Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: 2021 Autobiography Finalist

By Marion Winik

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Biblioasis)

Before I start this review I have to go downstairs and move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. Which could not be more appropriate, given the first two sentences of this book:

This is a female text.

This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes. 

As well as the last paragraph of the first chapter:

This is a female text, which is also a caoineadh: a dirge and a drudge-song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn. Join in.

Since she was a schoolgirl, the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa has been fascinated by Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a wildly romantic poem written in 1773 by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill about the murder of her husband. “When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries,” writes Ní Ghríofa in her debut prose work. (Her previous books were poetry in both Irish and English.) 

As she explains in the book (and also in a wonderful interview on board member Lori Feathers’ podcast), this poem meant different things to her at different points in her life. As a teenager, she was enthralled by the idea of abandoning one’s family to marry a stranger, and by the goth-sounding notion of drinking one’s dead husband’s blood and bringing his horse’s skull home to bury in your fireplace. When she became a young mother and realized for the first time that Eibhlin Dubh was also a young mother, full-on obsession set in. 

In the breaks between reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, pumping breastmilk and mopping floors, Ní Ghríofa turned again and again to her “scruffy photocopy” of the poem. “Throughout those yellow-nappy weeks, when everything spun wildly in the erratic orbit of others’ needs, only the lines of the Caoneadh remained steadfast.” She tracked down translations, dug for scraps of genealogy and long-erased biography, visited graves and monasteries, and began a translation herself, included at the end of the book.

Is A Ghost in the Throat a feminist work? There’s been plenty of discussion about that. While on one hand it elevates a little-known woman poet, it also passionately celebrates the burdens of motherhood and domesticity. As the critic Parul Sehgal put it in the New York Times, “What is this ecstasy of self-abnegation? What are its costs?” She concludes that, even if the author is too modest to acknowledge it, “the real woman Ní Ghríofa summons forth is herself.”

Which leads to my final point. While most critics, including Sehgal, describe A Ghost in The Throat as a hybrid of memoir, criticism, biography, history, and autofiction, the work has its feet firmly planted in the personal history and interior life of the author. The NBCC Autobiography Committee, despite its old-fashioned name, very much embraces the expansive nature of the genre. A Ghost in The Throat is an exceptional, even thrilling, example of what the story of a 21st-century life can be. 

Buy this book at Bookshop.