Arthur O’Leary was the scion of a high-born Irish Catholic family in County Cork who, in 1773, ran into trouble with a local English magistrate, Abraham Morris. Morris either took colonialist umbrage at the impudent O’Leary—who had also been a hussar in Empress Maria’s Austro-Hungarian army—or simply coveted his prizewinning mare, which, under Great Britain’s oppressive Penal Laws, he was at liberty to seize for the insulting sum of £5. O’Leary taunted Morris and escalated the conflict, but before he was able to escape to the continent, Morris’s men shot him dead. The tale is immortalized in the “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire,” or “Lament for Art O’Leary,” which was composed by his wife, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (though as an oral form, it was not written down for some years). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics describes it as “a poem of passionate grief…in the keening [tradition], but made memorable by its sustained and moving eloquence.”
For the bilingual Irish Gaelic–English poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, there is something invincible about the thirty-six stanzas of the “Caoineadh,” in which Ní Chonaill narrates the cruel story of her short marriage to Art O’Leary: from love at first sight to elopement to domestic bliss to grief. On the day her hot-tempered young husband’s mare galloped home with blood on her saddle, the poet took “three leaps” to land astride her and tear back to the scene of the crime. Crazed at the sight of his corpse, she threw herself on his body and drank his blood. As when, in ancient times, drinking from a bowl of blood in the underworld allowed heroes (Odysseus, Aeneas) to behold prophesies from the dead, Ní Chonaill’s necrophilic act seemed to bestow on her the power to compose her “Caoineadh,” in which a call for vengeance is as intense as her grief-stricken love. O’Leary’s brother in due course shoots Morris, wounding and eventually killing him.
Ní Ghríofa remembers the “Caoineadh” from her schooldays; it didn’t make an impression on her until adolescence, when her own dangerous desires burgeoned. In college she’s reckless, burning the candle at both ends, given to compulsions that rob her of sleep and appetite. She gets drunk, she gets skinny, she gets dark circles under her eyes. When adults nudge her toward a teaching career, she rebels and goes in for a year as a dentistry student. (It is in her nature to rebel against even her nature.) Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill also was a black sheep (“Dubh” is Irish Gaelic for “dark”) who dismayed her family by eloping with the dashing but dangerous Art; her brothers would all but disown her.
Yet when we meet Ní Ghríofa at the start of her memoir, A Ghost in the Throat, her life is distinguished by its mundanity: she is a housewife and mother to two young sons, a third on the way. In short order she has three young sons, with a fourth child on the way. The family is struggling to get by on one income, and rising rents drive them from one apartment to the next. “The baby sleeps in a third-hand cot held together with black gaff tape, and the walls of our rented bedroom are decorated not with pastel murals, but with a constellation of black mould.” To keep up with chores, she makes lists and takes satisfaction in crossing off tasks as she completes them, a kind of parody of her vocation where writing a line and scratching it out is standard practice. She reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud a hundred times, plays an old mixtape with Radiohead’s “Karma Police” as a substitute lullaby to get the baby to nap, and takes that opportunity not to get some shut-eye of her own but to close herself in a room with a breast pump so she can donate to a national milk bank for infants in neonatal ICUs.
The milk bank takes on metaphorical importance, as does the idea of donation—female donation—in its many forms. She points out that in pregnancy, a woman’s body will leach itself of its own nutrients to ensure the health of the fetus. This is not a complaint. As Ní Ghríofa finds herself humming a U2 lyric from her adolescence, “And you give yourself away, and you give yourself away,” she contemplates the nature of altruism with some ruefulness, but never resentment. For one thing—as per “Karma Police”—she believes in cosmic reckoning.
When the fourth baby, her first daughter, stops growing in utero, and Ní Ghríofa must undergo her fourth C-section early because of a sickly placenta, the universe holds mother and preemie in a terrible balance in the neonatal ICU for many weeks before vindicating Ní Ghríofa’s faith. She had “banked” her donations against disasters of this kind, and perhaps it even worked. By her hospital bed she had kept a photocopy of the “Caoineadh” for comfort; now she plans to donate her time and mental energies toward a new translation. Drawing out the facts of a bereaved noblewoman—who left almost nothing behind but two sons and the keen for their murdered father—becomes a feminist quest not in opposition to traditional roles (wife, mother, housekeeper) but as an extension of them.
Soon, having moved by chance to a new rental in Kilcrea, the seat of the Ó Laoghaires, Ní Ghríofa starts taking drives to various locations associated with the dead poet and her family (some of them guesswork based on matching old maps and satellite photos), either with tots in car seats or left behind with their father for the afternoon. She is haunted on either side: by the vanished poet (when she’s at home) and by her own family (when she’s on her quest).
Ní Ghríofa is a poet through and through: in this prose work she writes lyrical sentences that make the physical world come alive, and repeats the word “sing” as if it were in chorus with her: “We are lifted over the river by a bridge so narrow that it sings less of engines and more of hooves.” “My heels sing me from gravel to paving stones, into wet leaves, and then onto sparser winter grass.” She notes with equally sensuous pleasure the origins of words: “The word ‘souterrain’ holds its roots in French, drawing itself from sous (meaning ‘under’) and terre (meaning ‘earth’)…. The sense of an ancient form constructed over a hidden architecture of depth.” “The word scutcheon is new to me. My phone explains that in the eighteenth century, it referred both to the ornate metal panel surrounding a keyhole, and also to a marking behind a cow’s udder.”
But even more tellingly, almost everything Ní Ghríofa notices gains significance by rhyming with something else. Metaphors and metonyms are her metier; omens and dreams are mirrors of deep mind. As she explicates her metaphysics of housekeeping, she asserts that writing is also a kind of metaphysical bookkeeping:
Every day I battle entropy, tidying dropped toys and muck-elbowed hoodies, sweeping up every spiral of fallen pasta and every flung crust, scrubbing stains and dishes until no trace remains of the forces that moved through these rooms. Every hour brings with it a new permutation of the same old mess…. If each day is a cluttered page, then I spend my hours scrubbing its letters. In this, my work is a deletion of a presence.
In order to balance out the cosmic order, she must conjure a presence out of a deletion. Of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill little is known; her bones are probably buried with those of her husband, but there is no marker with her name, and Ní Ghríofa resents this deeply. The injury to Ní Chonaill threatens her personally as a woman and mother defined by altruistic acts: it is one thing to donate (“gift”) yourself, it’s another for your name to be entirely subsumed. Thus the first sentence of the memoir: “This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes.” Text, of course, is related to textile, just as a line of a poem creates a “thread” and stories “unfold”:
I know how unqualified I am to attempt my own translation—I hold no doctorate, no professorship, no permission-slip at all—I am merely a woman who loves this poem. The task of translation itself, however, does not feel unfamiliar to me, not only due to translating my own poems [from Irish Gaelic to English], but because the process feels so close to homemaking. In Italian, the word stanza means “room.”
Dredge, drudge, dirge: compartmentalization is impossible for the poet. To the gatekeepers, Ní Ghríofa doesn’t make a convincing figure, with her suckling infant and toddlers, as she petitions descendants and archivists and slips into university libraries using friends’ ID cards. Despite knowing this, she feels strongly—irrationally—proprietary about her poetic predecessor. She wants evidence, proof, objects touched by the poet or someone adjacent to the poet. At the museum of the famous nineteenth-century Irish politician Daniel O’Connell—Ní Chonaill’s nephew—a curator looks askance as Ní Ghríofa recites a list of household items (the scutcheons, the china), gleaned from family correspondence, that she thinks she might hunt down there. Nothing doing, but when she leaves she pilfers a shard of broken pottery from the grounds: “My car mirror is the only eye that recognises my thievery.”
And when the current resident of Raleigh House—Art O’Leary’s ancestral home—refuses to give Ní Ghríofa entry, she leaves a bouquet of flowers on the step with a note of apology. Yet the subtext is that the flowers from her own garden will infiltrate the air of the rooms where Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill once breathed. In these instances, metaphors are inadequate; they cede to fetishization of the actual. It doesn’t suffice that we have—miraculously enough—the text of Ní Chonaill’s poem; Ní Ghríofa wants contact through a mirror, a candlestick. She wants to breathe the air of Raleigh House. To what end? The quest starts to feel like a folly and recalls her self-destructive teenage years:
I needed to learn by heart the conjugation I found most difficult, the Past Imperfect, in which the past was actively continuing. Je désirais: I was desiring, I was wanting, I was longing; the condition was never-ending.
That this might all be folly crosses her mind too: after she brings her baby home from the long uncertain hospital stay, a nurse from a state agency comes to check on them and alights on the folder of papers related to her translation project. She thinks Ní Ghríofa must be taking a night course. Learning it’s not that, she asks, “So what’s all this for, then?” The nurse’s curt dismissal eats at her.
Ní Ghríofa’s quest for “the Past Imperfect” betrays, a little, the yearning of the present moment for “relatability.” As bits and pieces of her own life are woven through the tale of her pursuit of Ní Chonaill, we are given intimate personal details: close-ups of her breast pumping; the fluctuation of her sex drive as she gives up lactation; the depredations of repeated childbearing on her body; the discovery of (ultimately benign) lumps in her breast; and, at the end of the book, her primal outrage as her kindly husband puts his foot down and opts for a vasectomy.
All this is implicitly justified by her feminist poetics: “This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little.” Ní Chonaill’s poem, simply by surviving history, ensures that the past is never over; it retells that past, paradoxically, “over and over.” So it is with women’s lives: for all our progress, we are essentially the same creatures that Ní Chonaill and her mother and twin sister were. Ní Ghríofa’s obsession with them amounts to a search for second sight, a vision to buttress, to underwrite, and perhaps to ennoble the reality of her own life.
But there is a crucial aspect of Ní Ghríofa’s experience that she marginalizes throughout the memoir, and that is the hidden heart of it: how she translated the “Caoineadh.” Although at the back of the book she gives us the poem in Irish Gaelic, her exciting translation, and a list of references for further reading, I wanted much more: I wanted the drama of the translator and scholar’s discovery, much as we get in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Pierce-Arrow, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and Economy of the Unlost, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial. We see Ní Ghríofa sleuthing in archives, chasing down heirs, and visiting landmarks, but we don’t get an account of her thinking as she weighed and translated Ní Chonaill’s “learnèd song” (as Ní Ghríofa puts it). Translation, and even textual analysis, is also a kind of chase, a kind of séance.
According to the Princeton Encylopedia, “poetry in Gaelic belongs to one of the oldest vernacular [literatures] in Europe, extending from the 6th c. AD to the present.” Poets were called filidh, a word with roots in the Welsh word meaning “to see,” and they were the link between traditional knowledge and prophecy—hence, “seers.” They were a privileged professional class: they attended academies to learn their craft, and their work was characterized by complex forms and intricate rhymes and meters. In the sixteenth century, Philip Sidney declared admiringly that in Ireland you could be rhymed to death! I would dearly have liked to read Ní Ghríofa on Ní Chonaill’s technique and the kind of magic that inheres in metaphor, rhyme, meter, and rhythm in the “Caoineadh.” After all, it is largely centered on a galloping mare: a trope for the poet’s galloping feet.
It was around Ní Chonaill’s time that a new poetic form was invented: the aisling, a dream vision of Ireland revealing itself to the poet as a beautiful woman in need of saving. Ní Ghríofa certainly gives us a new, feminist vision of a woman saving another woman, righting a historical imbalance that persists in women’s continued sacrifices, from lopped donor ponytails to donated breastmilk to lopsided breasts. In one of the most poignant instances of mystical reciprocity, Ní Ghríofa writes a poem about Ní Chonaill that ends up winning a prize; the purse is enough to put a down payment on a house at long last. Thus do stanzas translate into real rooms. I wish we had been given a room-by-room tour of Ní Chonaill’s stanzas.
May 13, 2021