In praise of older books: ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)
Week 18: A year of Julie Parsons’ favourite books
Francie confronts Mrs Nugent in ‘The Butcher Boy’
It’s the flood of words, spewing across the page, like pig guts from the slaughter house, that drags you into the world of Francie Brady. Reading the Beano and Dandy, guzzling “Flash Bars”, playing cowboys and injuns with his friend, Joe. Killing Mrs Nugent.
Pathetic, terrifying Francie Brady. It’s hard to believe that when The Butcher Boy was published in 1992 we seemed to know little about the horrors of the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, the widespread abuse of children by Church and State. Like kids watching a scary movie we had put our hands over our eyes and concentrated on the ice cream. But the story of Francie is the story of those who suffered.
Death hovers over all. Francie’s mother tries suicide twice, the second time successfully. His father, Benny, brought up in a “home’ in Belfast, at the mention of which, “da went pale”, kills his pain with alcohol and dies, sitting on the sofa . Somehow Francie doesn’t notice. Now it’s the flies, hovering. When Benny’s body is found the local sergeant says “Maggots – they’re right through him”.
The book is suffused with cruelty. The repulsive Father Sullivan, “Tiddly” to Francie: “What does Tiddly do then only take out his mickey and start rubbing it up and down and jogging me on his knee.” Father “Bubble”, with “these two eyes like a pair of screwdrivers”, who’s boss of the “school for bad boys” where Francie is sent after his first attack on the Nugents. And the Nugents; pillars of the community. We should feel for them and deplore the terror Francie inflicts. But we don’t. We see through their gentility to the disdain in their hearts. And we watch with horror, but understanding, when Francie kills Mrs Nugent, when he “shot the bolt right into her head, thlock was the sound it made, like a goldfish dropping into a bowl”.
There’s those words again. McCabe the alchemist, turning the base metal of Francie’s misery into the shimmering gold of art.