Review: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa


THIS IS A SELFISH TEXT. And it begins with a chapter lacking the ability to show that selfishness, and continues through many where such is sublimated. But, this is a female text. And I would like to understand, maybe accept, and certainly feel the rejection involved in saying this is one thing, when I know I am many, complicated things. And not only am I many complicated things, but so may you be, as is this novel.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat begins by stating it is a female text, then continues, within the first three pages, “Every morning of mine… I kiss… I do… I always… I am already… I feed…” —morning of mine, I, I, I, I. Yet, as a female text, it fails to address how this, or that, “morning [is] mine.” It is simply assumed as Ní Ghríofa’s own.

The story begins with confusion; how this can be a voice where “I” seems to be focused through others: how



Hoover upstairs





Clean toilets

I keep my list as close as my phone, and draw a deep sense of satisfaction each time I strike a task from it.

is anything of meaning;

how this is any “I” at all. It is a tumult dealt with with “reverence” for itself, and quickly it begins to make its point. We are offered chapters where lives are lived; Ní Ghríofa’s own—in youth—and others; found—through histories; and recounted—some in imagination; births delivered, flowers planted, men dead and crazy, women rescued.

The first chapter reads stilted. As though a true voice isn’t given any breath, but as the title says, there is a ghost in the throat. It haunts what we are saying and are about to say. And this is a novel that haunted me—in true Cork terms—it blessed me. It possessed me, it was there for me as all my past was brought up to be made bear on me.

But this is a female text; I am trans. Some-thing, an act of personhood, and, in some ways—being trans—only debatably female. Ní Ghriofa fires off the many ways she is female, in ways I feel wholly female, and wholly lacking. She makes lists, in the first chapter, as she cares for children; what she must do in her day as a mother and housewife. She provides breast-milk to the NHS’s Trust Western Human Milk Bank to provide for sick NICU babies; something medically possible for me, if unlikely. This female text is defined by giving to others, caring for others, but it is also a selfish text. Ní Ghríofa becomes pregnant, a caring act where a body is given over to another; a feat I cannot achieve, in a long list of feats withheld from me.

Yet there are other ways of caring. Ní Ghríofa cares for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. First brought to her through a poem in school—the woman who wrote it down remembered in the book—Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s spoken then written words captured Ní Ghríofa, but to what effect?

The author cares that Ní Chonnaill’s story is told; the thread running through the 282 pages of Ní Ghríofa’s work. Ní Ghríofa wants this female life—one who brought such fervency and beauty to a man; Art ó Laoghaire—to matter. It matters not just to us, in reading the story, but to every part of Ní Ghríofa’s existence for X number of years (would it matter if she couldn’t tell it to anyone, if she just repeated the stories—unwritten, spoken, perhaps/probably forgotten—like so many women spoke unwritten caoineadh’s before; something to be investigated, maybe?)

So often does Ní Ghríofa care. The turning point of the story coming when Ní Ghríofa’s car is stopped, with Ní Ghríofa, the passenger, running from her seat to care for a woman assaulted, drunk, lying and screaming at the side of the road.

I lift her face in my hands, find her eyes with mine, and say, ‘Everything will be OK.’ I ease her sad body up and steer her along, my palm very gentle at her elbow. As we walk together through the dark, my ears and eyes are on high vigilance terrified as I am that a car might round the bend too fast to stop. I know I can’t fix her but I do what I can, I settle her safely into the car, I stroke her hair until her sobs ease.

Ní Ghríofa speaks in that moment of how she felt this was her repaying, perhaps offering, into the world how someone else once saved her, as a college student, desperately thinking dark thoughts next to a river in Cork (the Lee, probably; many times a grave.) That this caring into the world brings care back onto yourself; is this the truly feminine? Perhaps, in some circles. For some is it a real wish and belief? Certainly. The way we were taught, or the way some trans bodies and minds learned, despite society’s protestations? Absolutely.

Yet it is her student moments, as a trainee dentist dissecting bodies where Ní Ghríofa cares for others least, and where the voice—shaken and seemingly untrue—of the first chapter finds real resonance.


always managed to find myself out on the tear the night before anatomy lab, and often, the following morning. I just didn’t turn up. I only half know where I was instead: asleep with a cheek on a toilet seat, or opening an eye to the smell of a stranger’s flatmate frying rashers, or drooling on a pillow that wasn’t mine.

For once Ní Ghríofa speaks with regret, maybe, and certainly passion and belief, for a time in her life where she made mistakes and gave herself over to whatever leads to sleeping next to a toilet. But this plays out in later life too, such as is this novel where she can recall from her time in what is now known as the FLAME lab dissecting…

a scalpel sliced the blood vessels away, a process nothing like the delicate ritual I had imagined, more like taking a steak knife to a garden hose. The heart was grey, but it seemed to shine, somehow. Scooped up, it was passed from hand to hand to hand. I held it gently, and it really did shine…

Sleeping next to toilets and holding hearts is, or was, still is her life. She leaves dentistry school, but the thought of holding another’s life is always present, holding your own or another’s. As it is always present for me.

But it is me who cannot bear life, although I long to give it; I long to give. Despite longing to give, nature—my appearance, my deep voice, my status as “a danger” (in being trans)—precludes; it is all the ways I find myself within this female text, unavailable to give (and selfishly take) in any whole-hearted (as opposed to ghost-throated) manner. I still did so, though. In school I gave up reading time I-so-valued to tell another that, first off, Reading is Great, and secondly, It Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Read, You Have Value. (Ní Ghríofa speaks of her own suspicion at telling her daughter to give up a ball at a play centre.) The story of Ní Ghríofa’s caring for a screaming woman at the side of a road reminds me of when I saw a woman, screaming, running down Dublin’s O’Connell Street. I ran to her, without thinking. My friends all stopping, as it seems that they were actually thinking some—any thoughts at all—thoughts relevant to a deadly Dublin street. I saw this woman—a few years younger than my early twenties—was being chased. I interposed my body between her and the people raining blows down on her and said, “You’ve made your point.” They should leave her alone, and they did. My friends all commented—sensibly and cowardly—“They could have had a knife.” Yet I cared. And Ní Ghríofa’s story tells all the times when, in this female text, we sacrifice ourselves to care.

In tracing Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s story Ní Ghríofa is caring, but she’s also hoping that someone will care for all the many untold stories. Will care for all the sacrifices made. Will care for all the ways another cared. But this is a female text, and it’s a selfish text. It’s through caring that I can more easily define myself within womanhood; through noble sacrifice (noble if it were ever observed by an author such as Ní Ghríofa) or—though not my course—through bearing a child.

The story finds it end (almost) when Ní Ghríofa’s husband decides he’s having a vasectomy. It’s not wholly his decision, convincing Ní Ghríofa, as he does. But here, finally, does Ní Ghríofa’s selfishness find its voice. Speaking of his potential vasectomy,

If he had his way, all the future babies I had been wishing for would be deleted.

She says,

But what about me? I want another baby.

And finally “want”—this female text—in caring for another so you may be cared for, in remembering another so you and your kind may be remembered has found its voice and itself—along the way in remembering college drunkenness and morning after pills—in finally being selfish. This female text finally cares for itself.

But the literal final chapter of Ní Ghríofa’s words is to look at her daughter, and maybe speak the words of this story to her. In one history such words would be spoken, then again, and maybe finally be vaguely told by granddaughters before great-granddaughters forget their importance. Ní Ghríofa spoke these words to me, via Tramp Press, so something has changed. The change in the novel is that we finally see such selfishness turned, obliquely, to use. A FEMALE TEXT, perhaps, but maybe not a female reading—me between and longing—or a female reception, or a male understanding. A text in useful selfishness.

And, we must remember the woman who began this all, and how she attributed to herself such truth of selfishness, even turned towards another at the end…

O my beloved, steadfast and true!

The day I first saw you

by the market’s thatched roof,

how my eye took a shine to you,

how my heart took delight in you,

I fled my companions with you,

to soar far from home with you.

Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (trans. Doireann Ní Ghríofa)

In Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, I have both soared far from home, with you, but also found that home with you.

--- If I made you laugh, smile, cry, or think I'd love if you would let me know. ---

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