Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
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...
(The entire section contains 1244 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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.
In waking life, Fergus befriends Felicity O’Brien, an Irish archaeologist who is studying the bog child’s body. He also makes friends with Felicity’s pretty teenage daughter, Cora, with whom he begins a romantic relationship. Because Fergus discovered the bog child, Felicity lets him name her. He calls her Mel, the name she is given in his dreams.
Fergus is preparing for his A-level exams, and he needs good results to get accepted into college. However, he has trouble focusing because he is worried about Joey and the hunger strike. Michael Rafters keeps hounding Fergus about carrying packages over the border. Ultimately Fergus agrees on the condition that Michael will talk with Provo leaders and ask them to order Joey off the strike.
Felicity and Cora travel a great deal, but they repeatedly return to Fergus’s town so Felicity can continue her studies of the bog child, Mel. Fergus often accompanies them when Felicity does her research, partly because he is interested in Mel’s history and partly because of his growing attraction to Cora. When Felicity discovers that Mel was a dwarf, Fergus realizes this accounts for her nickname in his dream—“the child time forgot.” Fergus and Cora both think Mel was probably murdered because of superstition regarding her dwarfism.
Meanwhile, Mel’s parallel story, Boss Shaughn is murdered. Rur, Boss Shaughn’s son, takes over. Mel is in love with Rur, a tender young man who immediately becomes a much more humane leader than his father was. The famine continues, so Rur returns each family’s tribute so the people will have food until summer. Even after this merciful measure, food remains scarce, and children die. Neighbors mutter, superstitiously blaming both the murder and the bad weather on Mel and her dwarfism. Mel understands this is not true; nevertheless, she offers herself up as a scapegoat. She knows her neighbors will kill her, but she also knows her death will reunite her community and perhaps save the lives of Rur and her family. She allows herself to be taken to the bog and murdered.
Fergus continues carrying packages across the border for Michael Rafters, but he worries about the loss of life that may come with his actions. When Joey goes on with his hunger strike, Fergus tries to back out of his deal with Michael. Michael threatens the life of Owain, a soldier for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) who guards the border crossing. Fergus has often chatted with Owain, and he knows Owain is a decent person even though he is a soldier. Fergus decides to continue carrying the packages because he does not want Owain to die.
One day Fergus hears a news story about a bomb that has killed two innocent women. He is wracked with guilt, certain that he personally imported the Semtex used in the attack. The next time he carries packages for Michael, he decides to turn himself in. Steeling himself by thinking of Mel’s self-sacrifice, Fergus takes the packages to Owain and confesses, prepared to go to prison or even be killed for his crime. Owain opens the packages and finds that they have nothing to do with bombs at all. One is full of condoms and birth control pills; the other is full of money. Fergus has not been carrying packages for the Provos as he thought. Fergus is relieved, but he is also angry. He confronts Michael and finds out that he has been running a cross-border smuggling operation because people south of the border have a hard time getting contraceptives.
Joey passes into a coma, and Fergus and his family make a difficult decision to feed him involuntarily through an IV. Cora is sent to the United States to live with her father, and Fergus knows this will likely end their relationship. Finally, Uncle Tally is killed. Although Fergus has always thought his uncle stood apart from the Troubles, he was actually a central player, a bomb maker.
In all this chaos, Fergus receives his grades from his A-levels. He has earned three Bs, the grades he needs to leave town and study medicine. At the end of the novel, he is headed away from home on a boat, looking forward to his future.