The Fourth River

A journal of nature and place-based writing, published by Chatham University's MFA in Creative Writing Programs

A Second Look: “Missing Child,” by Tony Donnelly

By on October 29, 2014

In this new series, the staff of The Fourth River comb back through our archives to find and share with you the pieces they believe deserve a second look.

–by Ashleigh Fox, The Fourth River Staff

“Missing Child” by Tony Donnelly can be found in issue six of The Fourth River, published in the fall of 2009. The story starts off explaining how a typical summer plays out for the Gallagher family in County Donegal, Ireland. Every summer, Father returns home from working in England to stock peat for the family’s winter and “start a new child with mother.” But there was something different about the summer of 1959. A dead donkey leads to a drunken night in town, which, in turn, leads to the purchase of an Irish Wolf Hound that then kills all of mother’s prized chickens.

But “Missing Child” is more than a story about a troublesome summer and changes in the family. The small details that may go unnoticed on a first read are what ground this piece in its setting. For starters, we feel the underlying, yet non-aggressive, rivalry between Protestant and Catholic in lines like “It was well known that Protestant women were better bakers than their Catholic counterparts.” Donegal’s location at the most northern section of Ireland puts it near enough to Northern Ireland that effects of The Troubles might be noticeable. But the allusion is just enough to give a sense of time and place. Another detail that might go unnoticed at first would be Donnelly’s use of cultural cues. No Irish tale would be complete without mention of a classic folktale hero like Cuchulainn, a fairy like Maeve, or a simple ballad, all of which are found throughout “Missing Child”.

What kept me reading most was the first person narration and dialogue. The voice of this piece creates a persona both of a strong character and an expert storyteller. Even without paragraphs dedicated to describing the family’s farm and surrounding land, its lines like “Look at the state of the pair of you,” or, “John and I craned across pushing him to the side to see what was the fuss” place me immediately in both setting and time.

Throughout the story, I couldn’t help but hear the narration and dialogue in a strong Irish accent. The slang and mannerisms, such as “the donkey with two wicker creels slung across its back to dangle from either side” fit into the text so fluidly I might have missed them without a second look.

My initial draw to this piece came within the first paragraph of the story. Having a slight obsession with old Irish folklore, my interest spiked with the mention of collecting peat from the bog. Peat, the mossy top layer of a bog, is a great source of fuel once dried. But the bogs themselves are those sort of magical places where bottles of milk stay cold and dead bodies might be well preserved. Since the family donkey dies at the bog while Father harvests peat, I was pleased to see the circle back in the end with the quick image of “the spot where the top of the dead donkey’s head minus eyes and ears protruded grotesquely from the peat.” The time spent at the bog is a little less than a page out of the five-page story, but the bog itself is such a large part of the family’s life and events of the story. The donkey, dead and decayed in the bog, shows the events of the previous summer are just a memory slowly fading with time. However, just as the donkey will not fully decay in the bog, the new summer cannot fill the gap in the family. Additionally, by circling back to bog, Donnelly illustrates the return to the family’s normal state. The story is able to end because the narrative has returned to the average events of summer described at the start of the piece.

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Ashleigh Fox is an assistant fiction editor at The Fourth River.  She spends her time reading and writing stories based on Irish folklore.  Most recently, her fiction was awarded the Isabel Sparks President’s Award for Original Fiction.

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