The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Book Better Than Its Title
Patricia Monaghan's The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog

The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan,
Novato, California: New World Books, 2003

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 8 July 2006

Believe me, I approached this book with plenty of misgivings, given the title and the promotional hints. I do not know how much is savvy marketing — the more academic side of Monaghan's here put forth, as opposed to her being the author (uncredited in these pages!) of 'Wild Women' or the one subtitled 'myth, marigolds, and mulches'. Her eponymous web domain seems to have faded, but looking for information about her as I was reading this, she is noted as a leading popularizer of the Goddess and the reconstructed rituals that rejoin (as in the root of 're-ligion') people to nature. This insistence likewise permeates this thoughtful memoir-cum-itinerary-cum-critique.

It's carefully written. I almost always 'heard' her voice on each page, and as she hints in an aside, I assume that much of what she shares was freshly conveyed in a daily notebook on her travels and through her studies, and then expanded and mulled over much further before coming to print here. Her two decades of wandering Ireland are here compressed into a more linear narrative deiseal following the sun's course around the island. I admire Monaghan's determination to excavate using etymology. With a solid grounding in Irish as well as a rare combination of scientific training, her ecologically aware, if persistently soft-focused, depictions of the intermingling of the spiritual, the eccelesiastical, the historical, and the anecdotal make for quite an ambitious product belying the quick title-and-cover glance that casual prospects might give to this if in a New Age bookstore's Celtic & Druidery nook. (Full disclosure: that's where I found a copy of this book used; I had known about it, but no library I frequent had purchased a copy.) More power to her and her readers — they'll pick up more learning and not only lore than they may have bargained for. But you have to put up with, or become enchanted by, visions of she and her pals declaiming Yeats to the wind.

She eschews footnotes but acknowledges any idea or source not her own, and an annotated booklist and source locator appends the book. (Errata: Lughnasa appears also as Lehynasa on p. 273; Kevin Danaher's The Year in Ireland was not printed by Cork's Mercier Press in 1922 but 1972 — otherwise I found no glaring errors or typos, impressively.) Honestly, New Age is not the first shelf I turn to when seeking books of Irish interest, but you need to be as eclectic and alert as is Monaghan when searching for elusive traces backwards into the "symbiosis" that she posits exists between Christianity and paganism in Ireland, over more than 1500 years.

Other reviews have been more impressionistic, but let me give you a quick view of what in Irish is called dindsenchas, as fellow Celt-meets-Native American shaman Frank MacEowen in his Amazon US blurb calls 'place-bonding stories', that tie toponymy to theology, ecology, and psychology in Monaghan's circuit sun-wise around the island. Beginning in the West, at Gort in Co Clare, she ties her Burren travels to the Hag, or 'cailleach'. Then she goes to Connemara for the 'red-haired girl' and fairies — who are not Disneyfied delightful sprites. Up to Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon on the trail of Medb (Maeve) and the Morrigan, amidst Cruachan, Knocknarea, and holy wells. Then northerly for Emain Macha and Newgrange, with her own theories about a feminized Sun and the Irish ritual landscape thoughtfully told.

A chapter inevitably a bit apart relates her own struggles during a few visits in the North, and her self-awareness of being seen as the Other. Her sympathies with the Nationalist and Republican side come naturally, inherited as they are from family she still talks to from the old IRA, even if for readers of The Blanket her political reflections may reveal little fresh detail. Still, it's rather rare to read circa 2000 of a first-generation Irish American's factual (as opposed to fictional cliché) encounter with her family's living militant past remembered through talking to her relatives rather than reconstructed through second-hand recollections. This Northern chapter's clumsier and more self-consciously told, yet more direct and reality-based. She confronts her own resentments of those she perceives as eying her differently. It's a bold departure from the rest of the book, and she does not shy away from reality. She cannot offer any solutions, and she probably knows this, but her encounter with her darker side balances her cheerful nature throughout the rest of her travelogue.

I think her musings here about rapacious and/or romantic Viking ancestors accounting for her blue eyes went a bit overboard. I don't doubt that Monaghan might agree and/or battle me into giving in to her determination to include her reveries — she's that kind of fair-minded investigator — but at least she does not back down from the strength or the fancy of her convictions. This is the model she admires and seeks to project into the Irish past as well as to gain sustenance from the faint but stubbornly grooved and cyclical tracks of its past power for our present. I did wonder at times why [feeling as I read a bit left out; compare neo-paganism, itself about 70% female practitioners] so few men compared to so many women sought to resurrect and rekindle its meanings and symbols, but the feminine-dominated powers, as she argues, assert this prominence even in the old tales and placenames more than males. As in Ireland-Eriu (the latter meaning 'fertile field', a derivation — rare by comparison with her usual method — that she does not explicitly define here for herself).

Monaghan tends to follow her instinct wherever it leads. Trained as a botanist before entering academia, it seems from the hints she drops that she perches at its fringes, preferring to use her scholarship in a variety of ecological critical modes, teaching in a Chicago university's spirituality program. This stance liberates her from any limit to one discipline or one pet theory. Off the tenure track or maybe past it, Monaghan's able to dart about in a zig-zag, spiralling, idiosyncratic pattern recalling for me John Moriarty's own mythopoeic excursions after he too tired of the collegiate treadmill. (Read, if you dare, his massive memoir Nostos from Liliput Press, Dublin.) Like Moriarty, Monaghan does not avoid the scholarly, but never lets it crush her soul. Monaghan, as with Moriarty, takes nourishment from the natural. She has found a much more gentle and inspirational (in the root sense) sacralized landscape than I have encountered in Ireland. She has the advantage that many Irish Americans do not of direct connections and still-connected cousins due to more recent immigration in her family. This allows her more of a base from which to leap out across what she views ahead of her, intellectually, spiritually, and physically, This is a bold attempt to confront what always stoked my own thoughts: how far beneath today's Irish psyche and habits and mentality do you have to scratch before the pagan emerges?

Helped by her clever ability to navigate pop culture, dictionaries, her own widespread support network of family and friends, and her inbred wanderlust from her being raised in Alaska, she brings her pagan and her Christian sides together most evidently in the visit to the unprepossessing exterior of the relit pagan fire for Brigit in Kildare. This joins the two realms in which she and so many Irish, according to her study, wander. Then, down to the sacralized cow, Tara, and the central Uisneach hill for fire ceremonies and Bealtaine. The scholarship related to Munster dragged a bit more than elsewhere, but coupled with a moving meditation on the death of her friend Barbara, this makes for an honest encounter again with mortality. Monaghan recalls bravely her own husband's early demise. She points out that it's not the inevitability of death we fear, but its timing.

Finally, she rounds out the tour in Kerry. She neither connects the goddess Mis with Austin Clarke's 1970 poem 'The Healing of Mis', nor cites Emmet Larkin's 1970s model of the devotional revolution of the later 19c that transformed Ireland into the 20c stereotype of a priest-ridden backwater by extirpating many remnants of its folk beliefs, but her thoughts on the pagan sexuality nearly extinguished by a post-Famine Church share her provocative speculation. Danu's 'paps' and how its worshippers erected atop her nipples as stone cairns above a gentle-breasted hilled landscape make for a perspective that, as she asserts, only a woman as herself noticed after so many male-dominated studies never had — or at least demurred from recording! Related to the perception from ancient times commemorated in placenames that the land looked likd ourselves, Liam Clancy's recent memoir of growing up in Carrick-on-Suir, The Mountain of the Women, takes its title from Slievenamon, seen as a feminine breast supine but overlooking his Waterford hometown. In the wrap-up chapter of Red-Haired Girl, Monaghan and a friend go in search of first-hand folkloric recovery of their own sacred place, Garravogue near the Cavan border. They circle back and extend the circle into a spiral, fittingly, as they revolve around Ireland's own places made holy.

Now, Monaghan has commonsense, more than some who have written about her book credit her with in my judgment as this Connacht-blooded Irish comments to/of another, her family being from Mayo's Bohola about equidistant from my two family origins only a few miles. By the way, her comments about the inevitable assurance from the locals of 'only a mile more' and 'sure you can't miss it' ring true for any stranger in search of rural landmarks, ruins, or simply the right road. She remarks on the county-town-parish-townland (she calls the last 'farm') narrowing that Irish habitually engage each other with when first nosing about the other's bonafides correctly, as I am with her now doing. This type of sensible observation, I hazard, makes her more observant and less beguiled by what she ponders in the more ethereal and filtered views she frames--and to be fair she mentions the rain and mud too when they often appear. I learned a lot from her, found that she often stayed one step ahead of me on her associations with the literary and historical and mythic resonances from what she traversed to keep me nimble, and that she wrote sensitively (if a bit too purple-prosed in parts, although these were helpfully often italicized) about her own heartfelt recoveries with the tangible traces of ideas and events long thought intangible.

In the last issue of The Blanket, I reviewed two accounts of Catholic Ireland's demise. What will replace this absence, Mary Kenny surmised at the end of her book, will be what preceded Patrick: the embrace of the natural world, perhaps pantheism. Moriarty certainly agrees. When I was around twelve in Catholic school, I remember being told that the Church would soon collapse in Europe, due to the hippies, hedonists, atheists, and the occultists. Over three decades on, the collapse seems to have happened far faster in Ireland than any could have predicted in the mid-70s. Without fear of God, however, will people repent? The filmed jeremiads of Al Gore earn ridicule for being a silly Cassandra bewailing melting ice caps. But the news over the past weeks has documented wildfires, hurricanes, floods, meltings, and famines all stoked by our covetous greed and our social necessity for too much fuel. What has been preached and dismissed by those regarded as the loony tree-hugging radical left (and more conservatives than one might expect as I have found when researching what's relegated to the radical right) may, with our new century's fears of global disaster, become gospel for our children. Mother Earth, paternal provider: the pantheistic long precedes the monotheistic and the organisation of beliefs into doctrine.

Ireland may lead the way in this step back to roots, in both senses of the word. Michael Dames in his 1991 panorama of Mythic Ireland eloquently urged this return. The more politicised and secularised among you may scoff. Skeptics, rationalists, and unbelievers would hate this book. Still, I prefer, as Monaghan does, to think that few actually deny all hope of some presence outlasting our own. Her book, challenging in many parts and not all that wince-making in others (these sections are relatively few, to her credit), will teach any seeker a lot about facts as well as fable. Monaghan digs into the former to find the latter, and vice versa.

P.S. A related account (similarly unfortunately...) titled Emerald Spirit, (Cork: Mercier Press, 2003) by another American, David P Stang, makes a instructive counterpart. As mentioned above, John Moriarty's mythopoeic and densely argued work may be too recondite for many, but also may please readers of Monaghan; Clare seanachie Eddie Lenihan's penetrating look into faerie lore and fact, Meeting with the Other Side also is highly recommended if you want more about the play and peril between our realm and that elusive presence still said to swirl about the Irish countryside. Mapped well recently also by Cary Meehan in her Traveller's Guide to Sacred Ireland.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

9 July 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Father Faul Saved Many Lives
Richard O'Rawe

Richard O'Rawe, PSF, and Events in 1981
Gerard Foster

Looking Back on 1981
Anthony McIntyre

Haughey and the National Question
Maria McCann

Brits Not to Blame for Haughey
David Adams

John Kennedy

Euston Manifesto: Yesterday's News
Mick Hall

Considering A Multi-Faceted Approach to the Middle East
Mehdi Mozaffari

Book Better Than Its Title
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Crowning Mr Unionist
Dr John Coulter

Extra Time Will Not Be Decisive
David Adams

'Pretty Much a Busted Flush'
Anthony McIntyre

John Kennedy

Just Books Web-launch
Jason Brannigan

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Omagh, David Rupert, MI5 & FBI Collusion
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Preliminary Hearings
Marcella Sands

Jury Duty Free State
Dolours Price

Even the Obnoxious
Anthony McIntyre

2 July 2006

Anthony McIntyre

Salvaging History from Defeat
Forum Magazine Editorial

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Dolours Price

Monsignor Denis Faul: Tribute
Ruairí Ó Brádaigh

Protest Continues in Maghaberry
Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG) statement

Where the Wind Blows
Dr John Coulter

What's Shaking
John Kennedy

Left, Right, Left, Right Wrong
Mick Hall

Irish Democracy, A Framework for Unity
Francis Mackey

The Peace Progress and the State
Davy Carlin

'The Church Brought to its Knees': Two books on Catholic Ireland's retreat
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Somme Battle Conspiracy
Dr John Coulter

March March March
John Kennedy

What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander!
Patrick Hurley

Sovereignty Movement Condemns Racist Attacks
Andy Martin, 32 CSM

Greens Propose Plastic Bag Tax to Help Fund Environment Watchdog
Green Party Press Release

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Introduction
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Garda Harassment & Eventual Sitch-up
Marcella Sands

Dolours Price

Judas 118 or DUP Strategy of Subversion?
Anthony McIntyre



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices