‘The Butcher Boy’ by Pa­trick McCabe (1992)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JULIE PAR­SONS

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.” And Fa­ther “Bub­ble”, with “these two eyes like a pair of screw­drivers”, who is 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.

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