A Ghost in the Throat: A masterpiece on motherhood

Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s memoir has won the Odgers Berndtson Non-fiction Book of the Year, in association with the Business Post, at the An Post Irish Book Awards. Here is our review of the book from earlier this year:

25th November, 2020
A Ghost in the Throat: A  masterpiece on motherhood
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s exquisitely crafted memoir is written in milk and blood and its publication marks an important event in the maturing of Irish literature

A Ghost in the Throat

By Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Tramp Press, €16

“This is a female text, and it is a tiny miracle it even exists.” This book is a life-saver for anyone who has ever felt their grip on the world loosen in the short intervals between feeding one infant and attending to the cries of another.

A Ghost in the Throat, the prose debut by acclaimed poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, reveals tiny miracles on every page. Ten years of pregnancy and breastfeeding lie behind this deep reflection on the compulsive surrender maternity requires.

“In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger.”

Ní Ghríofa notes, for instance, that inside the womb, a baby lacking calcium will draw on the mineral reserves of its mother’s bones. “Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.”

This exquisitely crafted memoir is written in milk and blood and its publication marks an important event in the maturing of Irish literature. Two languages and two lives are braided together in the making of this everywoman’s tale. It is itself a caoineadh, or keen/lament, of remarkable integrity.

The reader is forced to inhabit an unsettling space where the lines between one poet and another, a written English text and an Irish oral tradition, an infant and its breast-feeding mother, intertwine and blur.

The 18th-century Munster poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonailll ghosts this text with her long lament for her fine cut of a husband, Art Ó Laoghaire, who refused to sell his Austrian mare to the local sheriff in Macroom for the risible sum of £5, as the Penal Laws decreed he should. This act of defiance cost Ó Laoghaire his life. The Tórramh-Chaoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire is only the most famed survivor in a distinctively female tradition, preserved thanks to Norrie Singleton, the west Cork keener, who could recite it from memory almost a century later.

Daunted by the many exceptional scholars and translators who precede her, Doireann Ní Ghríofa admits her own fascination is driven by the need to find, in Eibhlín’s life, a foil to the trauma and exhaustion of her own. She allows her lived experience as a writer, a wife and mother to four small children, to intrude into the life of this bilingual predecessor, and this collision presents a radical intervention in how we consider tradition to work.

This psychic drama teeters on a knife-edge between appropriation and recovery. The quest veers between the drawing room, the kitchen, the operating theatre, the dissection room and the tomb, as Ní Ghríofa tracks Eibhlín’s traces through archive and graveyard, and in a shard of bone china discovered in the yard at Derrynane.

Two questions haunt this narrative. What traces will remain of a woman’s life if she continues to relegate her own inner life to the last entry on a long list of daily chores? How does a woman reclaim the symbolic space essential to her authority when her body works so hard to sustain another life?

A Ghost in the Throat is a caoineadh, not a complaint. It implies one grief may stand for a shared experience: a ritual outburst chorused by women in traumatic times. Scholars will have no difficulty in positioning this act of recovery in the territory cleared by Ní Ghríofa’s more recent forebears, most notably in Munster.

This rich work rises on the foundations laid by Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, but more exactly, perhaps, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s ferocious essay, Cé Leis Thú? which investigates the psychic cost of Ireland’s bilingualism.

Other women’s lives beckon here too: the mothers in the neo-natal intensive care unit where Ní Ghríofa, herself a breast-milk donor, must watch her own tiny daughter find her strength; a woman lying traumatised on a dark country road, and the public health nurse who so casually dismisses the folder of notes on the kitchen table with: ‘So what’s all this for then?’

In place of an easy answer, the poet considers her own reflection in the mirror of this earlier life: “I study this body of mine, just one more in a long line, and feel no revulsion, only pride. This is a female text, I think. My body replies in its dialect of scars. Ta-dah!

I grieved when I closed this book, and found the only remedy was to turn back to the first page, and begin this masterpiece over again.

Selina Guinness is lecturer in Irish literature at IADT and is the author of The Crocodile by the Door

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