The Butcher Boy
During this century small town and village life in Ireland hasn’t lacked for literary detraction and exposé. In fiction the line begins with George Moore; his short stories, collected in The Untilled Field (1903), depict monotonous and stunted lives where the imaginative are stifled by entrenched convention and a mean and rigid form of Catholicism, while the talented or spirited have little choice but to knuckle under or get out. For Moore, provincial life was a worst case of what was wrong with Ireland as a whole. In his three-volume send-up of the Literary Revival, Hail and Farewell (1911–1914), which paradoxically is one of the ornaments of the Revival, he called Ireland the place where dreams go unfulfilled and ambitions are blighted.
After Brinsley MacNamara’s wonderfully named The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1919) was published, a novel about a schoolteacher who is ruined for befriending an unwed mother, MacNamara’s father lost his teaching job in the midlands community where the story is set, and sundry copies of the book—his son’s first—were ceremoniously burnt in the town square. In fiction to follow by O’Connor and O’Flaherty, O’Faolain and McGahern, and even by William Trevor, for example, his much anthologized “The Ballroom of Romance,” emphasis continued on nay-saying and thwarting by parent, priest, policeman, and tyrannical custom, the last often using the powerful sanction of social shaming to defeat the young and the passionate and to stop life dead in rutted tracks.
Not least of the satisfactions of the recent Irish film The Playboys was to see this long tradition of moral blight in the Irish hinterland challenged and, to a degree, defeated. The beautiful and clever heroine, a skillful tailor and dressmaker living right by the main village square, with an infant born out of wedlock for all to see, refuses to name her brutal seducer, who by custom should make an “honest” woman of her by marriage. The neighbors put up with this scandal, not ever seeming to mind. On the other hand, the local priest is hot for her to wed the town police constable, played in a manner both pathetic and menacing by Albert Finney, and he in fact, though old enough to be her father, is the father of her child. An unthinkable union is avoided when the heroine, who has fallen in love with one of the visiting players in a troupe performing under canvas on the square, goes off with him on his motorbike, riding pillion with her babe in her arms toward a surely less trammeled if still undefined future life. That is, provided they don’t turn over in the road.
Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, its title inspired by a weird Irish ballad about a pregnant girl who hanged herself and the “boy” who found her and cut her down, is set in a place like Clones (County Monaghan), the northern border community where McCabe grew up. This much discussed …