Bog Child Essay Set on the border of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, Siobhan Dowd’sBog 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. Themes Self-Sacrifice Self-sacrifice is the main theme of Bog Child. From the beginning of the book, Dowd makes it clear that sacrifice is not a simple issue. She suggests that life is precious and that giving it up inevitably causes suffering among the people who survive. However, she also shows that self-sacrifice is a noble choice when it is the only way to unite divided people or to preserve the lives of others. The hunger strike in Bog Child is based on real events in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 1981.
At the time, prisoners from the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) were treated as common criminals, but they wanted British officials to consider them political prisoners. One of their main demands was that political prisoners be given different uniforms than common criminals had. Ten men, including Provisional IRA leader Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death in an attempt to force British leaders to comply with their demands. Bog Child, which begins shortly after the death of Bobby Sands, presents several complicated opinions about the hunger strikes.
Fergus’s mam speaks out against the strike, calling it a tragedy that men kill themselves “all over a few old clothes. ” Fergus’s father says the strikers are making a noble sacrifice, but Ma does not see it that way. She says, “Sacrifice is what Jesus did. He saved us all. Who did Bobby Sands save? ” Fergus, too, considers the hunger strikes a waste of life. He agonizes over his brother’s choice to join the strike, and he wonders repeatedly whether Joey understands the harm his death will cause to his family.
Fergus predicts that his parents will divorce and that he and his sisters will be ruined by the grief and confusion following their brother’s death. However, in the climactic scene of the book, Fergus also makes a decision to sacrifice himself. Rather than continuing to smuggle what he believes to be Semtex, Fergus turns himself in to British authorities. In doing this, he accepts the likelihood of imprisonment as well as a real risk of being murdered. Soldiers killed many Provo members—including Uncle Tally at the end of the book—for their involvement in the Troubles.
When Fergus takes this risk, he discovers that he has not committed a dire crime at all. His conscience is relieved, and he is granted a second chance at life. Mel is not as lucky as Fergus is. Although she has committed no crime, her disability makes her an object of suspicion in her Iron Age community. Both famine and social upheaval threaten her family and the man she loves, and she realizes that she can save them if she accepts the blame for her community’s problems. Mel’s sacrifice, unlike Joey’s, brings people together rather than pulling them apart. Life Is Precious
In spite of its deep explorations of self-sacrifice, Bog Child shows that life is wonderful and worth preserving—even when it is full of conflict and violence. Fergus comes of age in an environment where people kill innocent bystanders just because they live in a particular country and where people kill themselves to make a political point. In the midst of this, he makes a strong positive commitment to life and love. At the beginning, Fergus wants merely to keep out of the Troubles, but his family and community are so deeply involved that he cannot remain unaffected.
As Fergus is forced to make choices about how to interact with the political conflicts around him, he repeatedly chooses to respect life. He tries to convince Joey to give up his hunger strike. He befriends and tries to protect Owain, a soldier who turns out to be a regular guy. Fergus’s commitment to life falters, however, when he chooses to transport packages he believes to contain Semtex. When he makes this choice, Fergus behaves as though the lives of people close to him have more value than the lives of strangers.
However, when Fergus sees a news report that two innocent women died in a bombing, he is overcome by guilt. He realizes that he cannot help take anyone’s life—not even to save his own. He decides to sacrifice his future, and maybe his life, rather than continue to help the Provisional IRA. Fergus gets a second chance at life when he realizes that his smuggling activities have had nothing to do with the Troubles. At the end of the book, he is heading off to college, relishing the idea of all the living and changing he will do as he grows older.
This ending gives a strong sense that, although self-sacrifice may sometimes be necessary, it is always better to choose life if possible. Love During the story, both Fergus and Mel are involved in their first experiences with love. Although neither love story has a happy ending, both affairs are depicted with a sense of tenderness and magic. Through these stories, Dowd suggests that love—even love that ends unhappily—is a beautiful and important part of life. Characters Fergus’s Story Eighteen-year-old Fergus McCann, the main character of Bog Child, is trying to make sense of life in an environment of murder and terrorist activity.
He is an empathetic and humane person who has long cherished a dream of becoming a doctor. Although he knows his brother Joey is involved in the Troubles, he does not know his family is involved in other ways as well. Throughout the novel, Fergus “sees” events happening when he is not present. He dreams the story of Mel, the child he finds in the bog. Even when he is not near Joey, Fergus vividly imagines his brother wasting away from hunger. His extreme empathy makes it believable that he is willing to sacrifice himself to prevent more bloodshed at the end of the novel.
Joey McCann, Fergus’s brother, is serving a prison term at Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh, for working with the Provisional IRA. He follows the leader, Bobby Sands, in a hunger strike calling for special treatment for political prisoners. He takes the position that it is worth sacrificing his own life and his family’s happiness to further the political goals of the Provisional IRA. Fergus’s parents, whom he calls Mam and Da, are in conflict through much of the novel. Mam, who did not grow up in Northern Ireland, sees little sense in the violence and death of the Troubles.
Before Joey joins the hunger strikers, she mocks the strikers, saying they are killing themselves over clothes. Da believes that the strikers, Joey included, are making a principled stand against a tyrannical leader. Unlike Mam, he does not try to convince Joey to give up his strike. There is some suggestion that this is partly out of deference to his brother Tally, a feared bomb maker for the Provisional IRA. By the end of the novel, Fergus convinces Da to choose Joey’s life over his political convictions. Da allows doctors to drip feed Joey and save his life.
Theresa and Cath McCann, Fergus’s younger sisters, are considered too young to be included in making adult decisions about Joey. However, they are clearly affected by his decision to go on the hunger strike. Cath tries to convince Joey to eat by making him a card with a collage of foods. Theresa wavers between respect for her brother’s decision and desire to prevent his death. When she learns that he is being fed involuntarily while unconscious, she says, “That’s good, isn’t it? If he doesn’t know, then he hasn’t given in? Fergus and his uncle, Tally McCann, have a close relationship, although on Tally’s side it is filled with lies. Throughout most of the novel, Fergus believes that Tally is a weak figure who takes no stand in the Troubles and yet cannot bring himself to move away and leave them behind. In the end, Fergus learns that Tally is a bomb maker who is responsible for killing many people. Uncle Tally is shot by police at the end of the book. The police claim he resisted arrest, but Fergus knows Tally did not keep a gun. Fergus also misunderstands Michael Rafters, Joey’s best friend.
Throughout most of the book, Fergus believes that Michael is a member of the Provisional IRA. In the end, it becomes clear that Rafters is just a petty smuggler. Private Owain Jenkins is a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. People in Fergus’s town, who are mostly Catholic sympathizers with the Provos, consider RUC members to be enemies. However, during the course of the story, Fergus discovers that Owain is just an ordinary, likeable guy. Owain is ultimately killed by one of Uncle Tally’s bombs. Felicity O’Brien is the archaeologist who studies Mel.
She likes Fergus and welcomes her to join her as she studies Mel’s remains. Cora O’Brien, Felicity’s daughter, is Fergus’s first love. At the end of the novel, her mother sends her to live with her father in Michigan. Mel’s Story In his dreams, Fergus relives the story of Mel, the bog child. Her willingness to sacrifice herself for her community mirrors Fergus’s, although the two stories have very different endings. Mel’s story provides readers with a reminder that self-sacrifice can indeed be necessary and noble. Boss Shaughn is a sort of tribal leader in Mel’s community.
His harsh, cruel behavior causes people to suffer and ultimately gets him killed. His son, Rur, is in love with Mel. She sacrifices herself at the end of the story partly because she believes Rur killed his father. After his father’s death, Rur becomes a good leader for his people. At the end of the story, Mel confesses to Rur that she is afraid of being hung. She asks him to stab her instead, and he does. Brennor, Mel’s brother, murders Boss Shaughn. He does not have to answer for his crime because Mel sacrifices herself first. Mel’s Ma and Da are loving, protecting parents.
Unlike the members of their wider community, they do not believe Mel’s dwarfism is a sign of evil. However, they are not as cruelly hurt by Mel’s self-sacrifice as the McCann family is because of Joey’s. This is because Mel’s self-sacrifice accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish: it saves her family and unites her community. Literary Criticism and Significance Bog Child has received general critical acclaim for its delicate balance of reality and optimism. Although it is set against a gruesome background of violence and conflict, it manages to convey a message of hope for the future.
Writing for The Independent, Brandon Robshaw says the book doesn’t pull its punches, but ultimately the message is of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. Meg Rosoff of The Guardian agrees: With… conflict comes sadness, an undertow of psychological darkness, but also a belief in love’s power to redeem the human soul, and even, perhaps, the future of mankind. Both critics emphasize the parallels between the stories of Fergus and Mel, which revolve around young heroes who need to find ways to unite communities in the midst of political conflict. According to Robshaw, Bog Child is spectacular demonstration that books for younger readers can handle the big themes. Siobhan Dowd treats her young readers with respect; she assumes they can handle realistic conflict and grief. Although she punctuates the grief with humor and romance, these lighter scenes enhance the story’s realism and underscore the complexly optimistic side of Dowd’s message. Although Dowd clearly feels deeply about the importance of life, she does not belabor her moral points. Rather, she lets each character embody one realistic point of view about life and love, and she allows her readers to draw their own conclusions.
Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times points out that Bog Child presents a world where characters have to struggle to figure out morality in a world “of transgressions, large and small. ” Dowd’s world is textured and complex, a place where life and death choices can exist side by side with the flirtations of first love. She manages to portray both with admirable psychological realism. Her sentences, written in a modern Irish vernacular, have a deep, musical rhythm. Rosoff praises Dowd for her beautiful prose: Dowd appears to be incapable of a jarring phrase or a lazy metaphor.
Her sentences sing. Bog Child was published in 2008, shortly after Dowd died of cancer at age 47. Many critics speculate that the story is, in part, a dying author’s manifesto of her love of life. This interpretation fits well with the ending of the book, when Fergus, having escaped self-sacrifice, revels in the idea of a bright future. He’d years of the changing to come. The studying, the books, exams, arguments, theories. The jokes and pints, laughter, kisses and songs. Life was like running, ninety percent sweat and ten percent joy.