Doireann Ní Ghríofa: "Lockdown has been a good reminder of how important the arts are"

The one industry most severely impacted by Covid-19 is the very one we all turned to this year for comfort, joy and escapism. In the IMAGE Annual issue, out now, Meg Walker speaks to Doireann Ní Ghríofa and others in the arts to talk disruption, inspiration and determination.


Doireann Ní Ghríofa, writer and poet

For bilingual writer and poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, 2020 would see her long-awaited prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat, published by Tramp Press. After a postponement in March, it was finally released in August to a wealth of praise. Weaving personal memoir with an in-depth study of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s 18th-century poem, “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, the book draws connections between Doireann’s life and that of Eibhlín Dubh’s. And it’s extraordinary.

As a writer who’s made a career out of her talent for reflection, what are her thoughts on this past year? “I’ve been thinking a lot about distance. We’ve been forced to communicate through glass, through windows or screens. As individuals and as a society, we’ve adapted, trying to come up with ways to still care for each other. The human imagination will find a way to create togetherness.

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A Ghost in the Throat was driven by a curiosity of how well you could get to know a person who lived and died in the distance. I began the process of writing it, wondering whether that distance could be crossed; whether a connection could be made between Eibhlín Dubh’s life and mine. Every morning, I’d drop my children to school and drive to the rooftop of a carpark, where I’d look towards the hills where Eibhlín Dubh once lived, and write. Now that the book is out, Eibhlín Dubh is once again soaring over that distance to reach readers. Regardless of the distance, we all find ways to develop connections, whether it’s in the pandemic or in the process of reaching into the past.”

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

When Doireann looks back on 2020, what will she remember? “That sense of grit and resilience that we all have within us, when faced with circumstances we could never have imagined. Every single one of us has somehow found ways within ourselves of finding a path through this.”

When it came to enjoying the arts virtually, Doireann was selective. “I heard someone call it ‘Zoom fatigue’ – that sense of looking at everything through a screen. Sometimes you don’t want to just be looking through a screen. You want to be there, to feel the heaving crowd breathing around you.” One of the few virtual gigs she did catch was Lisa O’Neill’s performance in an empty National Concert Hall. “As the camera swooped in on her belting out ‘Raglan Road’, I was so moved. Lockdown has been a good reminder of how important the arts are, and we need to invest in them.”

What are her hopes for 2021? “I hope we can stick together, and carry all the lessons we’ve learned with us. I hope we can work towards the Ireland we want, that reflects who we are as a people. I hope Direct Provision can be abolished, that everyone can have a home and be safe and warm and not shivering on our streets, that people will be minded in our hospitals. I think that speaks to who we are as a people, and I think we want to be the kind of country where those efforts come naturally.”

As for her plans, Doireann has a book of new poems due out in March called To Star the Dark. Starlings often find their way into Doireann’s work, and readers of her next book will see them return. “What I love about starlings is that they can sing the songs of the past and the songs of the present simultaneously, and I feel like that’s what we do well as a country; through lockdown, we were able to acknowledge our sense of the past and present and despite everything we’re going through, we can still sing.”

Portraits by Al Higgins. Hair by Sharon at Honey Browns in Ballincollig, Cork.

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The IMAGE 2020/2021 Annual issue is on shelves now.

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