She took a career break and kept writing. 

She was always “nosey about women’s lives around me”, asking questions of her Nana May about their village as a child. As an adult, she is fascinated by birth stories and what they say about women and society. But she doesn’t want to keep what she has found to herself. She wants to share it.

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“The reader feels really close to me always,” she said. “Like even within this book, I address the reader every now and then, which feels like drawing back a curtain. And I’m kind of pointing at something that astounds me, and I’m turning around and saying, ‘would you look, look at what we can see here, isn’t this amazing?’.”

Radical writing

Part of the narrative concerns the difficult birth of one of her children, and the emotional stress that put on her. Though it shouldn’t feel radical to read a story about childbirth, it does. It strikes the reader that in telling her own story, and Ní Chonaill’s story, she is telling a multitude of female stories. 

“It is always a radical act to speak the unspoken or write the unwritten,” said Ní Ghríofa. 

“I feel like the birth story is a seriously neglected element of literature. I really do. And I think that’s quite radical,” she added. “It is absolutely gripping to listen to someone’s birth story, particularly in Ireland, my God, where it brings in so much of women’s histories and the ways in which women haven’t been listened to historically, birth injuries and the procedures that have often been inflicted on women.”

I wanted to be as generous with my own life and it wouldn’t have felt in keeping with who I am as a person or as a writer to hold back.

It saddens her that people might belittle birth stories and their place in literature. “They aren’t choosing to listen to these extraordinary stories of people lives, of women’s lives as you know, these, these moments of heightened drama and fear and pain and glory, that can happen when women are giving birth,” she said. “I feel we’ve a lot to learn by turning our ear to those kind of moments that we sometimes turn away from.”

Part of the radicality of her writing is also in how willing she is write about her own struggles. She wanted the reader “to be able to see how fallible I am as a person, and my weaknesses and my small strengths, and all of the ways in which I tried and failed to do things throughout my life”.

So that they would understand that this is the person who is leading them on this adventure, someone very flawed, someone who has made a lot of mistakes in life, but someone who would really do her best to tell you what she can see and to bring you along with her. 

As for what happens next with Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s story, she likens her work to a ‘cloch le carn’ – putting another stone “on the carn of her memory”, and hoping others will continue to add to it.

“She still feels present to me,” she said of Ní Chonaill. “What I have felt more so is that she’s just there with all the other ghosts I carry around with me.”

It has been a privilege to get to know her as well as I have and I hope that will continue in some way. 

“I really, really hope more than anything that this book will bring other people to find out more about her life,” added Ní Ghríofa.

“I don’t think of it in any way as the end. I feel like this book is just another beginning in a whole series of beginnings that Eibhlín Dubh and Caoineadh Art Uí Laoghaire have taken in the collective imagination.”

A Ghost In The Throat, published by Tramp Press, is out now.

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