Set on the border of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child explores the human side of political conflict, particularly the Northern Irish conflict known as the Troubles. As the novel begins, Fergus McCann and his Uncle Tally cross the border into Southern Ireland to pilfer peat from a bog. While digging, Fergus uncovers the body of a child. At first he assumes she was murdered by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, known as the Provos, a paramilitary group fighting for Irish unity.
When police come to examine the body, they realize the girl died long before the Troubles began, probably during the Iron Age. The bog preserved her body, and she is now a major archaeological find. Her body is found so close to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that nobody is sure which side should claim her. Archaeologists on both sides of the border vie for the right to study the body.
Fergus dreams of leaving the Troubles behind, going away to college, and becoming a doctor. Only a few other people in his life, including his mother and his Uncle Tally, seem to stand apart from the Troubles. Almost everyone else in Fergus’s Irish Catholic hometown sides with the Provos and their goal of uniting Ireland at any cost—even that of terrorism. Fergus’s older brother, Joey, is serving a prison sentence because of his involvement with the Provos. Some of the prisoners at Joey’s prison are staging a hunger strike in an effort to force British leaders to give them special status as political prisoners. Several of them have already starved themselves to death, but the British government refuses to give in.
Soon after Fergus finds the bog child, Joey joins the hunger strike. Fergus and his mother visit Joey to try to make him start eating again, but both soon see that Joey will not change his mind. Fergus knows that British leaders will not bend to the Provos’s demands and that the strikers, including Joey, would rather die than give in.
Shortly after this visit, Joey’s friend Michael Rafters asks Fergus to carry packages across the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Fergus likes to go running in the mountains, and he often crosses over the border while he is out, so he is an ideal person to move small packages without arousing the border guards’ suspicion. Fergus assumes Michael’s packages will be filled with Semtex, a powerful ingredient for making bombs. He wants no part of the Troubles, so he refuses.
At night, Fergus dreams about the child he saw in the bog. In his dreams, he sees her as the eldest child of a loving family, among whom she is jokingly known as “the child time forgot.” Her life is full of hard work and deprivation as she and her family face an exceptionally hard winter. Over the course of several dreams, he learns that her family is in danger because they cannot pay tribute to the local leader, Boss Shaughn. When they admit they cannot make their payment, Boss Shaughn ruthlessly takes her family’s goats and leaves them to starve.
(The entire section is 1244 words.)