A Ghost in the Throat is a stylish and sparkling book by Irish poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa has written a sparkling biography interleaved with memoir. Picture: Supplied
Poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa has written a sparkling biography interleaved with memoir. Picture: Supplied
  • A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ni Ghriofa. Tramp Press, $33.25.

As a child, the Irish poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa was captured by a poem composed by Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, one of 22 children if you please and an aunt of the 19th-century political leader, Daniel O'Connell.

The poem is a lament for her husband, Airt Ui Laoghaire, from the Catholic gentry, who, while riding his horse, was shot and killed in 1773 by agents of a local magistrate sharply enforcing anti-Catholic penal laws in County Cork.

Ui Laoghaire's horse returned to the family house and took Eibhlin Dubh to her dead husband and where, unable to clean up his blood, her poem says "my palms turned to cups and oh, I gulped".

It's an astounding act of a grief which may have been partially requited when Ui Laoghaire's brother subsequently shot the magistrate, who died from his wounds.

As an 11-year-old daydreaming in school, Ni Ghriofa imagines "a fine day in 1773, and sets English soldiers crouching in ambush. I add ditch water to drench their knees. Their muskets point to a young man who is tumbling from his saddle now in slow, slow motion. A woman rides in to kneel over him, her voice rising in an antique formula of breath and syllable the teacher calls a 'caoineadh', a keen to lament the dead. Her voice generates an echo strong enough to reach a girl in the distance with dark hair and bitten nails. Me."

Thus begins Ni Ghriofa's obsession with Eibhlin Dubh's poem, "Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire" or "Lament for Art O'Leary".

It comforts her during a boisterous adolescence, as a university student sometimes tempted by the bottle, school teaching, marriage and a late blooming career in the craft of poetry.

The poem is a ghost, "the voice of another woman to haunt my throat", she says and "my mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores".

When she wrote her book, Ni Ghriofa and her husband had four children under the age of six - a busy time to be sure.

So while introducing her children to the contemporary world, Ni Ghriofa brings the neglected Ni Chonaill more into it.

The two poets are in degrees alike. Ni Ghriofa finds the lures of rebellion hard to resist. Ni Chonaill's family was displeased when she eloped with Ui Laoghaire; they had five children and she was pregnant when her husband was killed.

A Ghost in the Throat is biography - Ni Chonaill's - and memoir - Ni Ghriofa's, the two convincingly combined.

As the author searches for details of her subject's life, she interleaves hers, often with startling frankness - expressing milk for those in neo-natal ICUs, a long, anxious time in an ICU with her fourth child, her first girl, her annoyance with her husband when he insists on having a vasectomy and missing him when he leaves in the mornings for work.

Ni Ghriofa rummages around libraries, museums, houses, graveyards, church ledgers of births, deaths and marriages and in places where she knows the long dead poet has been.

She finds and imagines a good deal but also runs into dead ends.

Ni Chonaill's likely grave has no mark for her. The current owners of the house where she lived with Ui Laoghaire refuse to let her in - Ni Ghriofa leaves a bunch of flowers in front of it.

She visits Derrynane House in County Kerry, the home of Daniel O'Connell and now a national museum, without luck.

Finding a small piece of broken pottery in the driveway to the house, she guiltily takes it in the remote hope it might be a relic of her poet.

While Ni Ghriofa reveals much of herself, her portrayal of Ni Chonaill has gaps.

In her quest she says "every lead is always a prelude to more questions...Everywhere I turn, another erasure greets me".

It's like an echo of her school days where, studying French, she says "the conjugation I found most difficult was the Past Imperfect, in which the past was actively continuing".

Nevertheless, she writes, "instead of resenting the many lacunae where I have not been able to find her, my hand has learned to hover over those gaps in awe.

"My attempt to know another woman has found its ending not in the satisfaction of neat discovery, but in the persistence of mystery."

Ni Griopha several times emphasises that her book "is a female text". However that may be so, it doesn't imply a restriction on its readership.

The New York Times has been pleased to put it on its list of the 100 best books, all categories, for 2021. It has weight, colour and emotional punch.

It's a stylishly written, generous hearted, sparkling work that can be rewardingly appreciated by persons from the full range of genders.

This story Searching for the dead in style first appeared on The Canberra Times.