I used to cringe at Irish novels, plays and television, but one book changed all that

The Butcher Boy, published in 1992, was a turning point for Irish literature. 

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Two weeks ago I hopped around my boyfriend’s bedroom, trying to get a good wifi spot, having seen that Pat McCabe’s new book, The Big Yaroo, was about to be published. The Big Yaroo takes up with Francie Brady, decades on from the events of McCabe’s masterwork, The Butcher Boy. I’m not ordinarily a nerd. I sneer at people who buy limited-edition trainers, I scoff in a superior manner at those who queue up to watch superheroes perform their asexual little stunts in cinemas. But for this, yes, I would humiliate myself.

The first time I read The Butcher Boy, I was lying in London Fields feeling completely alien. I had moved to the big city only a week or two before. The Big Smoke was what we had called Dublin, but I’d left that. I didn’t have a cute nickname for this horrifying place I had decided to live in. I was raw and constantly salty – in my eyes, and in my rancid unwashed armpits – from the stupid break-up I was experiencing. I wasn’t allowed to call it a break-up, because we had never really been together, he said.

I walked around this new place and bought a sausage roll from a man in the market with an Irish accent, a man who appeared to be friendly, a man who I perceived to be surely looking out for my best interests. I handed over a tenner and was not just shocked but profoundly curious that this bit of shit I had just bought cost £4.50. Amazing. What a country, what a place.

I accepted the incredible loss because it was also a beautiful day outside, and because my friend Claire – not only my best chain-smoking pal but the artist I admire most – had told me to read The Butcher Boy. I did so, baking in the 2015 sun, if you can imagine something so innocent, and everything changed for me very quickly.

The Butcher Boy, published in 1992, was a turning point for Irish literature; a surreal careening around the village and around the disjointed, post-colonial mind. But I don’t care about that. For me, like Claire, The Butcher Boy was my very best book. In London Fields that day, in my ridiculous new life, I desperately loved Ireland again. I grabbed on to Francie, the narrator, the little boy made pig, who tells us his horrific, hilarious story. We meet him hiding under a hedge while the citizens of his Co Monaghan town hunt him down “on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent”. What he’s done, it will be seen before the novel’s end, is to murder her with the bolt gun he also uses to kill pigs in the local slaughterhouse. In the meantime we drift, appalled, into Francie’s world, where his family are known locally as “the pigs”, and watch as his mind begins to splinter with demonic majesty. It struck me over the head. I was in love. This was my very best book.

Francie’s extravagant interior life interacting slowly, strangely with his real life is the best portrayal of the bizarre consciousness of children I’ve ever read. It’s the most sympathetic and lucid explanation for child brutality I’ve ever read, too. You can’t base government judgements on novels (more’s the pity), but the way that McCabe understands the porous relationship between actual events and fantasy could genuinely help us when we try to understand children who kill. The novel understands, too, the subjection of being poor and ugly, and makes it corporeal fact.

It is quite simply the greatest work of art I’ve ever experienced. I cried three times reading The Butcher Boy: two of those were from the sheer pleasure of the sentences. The other was about the devastating time that Francie spends with his dead father.

Don’t let them touch my trumpet Francie! he said.

I told him he didn’t have to worry, his worrying days were over. Your worrying days are over, da, I said.

I touched the back of his hand. 

Thanks Francie, he said and I was so happy we were able to say these things to one another that I cried, the tears just came streaming down as I sat there with my head resting on his shoulder.

The novel’s refutation of death is devastating, something I’ve felt only once before in literature, in David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. In that masterful and strange work, Vann rewrites his father’s real-life suicide, forcing his father to grieve his own death. In both books, the refusal of death’s reality becomes unbearable, beautiful and terrifying.

Growing up, culture was elsewhere. America was to me real, because every film and TV show I watched was from there. Britain, to a lesser extent, was also real because it was geographically near and provided me with pop stars. I struggled to understand Ireland as real. I worked on a theatre production of The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien in my early twenties and loved to listen to the pure musicality of its language, but I did not relate to it. I wondered if that Ireland was lost to me, the one of proud sprigs and crashing waves and ruddy cheeks and clean grass. And there was something else, too, that rankled when I experienced Irish culture. When Irish art was bad, enduring it was much more excruciating than art from any other country – especially if it was trying to be Irish Irish: if it was trying to, God forbid, Represent Something.

The Butcher Boy made me realise that, just as a failed work of art close to home can make you feel terrible, so too can a sublime one affect you more particularly, more permanently. Francie has never left me from the moment I met him. I’m so excited to be reintroduced to him in The Big Yaroo. Nowadays, I read The Butcher Boy book twice a year, for the joy of McCabe’s sentences, and because Francie’s world is so unforgettable and irresistible, I can’t stay out of it. I won’t. But it’s also to remind myself how dangerous and thrilling Irish writing can be, in case I ever forget again. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone