“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.
‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.
However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…
My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.
But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.
I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.
The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:
In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.
As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:
He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.
This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.
How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?
There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.
An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.