Read an extract from A Ghost in the Throat
by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2020
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is the unforgettable literary non-fiction story of a famed eighteenth-century Irish mourning poem, the forgotten life of its female writer, and the author’s personal obsession with restoring her to memory, and championed over a year of outstanding publishing to be named Foyles Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2020. Here you can read an extract taken from the beginning of the book.
When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries.
Look: I am eleven, a girl who is terrible at sums and at sports, a girl given to staring out windows, a girl whose only real gift lies in daydreaming. The teacher snaps my name, startling me back to the flimsy prefab. Her voice makes it a fine day in 1773, and sets English soldiers crouching in ambush. I add ditch-water to drench their knees. Their muskets point towards 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.
In the classroom, we are presented with an image of this woman standing alone, a convenient breeze setting her as a windswept, rosy-cheeked colleen. This, we are told, is Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, among the last noblewomen of the old Irish order. Her story seems sad, yes, but also a little dull. Schoolwork. Boring. My gaze has already soared away with the crows, while my mind loops back to my most-hated pop-song, ‘and you give yourself away ...’ No matter how I try to oust them, those lyrics won’t let me be.
By the time I find her again, I only half-remember our first meeting. As a teenager I develop a school- girl crush on this caoineadh, swooning over the tragic romance embedded in its lines. When Eibhlín Dubh describes falling in love at first sight and abandoning her family to marry a stranger, I love her for it, just as every teenage girl loves the story of running away forever. When she finds her murdered lover and drinks handfuls of his blood, I scribble pierced hearts in the margin. Although I don’t understand it yet, something ricochets in me whenever I return to this image of a woman kneeling to drink from the body of a lover, something that reminds me of the inner glint I feel whenever a boyfriend presses his teenage hips to mine and his lips to my throat.
My homework is returned to me with a large red X, and worse, the teacher’s scrawl cautions: ‘Don’t let your imagination run away with you!’ I have felt these verses so deeply that I know my answer must be correct, and so, in righteous exasperation, I thump page after page down hard as I make my way back to the poem, scowling. In response to the request ‘Describe the poet’s first encounter with Art Ó Laoghaire,’ I had written: ‘She jumps on his horse and rides away with him forever,’ but on returning, I am baffled to find that the teacher is correct: this image does not exist in the text. If not from the poem, then where did it come from? I can visualise it so clearly: Eibhlín Dubh’s arms circling her lover’s waist, her fingers woven over his warm belly, the drumming of hooves, and the long ribbon of hair streaming behind her. It may not be real to my teacher, but it is to me.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer whose books explore birth, death, desire, and domesticity. Doireann’s awards include a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship, the Ostana Prize and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Recently, she won the An Post Irish Book Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year. A Ghost in the Throat is her prose debut.