Thu, 3 May 2007

The Red Haired Girl from the Bog

— SjG @ 7:49 pm

The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit,
Patricia Monaghan, 2004, New World Library.

I recently returned from three weeks traveling through Ireland with The Right Reverend Oakes. It was something of a whirlwind tour; we visited a lot of different places both on and off of the standard tourist track. Along the way, I finished up reading The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, which is an interesting blend of Irish history, Irish mythology, and philosophy, along with a fair amount of rumination on the meaning of place, thoughts on personal relations, and observations on poetry, all wrapped loosely in a collection of personal anecdotes structured by regions in Ireland.

The book is not really a travelogue, per se, as it’s more concerned with mythology as it pertains to place, but it does provide counterpoint and commentary to someone traveling through the places described.

Monaghan starts the book with a not-very-mystical quest involving identity — what does Ireland tell a person about herself as a member of the Irish diaspora. It quickly goes beyond that, and shows the complex intertwining of the mythological layers in Ireland, from Pagan to early-Christian to Roman Catholic to neo-pagan. Monaghan also talks about how those beliefs may mesh and coexist in a way that is fairly alien to us Americans. The bulk of the book uses personal experiences as segues into mythology, and vice versa, in a very readable way.

Monaghan is clearly extremely well read, which allows her to bring together a broad perspective on topics, but also results in an overuse of descriptions of the form “what writer X has called ‘Y‘.” I appreciate the need for attribution, but personally find footnotes less disruptive. As someone who is at best marginally familiar with Celtic, Irish, and Christian mythology (or history, for that matter), I also found the flurry of names and references somewhat dizzying. Fortunately, if you’re as undisciplined as I, you can let the references wash over you without needing to absorb them all — Monaghan’s overall narrative is good enough that you don’t need all the specifics.

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