RELEASING her debut prose book ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ in the midst of a pandemic, Clare poet and author Doireann Ní Ghríofa admits she didn’t know what to expect.
However, she had no need to worry, with the publication going on to receive critical acclaim, becoming a best seller and securing two nominations in the forthcoming Irish Book Awards.
Doireann, who grew up in Kilnamona tells us, “It was due to be published in April but that was postponed until the summer. Everything was so strange with the coronavirus, and I was worried that after so many years of work, that my book would sink without trace and completely disappear – but I was wrong.
“Readers took it into their hearts from the very start, and they kept it the Top 10 national bestsellers from when it was published in August all the way up to October, something I could never have dreamed of. I’ve been surprised and delighted by how many readers have contacted me to say that they loved it. It was even more of a surprise to hear that it has been shortlisted for not one, but two Irish Book Awards. I’m very grateful to my publishers at Tramp Press, and to all the readers who have given this book such a great welcome.”
The book sees Doireann weave two stories together, with eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother who turns detective.
Doireann explains, “It’s a true story, an adventure story, and a ghost story all rolled into one. It’s based on my attempt to get to know a woman who died centuries before I was even born. The book begins in a very busy time of my own life – I had four kids under the age of six – but throughout the all the broken nights, all the nappies and fevers and baby food, I clung to something that became very precious to me: the echo of an old poem. The more I returned to ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, the more curious I became about its author.
“Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill was pregnant too, on the afternoon hundreds of years before, when she saw her husband’s horse return home alone. She leapt into the saddle and found it drenched with blood. The horse carried her to his body, flung on a bleak slope where he had been murdered. She knelt over him and drank his blood, and from her roars came a keen of such electricity and desire and rage that this poem made its way to us, from the 18th century to the 21st. Something about this poem grabbed a hold of me, and I started to try to find out more about Eibhlín Dubh’s life. It wasn’t easy, but the more clues I uncovered, the more real she felt. One day, I began to write it all down, and little by little, it became this book.”
Like many others throughout the country, Covid-19 has had a profound effect on Doireann’s life. “I’ve been thinking a lot about distance. Like so many others, we’ve been communicating with family through glass, whether through windows or with video calls on screens – at the end of the summer I found myself trying to chat with my Nana Mae from outside her window, through the layers of my mask and through layers of glass. Distance makes communication hard, but as a country, it’s something we are adapting to as well as can be expected. We can create a togetherness in distance – it took the pandemic to teach me that.”
Now living in Cork, Doireann grew up in Kilnamona with her parents and two sisters and still has a “very deep bond” with Clare. Attending school in Ennis, she recalls, “I was lucky to encounter kind and encouraging teachers there, in the Gaelscoil, in the Gaelcholáiste, and in Ennis Community College, where my history teacher Miss Hester and my English teacher Mr Moylan had a profound effect on me. I spent a lot of time in the Ennis library, and I owe a lot of my love to books to the amazing librarians there!”
She says her connection with Clare is “even more pronounced now in Level 5, as I am marooned in Cork. Nice and all as it is here, it’s no Clare. During the summer, when restrictions were eased and we were all allowed to travel, I went home a lot. I felt like I was trying to catch up on with all the places and the people I had missed so much during the first lock-down. I spent a lot of time with my family, and I went around visiting all the places that feel most important to me. It was great to be able to do that, but I already miss Clare terribly again, and we’re only just beginning a long winter lockdown… but we’ll get through it. We have to.”
Doireann is also author of six critically-acclaimed books of poetry, each a deepening exploration of birth, death, desire, and domesticity. Awards for her writing include a Lannan Literary Fellowship (USA), the Ostana Prize (Italy), a Seamus Heaney Fellowship (Queen’s University), the Hartnett Poetry Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, among others.
Recalling how she started on the path to becoming a writer, she says, “I was a bookish child, but I only began to write after my grandfather’s death. It felt like a gift, how my writing grew from that grief. I took that gift seriously, making time to write every day of the following weeks to see where my pen might take me. Looking back now, I’m surprised that I kept going, and that I’m still going. Life can be so strange.”
Asked what advice she would give to budding writers, she answers, “Little by Little. Put aside a little time every single day to write a good sentence – paragraphs will follow, then pages, then chapters, and before you know it you’ll have a book. Little by little. Keep at it.”
This year will see the Irish Book Awards take place remotely due to Covid-19, with Doireann admitting, “I’m very, very relieved that I won’t have to go to a live TV event. I’d much prefer to have a quiet celebration at home in my slippers than to be wearing high heels and fancy dress in Dublin.”
Despite having two nominations, in the Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and Best Irish Published Book of the Year categories, the modest writer says, “I’m definitely the underdog in both of the categories in which my book is nominated – Mary McAleese is on the shortlist too – so I doubt I have much of a chance. Historically, though, Clare people respond very well to being the underdog, so maybe that old hurling energy will carry me through.”
Members of the public can vote for their favourite books, including Doireann’s, at the An Post Irish Book Awards website www.irishbookawards.irish/vote/