Making a Room for Eibhlín Dubh: A Ghost in the Throat

Photograph by Rene Asmussen

A friend suggested some books to me recently and luck would have it that I got them both for Christmas. One of these books was A Ghost in the Throat, a prose novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. which its author identifies as “a female text” (Ní Ghríofa 3). In it, she writes about her relationship to an eighteenth century poem, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill for her murdered husband. The poem is most often viewed in the context of its author’s being related to Daniel O’Connell, her nephew (Ní Ghríofa 70). From reading this book, I don’t feel that Daniel had any great connection to his aunt, apart from occasionally writing to his brother Maurice on her behalf, asking that she receive some financial support. Ní Ghríofa writes about her annoyance at “How swiftly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives” (Ní Ghríofa 70). This is the conflict I feel while writing about A Ghost in the Throat. Its author’s story involves her experiences with pregnancy, birth and post-natal maternity, subjects that I have not and will not experience. She has written a whole novel devoted to reappropriating Eibhlín’s life and work. By writing about my response to the book, do I not myself appropriate this female text as raw fuel for this, my own male text?

I noticed that the book has cover quotes from three men and one woman: Joseph O’Connor, Mark O’Connell, Emilie Pine and Michael Harding. I’ve been interested in O’Connor and Harding for a while, though I haven’t read any of their work. I hadn’t heard of O’Connell or Pine before I looked them up for this. The publisher, Tramp Press, is a small independent company founded and run by two women (Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff). I’d love to have quotes from any of these names (writers and publishers alike) on something I’d produced. That the publishers saw fit to include these men on the cover does make me feel empowered to proceed with my own thoughts, albeit with sensitivity and care for the inherent flaws in my lens.

This book is about Ní Ghríofa’s experience translating Eibhlín Dubh’s poem into English. A poet by trade, Ní Ghríofa writes in both Irish and English. She finds no shortage of existing translations into English but by making her own, she deepens her relationship to the text. I did French in college and have a single shelf of French books from that time (poetry, novels, short stories, etc). I haven’t read more than a few pages of any of them but I believe there’s the potential for me to understand these books on a different level to books written in English. I have to read much slower in French and I also have to use translation sites to check words I don’t know. That means that, for me, reading in French is more labour-intensive than reading in English.

Unlike me, Ni Ghríofa is fully bilingual in Irish and English. Even so, translation demands attention to register, context and what the writer(s) meant, especially since Eibhlín Dubh’s poem was transmitted orally before being committed to paper. Far from the x-to-y function box of a dictionary, translating a whole text requires engaged critical reading. Like any form of critical work, it contains creative and constructive elements. I believe translation creates a separate text which exists adjacent to the source, a work that belongs to the translator as well as the original writer(s).

Ní Ghríofa works on her translation amid her routine of housekeeping and childcare. The comparisons she makes between these spheres invest her work with authority because “tending to a room is a form of labour I know that I can attempt as well as anyone” (Ní Ghríofa 38). I like this comparison not because I think she has any less authority than an academic translator but because it correctly identifies her work as labour. Its constructive element finds a literal figuration in the act of making space for Eibhlín. She spends many hours working to “construct a suitable home for her, building and furnishing room after careful room, in which each mirror will catch her reflection” (Ní Ghríofa 39). I learned from Ní Ghríofa that stanza is the Italian word for room (Ní Ghríofa 38) and this linguistic fact is the foundation upon which she builds her metaphor of building.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

After Ní Ghríofa and her newborn daughter spends weeks in the natal intensive care unit, the public health nurse calls to their home. While Doireann is in the kitchen making tea, the nurse sees the translation when her back is turned. I must say, I found her reaction disconcerting, frustrating even. I want to reproduce parts of this interaction here:

“She laughs at herself, tapping the page. ‘Art O’Leary! Probably as close as we got to boy-bands, in my day.’ I try to mask my grimace.” (Ní Ghríofa 69)

This comparison seems too modern to fairly describe the context and content of Eibhlín Dubh’s poem. Fans’ intense devotion to boy bands is based on a parasocial interaction (PSI), i.e. “symbolic, one-sided quasi-interactions between a viewer and a media figure” (Theran Newberg and Gleason 270). Fans feel they have a personal relationship with the performers they idolise, even though few fans ever meet their idols. There are parallels between this devotion and Ní Ghríofa’s love of Eibhlín Dubh and I think that both are legitimate responses to two legitimate art forms. Since boy band fans are typically teenage girls, their response does not generally receive the acceptance enjoyed by responses to what is considered Art. Regardless of her intention, the nurse implicitly denigrates the poem and, by extension, downplays Doireann’s own legitimacy.

She says:

“‘Taking a night course, are we?’ I shake my head. ‘So what’s all this for, then?’ My shoulders answer on my behalf, my whole body pickling crimson. She soon turns to scolding me about the baby instead: no feeding schedule, no set sleep routine, one would imagine with a fourth child a mother would be a little more, well … she lifts her brow and palms.

After she leaves, I weep, more in rage than in shame, her words lingering: So what’s all this for, then?” (Ní Ghríofa 69)

This second exchange disturbs me on a personal level. The nurse wonders: What possible purpose could Doireann’s work serve, if not directed towards some kind of qualification? That question is one I worry about myself. I enjoy spending time consuming art (books, games, music, TV, you name it) and considering my responses to it. I did it in college so I could learn how to do it better. The question of why bothers me even when it comes innocently from curious family members or well-meaning friends. To hear it from an agent of the state, here for the express purpose of judging my responsibility to a vulnerable little person under my care? Inconceivably awful! Given Doireann’s rendering of her translation as akin to home-making, the nurse judges her mothering abilities on two fronts, literal and symbolic.

Photo by Samson Katt

The nurse left the house with no answers to her off-handed question but Ní Ghríofa, with this book, provides them all. Her love for the poem is clear throughout, and her compositional skill meant that I grew to love it too. Her journey takes her all over Munster, to some places I know very well. I’ve been upstairs in Cork’s city library to research an historical Munster personage, as she did. I was reading about Terence MacSwiney, another figure of Irish Nationalism on whom there is no shortage of primary documents and historical research. Where my challenge came from sifting through the breadth of information, Ní Ghríofa’s comes from its dearth. She reads through family records from a bible belonging to Eibhlín’s own son and finds no mention of her.

“I read every word, chasing the moment when he will mention his mother, when all my questions will be answered, and I can find peace. My eye gallops the text from beginning to end, and then my head falls to the table with a thunk. In front of two men who watch silently, I start to cry” (Ní Ghríofa 260)

This moment comes right before a reproduction of the text from the bible. I didn’t know yet if Ní Ghríofa was crying out of delight or despair, so when I read it myself, I was seeking the same details. It created within me a sense of suspense and hope akin to what she was feeling. It’s an excellent way to get the reader into the author’s perspective. After reading the text myself, I had to re-read the section quoted above. I had assumed she had found what she had been seeking, until I saw the truth for myself. That’s why this moment is, for me, the novel’s emotional highlight. I mentioned at the start my worry that the fundamental gulf in experience arising from my being a different gender from the author would impair my reading. Of course, no reader can ever fully understand the experience of any work’s creator. Here, the interactivity Ní Ghríofa creates by how she frames this moment gave me a partial sense of her disappointment.

Photograph by Ekrulila

Since there is minimal record of Eibhlín’s life after the poem, her legacy resides within it and in the reactions of those who read it. That’s what I love about this book: it’s art created in response to art. Ní Ghríofa gives the poem a new meaning, derived from how she experiences it. I think her work reveals the possibilites for art where originality and derivation are not opposites but mutually enriching forces. I hope that this book is forever associated with Eibhlín Dubh’s poem. Given its critical success, I suspect it will be.

Thanks to Lara for suggesting this book to me.

Publications I referenced:

Ní Ghríofa, Doireann. A Ghost in the Throat. Tramp Press, 2020.

Theran, Sally A. et al. “Adolescent Girls Parasocial Interactions With Media Figures.” The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 171:3, 2010, 270-277.

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