New books give voice to women past

Staying In

Bríd Conroy

We cannot underestimate the power of our inherited stories, be they mythical or historically factual, to engender a sense of belonging. When we belong, we have a voice. Yet both books this week challenge us to explore the missing female voices from many of our past stories.
In ‘A Ghost in the Throat’, written by Doireann Ní Ghríofa and published by Tramp Press, we are invited to join the narrator in a retelling and reimagining of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, a poem written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in the 1700s, passed down by oral tradition initially and believed to be the greatest poem of the 18th century.
The opening line sets the book up perfectly: “This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes.”
The story is written in the first person, an expectant mother with three young sons, undertaking a translation of Eibhlin Dubh’s ‘Caoineadh’, a lament for her murdered husband.  The narrator traces the life of Eibhlin, aunt of Daniel O’Connell and Irish noblewoman of the time. She ponders the path Eibhlin’s life took, privileged yet bound by the ties of being female and a noblewoman. She herself narrowly avoids tragedy, during the birth of her fourth child.
Saying ‘the past is always trembling within us’, she draws a line between the casual erasure of evidence around Eibhlin and other past women’s lives and the continued existence of ‘a ghost in the throat’ of women today. By giving voice to the expanded female text of Eibhlin, the book gives voice to all the female journeys that have followed. The story is beautifully written in an essay-cum-memoir style.
‘Savage her Reply’, written by Deirdre O’Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan and published by Little Island, retells the mythical story of the Children of Lir. While the book is designed to be fiction for young adults aged 15 plus, it really is a gorgeous book for all adults.
The story is retold, giving voice to the main protagonist, Aife (aunt to the Children of Lir). Aife and her sisters, Ailbhe and Aebh were fostered as children to the King of Ireland, Bodhbh Dearg, following the death of their own parents. Aebh, the eldest of the sisters was married to Lir but subsequently died in childbirth, leaving her four children behind. Lir then took Aife as his wife.
Aife herself desired the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and magic in life. However this was in conflict with her roles as foster child, wife and stepmother. Her natural desire to be loved by Lir, was too overshadowed by the strength of Lir’s love for his four children. Ultimately, in the throes of her struggle, she turned her powers against the children, banishing them to live as swans for 900 years on the Loch of Dairbhreach and beyond. Only then would the curse be lifted on the expiration of 900 years.
Yet throughout her story, Aife acknowledges her wrong deeds and accepts that the consequences of her actions will be spent on herself for all eternity. By giving her a voice, the story as told invites us ‘to reach out, to meet’ Aife and finally to empathise and to forgive her.
We emerge from both books, having expanded our understanding of past stories with a stronger female voice and a renewed connection to whom we are and where we come from.  

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.