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BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Image Description: The cover of A Ghost in the Throat has a striking pattern of red and yellow flowers, with green leaves, against a black background.

‘When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries.

I am eleven, a dark-haired child given to staring out window … Her voice makes it 1773, a fine day in May, and puts English soldiers crouching in ambush; I add ditch-water to drench their knees. Their muskets point towards a young man who is falling from his saddle in slow, slow motion. A woman hurries in and kneels over him, her voice rising in an antique formula of breath and syllable the teacher calls a caoineadh, a keen to lament the dead.’

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

How to review a book that is part essay, part memoir, part literary investigation, part history, part ghost story, and part translation? That is the challenge that lies before me for A Ghost in the Throat, poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s award-winning auto-fiction/memoir about her efforts to translate – and understand – Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s eighteenth-century lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire).

As you can probably imagine, A Ghost in the Throat is a book that defies easy categorisation. Regardless of whether Doireann Ní Ghríofa is writing about her own experiences of motherhood – and the inevitable sacrifices of selfhood that this requires – or conjuring the grief of Eibhlín Dubh, keening over her husband’s murdered corpse, it is, however, a compelling and powerful read.

A Ghost in the Throat opens with the words, ‘THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT’, a refrain repeated throughout the text that serves both to highlight the erasure of lives such as Eibhlín Dubh’s from history, and to underscore the power of shared female experiences. For what begins as a teenage fascination with the romantic figure of a woman grieving for a lost lover becomes, for Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a means of exploring her own lived experience, and of uniting the fractured pieces of her identity: mother, wife, poet, scholar.

It’s hard to explain exactly how this fragmented, often ephemeral narrative can possess such narrative pull but, once I’d settled into the rhythm of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s words, I frequently found myself reading for hours; devouring the book in chunks and emerging dazed back into the world when I put it down. For me, reading A Ghost in the Throat was to be transported, however briefly, into other lives: both that of Doireann Ní Ghríofa and of Eibhlín Dubh. On the face of it, I have little in common with either woman – not Irish, not a mother, not a poet – and yet the pattern of their lives still resonated with me through the pages and from across the years.

f the eighteenth-century myself, I can understand the fascination that Doireann Ní Ghríofa develops with the fragments of Eibhlín Dubh’s life that remain in official records – and with the tantalising gaps through which Eibhlín, her sister, her mother, and her other female friends and relations seem to have slipped. Literary investigation can sometimes feel like obsession – the pursuit of knowledge through the fissures of history – and Doireann Ní Ghríofa has perfectly captured both the thrill and the despair that often comes with such a pursuit.

Not being a speaker of Gaelic, I cannot testify to the fidelity of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s translation of the Caoineadh, but I am glad to have been introduced to this deeply moving and powerful poem: a keen for a beloved husband, brutally murdered, and a lament for a wife unable to seek legal recourse for his death. Hopefully this new translation – the success of Doireann’s exploration of her own relationship with the text – will serve to make this particular piece of Irish literature much better known amongst the English-speaking literary world.

A Ghost in the Throat will not, I imagine, be for everyone. Its ephemeral and fragmentary nature can, at times, leave the reader jolted suddenly from one life and forcibly inserted into another, whilst Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s attempts to understand Eibhlín Dubh and to reconstruct her life are, like so much academic enquiry, ultimately frustrated. In addition, it is powerful and, at times, deeply emotional read that explores motherhood, loss, love, marriage, and the weight of expectation, often accompanied by a howl of female anger, despair, and frustration. It is, as Doireann Ní Ghríofa frequently says, a female text.

Ultimately, you’ll know within a few pages whether A Ghost in the Throat is for you. If it is, you’ll be pulled into this book and swept through, captivated by the power of an eighteenth-century Irish woman and the story of the twenty-first-century poet who fell in love with her words. It’s a book that I would love the opportunity to teach one day – unpicking this alongside students and other scholars would be fascinating, and I definitely think this a book that bears repeat, close reading. As a ‘pleasure’ reading experience, A Ghost in the Throat wasn’t the easiest – or the most comforting – of reads, but it was a deeply rewarding and thought-provoking one that I feel will stay with me long after I turned the final page.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Tramp Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive,, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 7 November 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

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