Bog Child ★★★★★
David Fickling Books, 2008
Ah Jesus. This really is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. My one piece of advice? If you do the audio thing, then that’s how to do this one. Sile Bermingham is the perfect reader, her soft lilt a gorgeous accompaniment not just to the lyrical prose that will make you shudder when it’s read aloud, but delivering on the Irish accent transporting you to a very particular time and place.
It should have been the Irish history content of this novel that brought it to my attention (more on that later), but it wasn’t. It was its author – Siobhan (pronounced She-von) Dowd. I discovered Ms. Dowd the summer of 2011 when I read A Monster Calls. That book shattered me on a cellular level. The author of A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – describes his collaboration with Dowd this way:
She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.
Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to her disease in 2007 at the age of 47. Ness courageously took on the project and the completed novel is both exquisite and a lasting tribute to its progenitor.
So I went looking for something else to read by this woman and came across Bog Child. There was a time in my life when I was marinating in a stew of Irish history. I took an interest in it at University and it became my declared major. My BA Honors essay was on the IRA’s guerrilla tactics during the Irish War of Independence. By the time I hit grad school I was practically obsessed. I knew my next step was an even bigger research project and a trip to Ireland, hence my Master’s thesis which you can read here if you’re ever really desperate for reading material or have a love of the subject yourself.
Even though my subject area was late 19th, early 20th century Irish history, it was unavoidable that I would become consumed by the on-going Troubles that exploded again in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. I eventually did get myself to Ireland on a work/study visa in the fall of 2000 lasting until April 2001, which by pure coincidence coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.
I witnessed a candlelight vigil along O’Connell Street and listened to Gerry Adams (and the sister of Mickey Devine) speak at a public gathering. It was an emotional affair, but at the same time I remember feeling removed from the entire experience. It felt too raw and personal for me to be looking on like that, a Canadian girl who was only seven years old when ten young Irishmen starved themselves to death in political protest.
It’s easy for anyone on the outside of any event to have opinions of it one way or the other — whether those young men really knew what they were doing, or were just desperate and confused by dehumanizing prison conditions, or whether they had been brainwashed and/or intimidated to “the cause”. Some consider their actions a waste and abhorrent, while others see their deaths as an important political event worthy of commemoration as we do for soldiers who die in battle. For me, it isn’t the Strikers I think about (as sad and frustrating as their stories are), but their families. How excruciating and traumatic must the whole process have been to watch a son die slow like that.
The worst part? It’s within your power to take them off the Strike, against their will, so that the doctors hook them up to an IV saving them from certain death. How does any parent make that choice? It seems easy, right? Of course you would save them. It would be mad to let them die. But ten families made that choice. Other families did not, and ended their son’s hunger strike. I’ve always wondered how each family survived the very different choice they made. Is there bitterness? Doubts? What about the men taken off the Strike by their families…did they forgive them? Did they suffer from survivor’s guilt for living when others died in their place? Or was it relief? Relief that they were saved from themselves and the insanity that had taken hold of the times. For a cinematic portrayal of what the families faced I recommend Some Mother’s Son.
I haven’t thought about Irish history in any shape or form in years. I left grad school in 2005 and I was done with all of it. I had been supersaturated, I had overdosed on it. No more! I cried. Then this book.
In Bog Child, the late Siobhan Dowd is not romanticizing the Hunger Strike. It’s not a political book, for or against the Strikers. It’s just a simple story of an eighteen year old boy facing manhood. His final exams are in full swing and his dreams of becoming a doctor have never been so close, yet so out of reach. He’s falling in love for the first time. He’s getting pressured from the local IRA goon to run packets across the guarded border. But most devastating and confusing of all, his older brother Joey is on Hunger Strike in Maze Prison and it’s tearing his family apart.
Fergus stole and then broke my heart. All he wants to do is the right thing, but in a messed up world during a messed up time what the right thing is isn’t always clear. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s light and laughter and hope in these pages too, and an abiding love for the affirmation of life and all the joy and pain that living brings.