Ireland's ghost

Throughout A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa drops disclaimers indicating that her story, a retelling of the life of 18th century Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (known in English as Eileen O’Connell), is inadequate. She refers to her research as “spying” and to herself as a “busybody” and an “amateur.” When asked by a visiting nurse about the research material on her table, her “shoulders answer on [her] behalf, [her] whole body pickling crimson.” The whole of the project is rendered “an unscientific mishmash of daydream and fact.”

A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Biblioasis, 326 pp., $16.95.

Not that the actual facts are any more adequate than the person finding them. Her subject lived what might be considered a half-acknowledged life. Ní Ghríofa’s main biographical source was published in 1892 and is actually about one of Ní Chonaill’s brothers. Family records prove labyrinthine or ambiguous. Letters between Ní Chonaill’s brothers barely mention her, slanting “toward the concerns of men.” Her son’s family bible doesn’t mention her at all. Where she is mentioned, it is usually in relation to her more famous nephew, the Catholic emancipation icon Daniel O’Connell. A 1922 anthology of Irish verse gives her byline simply as “Dark Eileen.” Not even her place of burial is known.

And yet this woman’s caoineadh (a funereal lament or “keen”) to her murdered husband is considered one of the greatest contributions to Irish-language poetry and the tradition of Irish mourning. It is taught in Irish schools and attracts translators like moths to a lamp, including Ní Ghríofa, herself an accomplished poet, who helpfully appends this book with her own translation. It has been adapted for musical composition and drama and was quoted in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.

Ní Chonaill herself seems to dwell between “daydream and fact.” But where a typical biographer would undertake every effort to reconcile the subject’s life with the known facts, however scant, Ní Ghríofa takes a different course. “This is a female text,” she writes, “which is also a caoineadh, a dirge and a drudge-song, and anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn.”

Ní Chonaill was born around 1743 in Derrynane into the Gaelic gentry, then in decline under the weight of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws. Her own family had to maintain its wealth through smuggling. Education for Catholics was greatly restricted, but Eibhlín’s mother, Máire, was nevertheless a poet and wit in her own right, who “prized a quickness of intellect and a certain audacity of conversation.” Eibhlín “grew wild” as a daughter and was married off at age 14 to a much older man who widowed her within six months. Her second marriage, to Art O’Laoghaire, was not approved by her family, but it bore three sons and lasted until his death, which Eibhlín would famously memorialize.

O’Laoghaire himself has a substantial presence in the Irish imagination. Like other Irish Catholic men of the period, he found greater opportunity in continental Europe than at home, serving in the Austro-Hungarian military. He cut a gallant figure back in Ireland. “Impossibly handsome and extravagantly attired, Art O’Laoghaire did not merely walk through [Eibhlín’s] line of vision. He swaggered.” While he intrigued Eibhlín, he provoked the Anglo-Irish population, in particular the landowner and former Cork Sheriff Abraham Morris, who engaged O’Laoghaire in a petty, legally sanctioned, and ultimately fatal feud centered on O’Laoghaire’s ownership of a horse, also illegal under the Penal Laws. In 1773, Morris ordered an armed posse to ambush and kill O’Laoghaire as he rode through Carriganima, a crime for which he and his men were tried and acquitted.

Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, typical of keens, was composed orally and immediately after O’Laoghaire’s death. It was preserved orally until around 1800, when keener Nora Ní Shindile recited it for poet Éamonn De Bhál to transcribe. Ní Ghríofa’s own translation is contemporary and visceral. “Love, your blood was spilling in cascades / and I couldn’t wipe it away, couldn’t clean it up, no, / no, my palms turned cups and oh, I gulped.” The cadence of Ní Ghríofa’s translation is echoed in her prose, as when she describes Eibhlín’s body as having “howled open” rather than having “given birth.”

Ní Ghríofa’s voice, at once lyrical, defiant, sarcastic, meditative, and self-conscious, is what unifies a work that is otherwise in keeping with Irish literature’s notorious disregard for structural coherence. Coexisting with descriptions of Eibhlín’s life and work are autobiographical passages on Ní Ghríofa’s obsession with both, which began in earnest in her teenage years. “I develop a schoolgirl crush on the caoineadh,” she writes. “When she finds her murdered lover and drinks handfuls of his blood, I scribble pierced hearts in the margin.” Elsewhere, Ní Ghríofa reflects on childbirth and motherhood, her misadventure in studying dentistry, the environmental significance of bees, the foreboding presence of starlings, the unevenness of her breasts, and her husband’s vasectomy.

Yet Eibhlín is never far from Ní Ghríofa’s thoughts: “I feel certain that were Eibhlín Dubh by my side;” “I felt I was failing Eibhlín Dubh;” “I can’t help but feel that Eibhlín Dubh had a hand in [winning a literary award], and yet I am so focused on finding her I can’t celebrate;” “I recognise how different Eibhlín Dubh’s life is from mine, and yet, I can’t help myself in drawing connections between us.” The most memorable biographies, from Life of Samuel Johnson to Eminent Victorians, are rife with the biases of their authors. Ní Ghríofa goes somewhat further, conjuring rather than retelling. At times, she almost attempts to speak for Eibhlín, which, if it is not too presumptuous and speculative for most people’s tastes, is at least a narrative slog.

A Ghost in the Throat nevertheless glitters with beautiful writing, as when Ní Ghríofa describes “the petrol-blue iridescence” of the starling’s plumage or an old ringfort as being “the heart that convulsed through all my inherited fears, dark and bleak and full of secrets.” And it offers insights regarding Ireland’s past and present that defy the rustic and sectarian cliches so treasured by Irish Americans.

Yet Ní Ghríofa was wise to let Eibhlín have the last word, ending her book with the caoineadh in both English and the original Gaelic. Of all Ní Ghríofa’s stratagems for exhuming Dark Eileen, her translation of her subject's words is the most substantial and the most deserving of wider readership. Without it, it would not be easy to tell whose throat is being haunted by whom.

Chris R. Morgan is a writer from New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @CR_Morgan.

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Tags: Books, Book Reviews, poetry, Literature, Ireland

Original Author: Chris R. Morgan

Original Location: Ireland's ghost