Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1992 – The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe

The former teacher’s dark masterpiece gives a disconcerting but compelling voice to the mistreated children who were Ireland’s darkest secret

Teacher and exile: Patrick McCabe in 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

Teacher and exile: Patrick McCabe in 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

 

Art has a way of anticipating anxieties that are still under the surface. The 1990s would be a decade in which Ireland became increasingly disturbed by its darkest secret: the mistreatment of children, especially in the industrial-school system. It is striking that some of the strongest fiction of the early 1990s was already trying to give a voice to lost children. Nowhere is that voice more compelling or more disconcerting than in Patrick McCabe’s dark masterpiece, The Butcher Boy. The narrative voice of its protagonist, Francie Brady, as heartbreaking as it is horrible, gets inside the reader’s head and is impossible to dislodge.

Patrick McCabe was born in 1955 in Clones, Co Monaghan. He trained to be a primary teacher at St Patrick’s College in Dublin and began teaching at Kingsbury special school, in London, in 1980. Teaching and exile would inform much of his work, most notably The Dead School (1995) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998). Equally, though, the inversions of small-town Ireland before the drastic social changes of the Celtic Tiger era – from snobbery to sentimentality, from extreme nationalism to mother fixations – are never left behind.

The opening sentence of The Butcher Boy sets its unique tone of colloquial, chatty friendliness spliced with intimations of violence: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.”

Francie is a delightful narrative companion: funny, honest, resilient, always trying to make the best of his bad lot. But from the beginning he is also scary. Why can’t he remember how many years ago it was? What exactly did he do to Mrs Nugent?

It becomes clear that the crucial events in fact unfold in the early 1960s: the hope of John F Kennedy and the apocalyptic fears of the Cuban missile crisis are in the air. And we soon learn that Mrs Nugent is the mother of Philip, enemy of Francie and his only friend, his “blood brother”, Joe.

The Nugents are respectable. The Bradys are chaotic: Francie’s family is falling apart, as his mother is taken off to the mental hospital and his father slumps into alcoholic indifference. Mrs Nugent calls the Bradys pigs.

All his fantasies and resentments become focused on the Nugents. As his life deteriorates and he ends up working in a slaughterhouse for pigs, his psychosis gathers force.

But the brilliance of the book is that he remains, in the telling, just a lost kid – and a very likable one at that. His head is full of comics and cowboy pictures, and his weaving of John Wayne and Green Lantern into small-town Irish life is often hilarious. His cool commentary on the forthcoming nuclear apocalypse is naively sardonic: “Khrushchev hasn’t much work to do about this place its done already.”

At one point Francie ends up in the industrial-school system – or, as he calls it, “a school for bad boys”. (“The Incredible School for Pigs! I said in my telly voice.”) He is, he informs us, “studying for the Francie Brady Not a Bad Bastard Any More Diploma”. But we are never in any doubt that Francie is beyond saving, certainly by a system that has no capacity to understand his suffering.

It is the loss of his one friend, Joe, that finally tips Francie into murderous psychosis. But the slide is so gradual, and so carefully controlled by McCabe, that it seems normal, even natural. The book remains entirely within Francie’s point of view, and Francie himself never loses his charm as a teller of his own story, even when we know that the threat of the opening line is coming closer and closer to fulfilment.

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie

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