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Bríd O'Donovan

'Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill scooped up handfuls of her lover's blood, drank, then threw back her head and howled'

Author and poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa is nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards – here she writes about how ghosts inspired her nominated book.

SITTING DOWN WITH popcorn and a spooky film, we can always sense when a ghost will soon appear on screen. We recognise the scene. A bedroom. A bed. The curtains drawn, perhaps trembling slightly. In the gloom, some hapless stranger sleeps, oblivious.

We watch, and then, from the shadows, a presence looms, strange and spectral – there, but not quite. A shadow in the mirror. A ghost. The sleeper stirs, then wakes. Eyes widen. A scream. The ghost grows close, and closer still. Leaping from the sheets, the character attempts to flee. They try, they always try, but there’s no escaping a ghost.

I love scary films and the hop such scenes give my heart, but every time I watch such a haunting, I’m exasperated by the character’s reaction. They always run for it. What would happen if, just once, they were to run the other way? To turn around and chase the ghost down, to demand that it account for itself, to grab the ghost by its ghosty collar and pin it against the wall, demanding answers: What’s the story, ghost? Explain yourself! What would happen if a person were to look in the eyes of a ghost and decide to haunt them back?

Perhaps the reason I always hope for such a twist is because of the strange situation in which I recently found myself. For years, I had become increasingly obsessed with a very old poem.

Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire was composed in the 18th century when a young woman fell in grief over the body of her murdered lover. In the wildness of her agony, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill scooped up handfuls of his blood, drank, then threw back her head and howled. The caoineadh, or keen, that she spoke in that moment was so powerful, so extraordinary, that for years the poem was recalled and recited by others again and again, until eventually it found its way into print, and into the future, moving from the 18th century to the 21st, where it found me.

I’d come across this poem briefly in school, but it was only in finding it again as an adult that it really grabbed hold of me. I found myself returning to it, reading it out loud to myself over and over, and each time I did so, it felt as though Eibhlín Dubh was speaking from my throat. Her voice was haunting me. Soon the poem was no longer enough; I wanted to know all about this woman, about her childhood, her teenage marriage, her years of young motherhood. I wanted to know what had happened to her in the years after the poem was composed. Where did she go? How did she make ends meet? What did she dream about? I wanted to climb in the windows of her bedroom at night to haunt her.

I didn’t run from this ghost. I ran towards her, arms open. I set out to find everything I could about Eibhlín Dubh, trawling through archives and scholarly articles, through birth certs and death certs and old books and letters. As I wrote down all I could find about her, I was surprised to find that I was writing a book that entwined my life and hers.
I began to haunt all her own old haunts, visiting the places that she had once lived. In those moments, it was me who was lurking in the gloom, strange and spectral – there, but not quite. A shadow in her bedroom mirror. A ghost from the future, haunting her past.

In the bed, the sleeper stirred, and woke. Eibhlín Dubh sat up and met my eye. And then, she was running towards me.

A Ghost in the Throat cover

‘A Ghost in the Throat’ is published by Tramp Press, and is shortlisted for two Irish Book Awards: Odgers Berndtson Ireland Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and Best Irish Published Book of the Year. To vote and enter a draw to win €100 of National Book Tokens, click here:

Doireann Ní Ghríofa
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