A Ghost in the Throat: Questions with Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Dublin Book Festival gave you the chance to ask poet and author of the spell-binding A Ghost in the Throat Doireann Ní Ghríofa questions as part of our #AskAnAuthor series. Keep reading to find out her answers, and to hear even more from Doireann, tune in to her ‘Emerging Writers’ panel event as part of #DBF2020!

Photo credit: Bríd O’Donovan

Saoirse Anton: As a bilingual writer, do you find yourself setting out to write a piece in English, or a piece in Irish, or does the language come to the piece as the idea develops?

I’m a bilingual writer, and although my mother tongue is English, many of my published books are in Irish. Learning to write in both languages has made me amphibious; I feel fortunate to be able to breathe in either language. To answer your question, I find that from its earliest moments, any new piece of mine – whether poetry or prose – already knows which language it will be expressed in. I’ve yet to find myself consciously weighing which language to use, I always just… know. It’s mysterious. The new poem I’m working on at the moment is as Gaeilge, and as for what will follow, I really don’t know yet! Linguistically, I could always go either way.

Whenever I am asked about how important the Irish language is to my work, I always think of our word for escalator. ‘Staighre beo’ translates literally as ‘stairs which is alive.’ I love that phrase, how it conjures in my mind’s eye the throbbing mechanism of those metal steps, circling and circling, as the staighre beo lifts us from one level to the next. The act of writing in Irish feels a bit like stepping onto an escalator, as I immediately feel myself carried along by a different momentum, and a very different literary tradition. And maybe our Irish words are also a bit like the escalator’s metal steps – after all, those same words carried the voices of those who composed poetry in Irish before us, just as they carry my generation of Irish language poets now, just as they will carry those who will follow us. Irish has enriched my writing and my life in so many ways, and for that I am
extremely grateful.

Dr Nick Kennedy: Do you think the female gothic-from Frankenstein, through the Brontës, to Beloved- as well as the wider use of the gothic in lrish literature -from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla to Kinsella’s Butcher’s Dozen- has un/consciously informed A Ghost in the Throat?

What an intriguing question! I’m far from an expert in studies of gothic literature, sadly. Like you, however, I’m very interested in how subconscious gleanings of the culture in which we all find ourselves immersed can lead to a work of literature being influenced by other traditions, unbeknownst to its author. It makes me wonder what contemporary works might be seen as gothic in some more oblique way – Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats? Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me to Ground? Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island? Pat McCabe’s Butcher Boy? Eddie Lenihan’s Meeting the Other Crowd with its chorus of folkoric voices? If it could it be argued that these books reflect some trace of the gothic tradition, well, they certainly worked their way into my imagination, perhaps bringing the tradition with them as a kind of stowaway. It’s a very interesting question, and one I’d need to mull over.

Grace Kelly: The book feels like a celebration of mourning. Was it inspired or influenced by the tradition of keening?

Perhaps this book might be considered more of a celebration of the tradition of the caoineadh (keening) tradition, rather than a celebration of mourning per se. The book itself was certainly deeply influenced by that tradition, because in sitting down to write A Ghost in the Throat, I took my lead from Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in more ways than one. This fidelity led me to a writing process whereby my book, like her Caoineadh, was composed as an oral work. I read every line of this book aloud to myself many, many times as I wrote. There are long passages of my book I could recite my heart, just as Eibhlín Dubh could speak her caoineadh by heart. The phrase ‘by heart’ felt significant to me as I wrote. This is a text that has lived in my body, just as the various traditional keens lived in the bodies of the women recalled and recited them, thus keeping these works of literature alive over many generations. That is the tradition that informed and influenced this book.

Many thanks to Doireann Ní Ghríofa for taking part in our #AskAnAuthor series!

#AskanAuthor is an initiative at the Dublin Book Festival that encourages our audience to pose questions to the authors at DBF 2020. We may be going digital but we want to make sure that our audience don’t miss out on direct engagement with the authors. 

You are invited to submit questions to each week’s chosen author via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Email. Create a tweet or post containing your question and include the hashtag #AskAnAuthor. Alternatively, you can send us an email at info@dublinbookfestival.com with #AskAnAuthor in the subject line.