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24 March 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 10:18am

Motherhood and murder: Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s electrifying autofiction

A Ghost in the Throat draws on a forgotten 18th-century masterpiece to correct the erasure of women from history.

By John Self

Passion is an overworked concept these days. Corporations assure us that they are passionate about serving us personally tailored ads, while job-hunters are required to establish their passion for flipping burgers. So when we encounter real passion, as in the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s remarkable prose debut – which won the prestigious An Post Irish Book of the Year award in December, and has been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize – it’s an alien and disconcerting experience: it results in a book that takes you and shakes you.

The central passion is that of the 18th-century Irish noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill for her dead husband: on discovering his murder, she drank gouts of his blood and composed what Peter Levi called the greatest poem of its century from Britain or Ireland, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (roughly anglicised, The Keen for Art O’Leary). Ní Ghríofa has translated the poem, but finding her ardour for Eibhlín Dubh’s story unquenched by the work, she also set out in pursuit of Dubh’s unwritten life.

Unwritten is key. “This is a female text,” is the book’s refrain; Ní Ghríofa’s task is to correct the erasure from history of women like Eilbhlín Dubh, whose home is now a field, whose fate remains unknown, who has no marked grave, who went unmentioned in a document her son wrote detailing the members of his family. “Another grand deletion.” But around this quest Ní Ghríofa constructs an account of the other force that has dominated her life in the past ten years: motherhood. (The book is described as autofiction not memoir, emphasising the control Ní Ghríofa is exerting over her story in reducing, or promoting, her life to art.)

It would be odd to use the word passion to describe a mother’s repetitive chores – the lists, the feeds – yet it is the energy diverted into motherhood that means women have been overlooked as Eibhlín Dubh was. There is passion too – an ecstatic suffering – in Ní Ghríofa’s relentless self-abnegation: bringing up three children, pregnant with her fourth, and meanwhile expressing breast milk for a bank for premature babies: “A female body effect[ing] a theft on itself to help others.”

And it is passion, of course, which leads to and away from children: Ní Ghríofa is frank about sexuality (driving back towards the babysitter from a rare evening out with her husband, she is “not sure I can wait until we get home for his fingers”) and about the tension that comes with her bodily desire to become a mother again and again. With four children already, and her husband contemplating a vasectomy, her “superficial” response is, “But what about me? I want another baby.” We can understand her husband’s concern: it’s the birth of her fourth child, and first daughter, that inspires what might be the book’s strongest set piece, dragging the reader through the gruelling premature birth and aftermath with such breath-stopping intensity (“We are all in hell together”) that the chapter alone is a 15-page masterclass in life-writing.

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Next to this, or a later passage where she discovers lumps in her breast – both benefit from an inbuilt narrative drive – the sections searching for Eibhlín Dubh’s story are necessarily more distant. However, they burst into life when death appears again with the husband’s murder and the killer’s trial. And sometimes the desire for significance spills over into Ní Ghríofa’s own life: recalling her childhood dentist fixing a broken tooth, she writes “my mouth holds both truth and lie”. Her prose has a super-serious quality, so that when she tells us that a university building that caught fire 150 years ago now houses the Facility for Learning Anatomy, Morphology and Embryology – or Flame – laboratory, it is not merely a funny coincidence but “the past… always trembling inside the present”.

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It is this single-minded focus that gives A Ghost in the Throat its intense flavour: Ní Ghríofa’s utter submission – capitulation almost – to the lives of others (Eibhlín Dubh, her children) shows how we come to understand the world; how we get to know the person through the writing and the writing through the person. And at the end, as though a dam has burst, Eibhlín Dubh’s poem about her husband’s murder thunders through the pages. The effect is electric, like seeing a ghost returned to life; Ní Ghríofa’s translation is energetic, rhythmic and pulsing, literally, with blood: “I couldn’t wipe it away, couldn’t clean it up, no,/no, my palms turned cups and, oh, I gulped.”

A Ghost in the Throat
by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Tramp Press, 224pp, £12.99