Book Review

Diane Johnson opens her breakthrough biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, with a challenge to the reader as to why we don’t know about her subject:

Many People have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table . . . everybody remembers his remarks. . . . We forget that there were other people at the table—a quiet person, now muffled by time, shadowy, whose heart pounded with love, perhaps, or rage, or fear when our writer shuffled in from his study; whose hands, white knuckled, twisted an apron, whose thoughts raced.

Indeed, the biography that follows this beginning is one that leaves the standard conventions of biography behind. When you are writing about a forgotten woman you have to get creative about how you tell her story. Typically, the documents of her life aren’t found in the archives. So, the biography has to approach the telling of her life differently.

In Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat we are given a creative adaptation of a biography that fits the form of the story she is telling. The book is a biography about an eighteenth century noblewoman, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, whose story was preserved through the poem she wrote about her husband’s murder, “The Keen for Art O Laoghaire.” Ní Ghríofa wraps this biography in her autobiography, where she describes her archival journey into trying to find the poet’s life in between her busy life as a mother.

Ní Ghríofa opens the book with an invocation: “This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little.”

She’d turned to Ní Chonaill’s poem during her daily task of pumping milk for her second child. “I pick up my scruffy photocopy of Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire,” she writes, “inviting the voice of another woman to haunt my throat for a while.” So begins a threaded journey whereby time passes through Ní Ghríofa’s experience of motherhood as she slowly uncovers the life of Ní Chonaill.

Ní Ghríofa does her archival work with a toddler and baby in tow, haunting the public library, gathering all of the translations she can find. Still, she can’t locate any more facts about Ní Chonaill’s life. “I want to know who she was, where she came from and what happened next,” she says. She searches for a book that provides this information, but soon finds that it doesn’t exist. Even though every Irish school child learns Ní Chonaill’s poem, no one has ever bothered to remember the poet’s life.

So, slowly, Ni Ghriofa begins to accumulate the facts of Ní Chonaill’s life – she finds her in footnotes, in small asides in scholarly articles. This process—the recreation of Ní Chonaill’s life through tiny brushstrokes—continues for years. Often, she comes across the same two facts: Wife of Art O’Leary and Aunt of Daniel O’Connell. As if, as Ní Ghríofa reflects, “she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.” Ní Ghríofa begins to realize that her only hope of recovering the poet’s life is to focus on the women who remembered her poem through their oral tradition and by visiting the sites where Ní Chonaill once lived.

After reading hundreds of translations of the poem, she begins to translate it herself: slowly, one stanza at a time. She begins to visit the sites of Ní Chonaill’s life including Kilcrea. There, she reflects:

 I stand where Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill stood. I speak some lines from Caoineadh, my voice springing back from the stone walls that once witnessed her voice too. When I say. Mo chara go daingean tu, my daughter peers up at me, amused, then tilts her head sharply, mimicking the cadence of my words. I say it again, this phrase one might to begin to translate as, ‘O, my steady companion.’ I feel it so strongly here, her echo. This is our beginning.

In the pages that follow, Ní Ghríofa skillfully unfolds the lost poet’s life. But as she digs into Ní Chonaill, she also finds the hidden text of her own life sewn like a secret tapestry inside it. In her essay “Biography” Virginia Woolf asked, “Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry?” Indeed, it is as if Ní Ghríofa authored this book directly in response to Woolf’s question. A Ghost in the Throat is not a conventional biography. Nor is it a conventional autobiography. It is a thing unto itself created to tell a unique story. The reader who opens this book will soon find she has happily lost hours under its spell.

About the Reviewer

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet. She wrote the first full-length biography on Charmian London, Jack London's wife, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2020. Her fourth collection of poems, West : Fire : Archive was published by The Center for Literary Publishing in 2021. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry and Translation Director of the Napa Valley Writers' Conference.