The Butchers: Book Review

The Butchers
Ruth Gilligan
Atlantic Books
The happenings in this novel occur in an Ireland of 1996 with a rather disjointed fast forward towards the end to a photographic exhibition in New York in 2018 which exhibits a gruesome murder. One needs to buy into the premise of this story to make it plausible as it is grounded in a medieval widow’s curse concerning the manual slaughtering of cows. It requires eight men to do the slaughtering and if it’s not done properly a pestilence can befall the land. The butchers are away from their families for eleven months of the year travelling throughout the country fulfilling the ritual among those who still have faith in the old ways. It is hard to believe that with today’s motorised commuting practices on a small island they would not have contact with their families during that period. And besides, what modern spouse would put up with such a long absence?
However, the ritual is falling out of fashion as Ireland moves into the twenty-first century with media references to the divorce referendum and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The latter links in with one of the butchers, Fionn, and his son Davey with his burgeoning sexuality. The problem for the butchers becomes compounded with the outbreak of BSE or Mad Cow Disease in the UK which leads to the smuggling of tainted beef and even live cattle across the border from the North. Fionn takes part in this allegedly to pay for medical treatment for his wife who is suffering from a fatal lump in her brain which he believed was his fault as a result of punching her when he was drunk years ago. The butchers have to disband when one of their eight is found mysteriously murdered in a shed, hanging upside down by his feet from a hook. And the photograph of this atrocity later becomes the ‘standout’ piece of the aforementioned exhibition in New York.
The main protagonist appears to be Úna, the twelve-year-old daughter of one of the butchers. She wants to follow her father’s vocation even though it is exclusively male. And it is she ironically who is entrusted ultimately with the role of avenging the murder of the man suspended from the hook. Tarnished for belonging to that ‘freak’ tribe she suffers bullying in school. She hates her sprouting breasts and practises the age-old ritual on an unfortunate mouse. Still, as she wonders if it would be wrong to kill a cow that had a blossom in its hair, we arrive at what is perhaps the fundamental question posed by the novel: who has the authority to decide when one tradition is right and another wrong?
The details adumbrated by Gilligan relating to the slaughtering and all things bovine are so gory in their authenticity as to make one consider veganism as an option. She is an original writer with a striking turn of phrase and has a refreshing way of looking at the world. When the hay was cut and rolled ‘the fields looked like a blonde woman’s head with her hair wrapped up in giant curlers’. And the dark outline of trees blend into the narrative seamlessly wearing ‘a suck of ivy right up to their necks, covering their modesty’; and the night ‘bled on’ and treacherous water ‘had opinions of its own’. She is also capable of a demonstrable punning wit as when Úna, reflecting on the dead man’s boots, thought ‘how strange it was that shoes had tongues’. But the final words must go to Grá, Úna’s mother, when she comes to the realisation that ‘what we believe and what we assume and what we know are never really the same’.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 08/08/2020.


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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