Student Research Snapshot: Rachel Bergin

    Hi everyone! My name is Rachel, and I am currently finishing my MA degree in Celtic Studies at the University of Western Brittany. As our common point here is our interest in Celtic Studies, I would like to share a bit of my research. I am writing my dissertation about the representation of Irish female artists in Irish contemporary literature written by women.

    I came up with this subject by reading the article “Irish Studies around the world - 2020”.1 I realised that a certain number of women had written their debut novel this year. My first interrogation then was to understand why those women decided to take up the pen to write, and what they wrote about. After reading several novels, two in particular held my attention: A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and Oona, by Alice Lyons, both published in 2020. These two novels share several common features: they are both the first novel of each author, but this is also two women, staging two female characters, both having a special link to art. Indeed, Oona, the eponymous novel’s character, is a painter, while the main character in A Ghost in the Throat is a poet, with a particular interest in Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (a poet from the eighteen century). The most interesting thing with those two novels is that they allow a double reading: one from the writer, one from the character. This shows the opportunity to study Irish contemporary female literature, with a focus on Irish female artists.

    Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an Irish poet, essayist and novelist born in 1981. She writes sometimes in English, sometimes in Irish, and even translates her own production from one language to another. Her first novel, a biographical work, was published by Tamp Press in 2020. It has been vividly noticed in the press and won several awards.

    A Ghost in the Throat begins with the everyday–life of an unnamed woman, more particularly a mother, a wife - her stay-at-home condition representing the major part of her time. Nevertheless, it does not prevent her to think about who she is outside this position, without casting doubt on her place either. In the meanwhile, she re-reads Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poetry. Her main work, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, is a long lament poem, written when her husband died. The main character finds in this reading a new goal, between food and diapers: to recount the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. This poem makes her realise how similar they both are, as mothers, but mostly as women. She keeps depicting that they are both part of a long feminine line. Thus began a true research project about the poet’s life, during which she will face the harsh historical reality: we do not know much about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Because of her feminine nature, nobody thought it was important to write her biography. This is the mission that the character of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s novel gives herself. We can consider this novel as a “double biography,” since the character is largely inspired from the author’s life: they are both stay-at-home mothers, both poets, and the interest in Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill they share finds its end in the writing of this novel.

    Besides, Alice Lyons is a plastic artist, poet, essayist, English literature and visual art teacher. She was born in 1960 in the US, but has Irish roots. She also organises contemporary art festivals.

    Her first novel, Oona, is a bildungsroman focused on an eponymous character, from her childhood to her adulthood. Oona quickly shares thoughts about her mother, and more particularly about her death, and how it had impacted her personal construction. For instance, it is her mother who initiated her to painting, by signing her up to drawing classes. Thus begins her learning process, both of life and painting, which leads her to go back to Ireland, from where her maternal grandmother had migrated. We find again here the theme of the feminine line, through maternity. Moreover, Oona is for Alice Lyons a way to experiment her artistic creation, for she imposes herself to write all her novel without using the letter “o.” De facto, it creates a true written exercise, because she must find - creative - alternatives, both for common words such as “of” or “to,” as well as for the term “mother,” which is one of the leading themes. 

    Literature is an art that, like all artistic forms, is a way for the one who creates it to express oneself, to explore the world, to define oneself, to share thoughts. Thus, each author thinks about one subject, one message one wants to convey, at least one reason to write, but also the form of it. Each form (be it linguistic, visual, auditive, for instance) impacts us, our senses. That’s why more and more artistic creations deal with different forms, allowing them to reach a larger group of people.

    Here, two artists already established in their respective artistic fields (poetry for Doireann Ní Ghríofa, visual arts for Alice Lyons) chose the novel to picture women, and artists, trying to find themselves. Both novels - bildungsroman for one (Oona), biographical work for the other (A Ghost in the Throat) - recount the lives of three women looking for answers to their existential questions. Who am I? What is defining me, as a woman, as an artist? What is my place within the society I am living in? This individual search expressed in the novels allows the authors to transpose universal questions, from author to character, from writer to reader. From one woman to another.

    The first aim here is to show how the two authors represent their characters, depicting a portrait of the feminine artist in contemporary Irish literature. Moreover, both novels deal with many thoughts about artistic form, about inspiration and impact that other artists, before them, can have on their own creations. They, both authors and characters, make many direct or indirect references which highlight even more the importance of the historical link between artists.

    Remembering that Alice Lyons and Doireann Ní Ghríofa chose a new artistic form - the novel - to work on their subject, it is important to establish a difference between authors and characters, both about their condition as artist and woman. That is why it seems judicious to begin with the authors and their intentions, for instance to determine how they fit in, both consciously and unconsciously, in contemporary Irish literature. This part will define more precisely the historical and sociological context, and thus replace the feminine artist within the Irish cultural production.

    Then, the analysis of the characters (Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill et Doireann2 in A Ghost in the Throat, and Oona in Alice Lyons’ novel) will establish a thematic progression, in order to tackle one by one the different comparison points between the two novels. Indeed, some recurrent themes will shape the development of this study. First, the theme of motherhood and thoughts linked with maternity will be tackled, according to the questioning the characters have on their femininity, their connection to their body, how they define themselves as women, as well as them being part of a “feminine line.”

    Moreover, highlights will be put on the links of the authors with Ireland, and how they transcribe it onto their characters. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is Irish and still lives in Ireland, whereas Alice Lyons is American but lives in Ireland for many years. Similarly, both characters in A Ghost in the Throat were born and live in Ireland. As for Oona, she is also American, and ends up moving to Ireland, her grandmother’s country. The three characters share the same thoughts about Ireland the way they know it, as well as their link with the Irish language. On one hand, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s characters both talk and write their poetry in Irish. On the other hand, Oona feels her distance from her host country, which is also her country of origin, since she does not speak Gaelic, as a matter of fact.

    Finally, topics present in the characters’ artistic creations will be analysed: they usually result from their own thoughts about their feminine condition, their Irishness, and their place in the society. A particular point will be made about their personal link to their art, which often transcribes their feeling of duty: they must create, in order to express themselves, to exist, looking to establish their artistic condition beyond their feminine one. This will lead to dealing with the different artistic forms chosen, for, like the authors, the characters choose it wisely: painting for Oona, and poetry in A Ghost in the Throat.

1: O’Connor, M. (2021). “Irish studies around the world - 2020.” Estudios Irlandeses: Journal of Irish Studies (16): pp. 238-283.

2: Here, I have allowed myself to call this character Doireann, like the author, for it is a biographical work (even though her name is never explicitly given in the novel)

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