Patrick McCabe Essay - Critical Essays

McCabe, Patrick


Patrick McCabe 1955-

Irish novelist, playwright, and children’s writer.

The following entry presents an overview of McCabe's career through 1998.

Patrick McCabe's fictional world is bleak and unrelenting, and his characters are often damaged or disturbed. McCabe is noted for his ability to draw readers into the minds of his characters and to create sympathy and understanding for their plights, despite their sins. The best-known example is Francie Brady, the youthful psychotic of McCabe's award-winning novel, The Butcher Boy (1993).

Biographical Information

McCabe was born on March 27, 1955, in Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland, to Bernard and Dympna McCabe. He attended St. Patrick's Training College from 1971 to 1974 and began teaching at schools for the learning disabled in Ireland and eventually moved to England. In the mid-1980s McCabe started writing radio plays. He also wrote several novels beginning with Music on Clinton Street, which was published in 1986. McCabe's The Butcher Boy has garnered the most critical acclaim for the author, including the Irish Times-Aer Lingus Award and a nomination for the 1992 Booker Prize. When filmmaker Neil Jordan bought the film rights to The Butcher Boy, McCabe was able to stop teaching and focus on writing full-time.

Major Works

All of McCabe's fiction is set against the backdrop of contemporary Ireland, and each novel presents a different view of Irish life. Carn (1989) follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small Irish town on the border of Northern Ireland. McCabe shows the everyday problems of the townspeople and how their lives overlap due to the town's changing economic and cultural circumstances. The normally sheltered town is thrown into the nation's political turmoil when a bomb explodes, killing one of the townspeople. The Butcher Boy is about a lower-class boy, Francie Brady, struggling with the cruelties of small-town life and a dysfunctional family. The book traces the effects that an alcoholic father, a mentally disturbed mother, sexual abuse by a priest, and the prejudice of middle-class neighbors have on the young boy's psyche and his startling reaction to them. The Dead School (1995) follows the course of two teachers, each born into a different generation and subscribing to different philosophies, and the events that occur when their lives and styles conflict. Raphael Bell is the older of the two and represents the authoritarian nationalism of his generation. Malachy Dudgeon follows the more casual, if-it-feels-good-do-it approach popular with his generation. Although the two clash, neither wins, and it is their own individual faults combined with the randomness of fate that bring them to ruin. Breakfast on Pluto (1998) tells the story of Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the illegitimate child of a 16-year-old country girl and the priest who raped her. Patrick is abandoned by his mother and eventually becomes a transvestite. He tries to get revenge on his father, who refuses to acknowledge him, and to find his mother, who has disappeared. As in earlier novels, the political troubles of Ireland intrude on the characters' lives as Patrick's friend Charlie is murdered because of his involvement in the Irish Republican Army, and Patrick himself becomes a suspect in a pub bombing.

Critical Reception

Many critics focus on McCabe's depiction of Ireland and how it relates to that of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce in its focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people, without Yeats's romanticism or Joyce's mythologizing. Most reviewers note the dark nature of McCabe's novels and the misfortunes which befall his characters. Rosemary Mahoney stated, “Bleakness is the trademark of McCabe, author of The Butcher Boy. Suicide, adultery, cruelty, insanity, murder, inveterate drunkenness, these are his wares and, true to form, there isn't a character in [The Dead School] who hasn't been radically and irreparably damaged by some terrible misfortune or psychological weakness.” Most critics argue that McCabe's The Butcher Boy is his greatest triumph, praising McCabe for his authoritative rendering of Francie Brady's voice and his ability to draw the reader into Francie's world. Eddy von Mueller stated, “As disturbing as the book can be, McCabe's virtuoso prose makes irresistible this invitation to join a madman in the prison of his own mind.” Many critics find this ability to draw a reader into the mindset of his characters to be McCabe's greatest talent in all of his novels. Hermione Lee called McCabe “a dark genius of incongruity and the grotesque.” Some critics argue that The Dead School is not as powerful as The Butcher Boy, with many complaining that the former pushes the limits of believability. Carn, which was written before The Butcher Boy but published after it in the United States, is considered a lesser work by many reviewers, with several finding McCabe's use of multiple narrators problematic. Critics argue that the novel exhibits many of McCabe's talents which would later be effectively honed, but also shows some of the faults of an inexperienced writer.

Principal Works

The Adventures of Shay Mouse (drama) 1983

Ulster Final (drama) 1984

Music on Clinton Street (novel) 1986

Carn (novel) 1989

The Butcher Boy (novel) 1993

Frank Pig Says Hello! [adaptation of The Butcher Boy] (drama) 1993

The Adventures of Shay Mouse: The Mouse from Longford (children's literature) 1994

The Dead School (novel) 1995

Breakfast on Pluto (novel) 1998


Eddy von Mueller (review date January/February 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in Bloomsbury Review, January/February, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, von Mueller praises McCabe's The Butcher Boy as “an absolute masterpiece.”]

Imagine a world seen through the eyes of a little boy lost in the kaleidoscopic maze of fear and grief. Imagine a world where small-town sensibilities and pop-culture flotsam collide with childish fancy and lethal rage. Such is the world of The Butcher Boy.

Patrick McCabe's newest novel created quite a stir when it appeared across the water. The Butcher Boy won kudos and wowed critics throughout England and Ireland, garnering the 1992 Irish Times' Aer Lingus Prize. Now, thanks to Fromm International, American audiences can experience one of the most chilling reads to emerge in a long, long time.

Francie Brady lives in a small Irish town, the son of an alcoholic trumpeter and his manic wife. His story, told in first-person narrative, is one of numbing horror and wrenching sadness.

Unable to come to grips with the erosion of his parents and bewildered by the chaotic boundary between fantasy and an all-too-grim reality, Francie retreats ever further into himself. The arrival of a new family, the Nugents, to his staid community sets in motion the machine of Francie's madness. The Nugents come to represent all that frays the fragile fabric of his world. Change becomes conspiracy, loss becomes assault, and Francie quickly becomes his neighbor's worst nightmare. And ours.

Francie's mother suffers a mental breakdown and is sent to a “garage”; it is the first of what the troubled boy...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Joseph J. Feeney (review date 30 April 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in America, Vol. 170, No. 15, April 30, 1994, pp. 22-23.

[In the following excerpt, Feeney lauds the prose in McCabe's The Butcher Boy and asserts that the novel offers “unforgettable insight into a victim's pain.”]

Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha are neither political nor mythic, but they probe deeply and cannily into the consciousness of two boys and are spun with Irish word-skill. The Butcher Boy is the more painful, its tone set by the first sentence: “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.” That “done on Mrs. Nugent” is determinative, as it evokes suspense, menace, even a swaggering boast. It also establishes a distinctive voice, through which Francie Brady tells about his life: drunk father and crazy mother, a job in a slaughterhouse, Catholic reform school, his lost friend Joe Purcell, his struggle to survive. His story also reveals his peculiar consciousness—a mental olio of pigs, comic books, “the telly,” John Wayne movies, family, friends, astronauts and aliens, the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Father Bubble” at the Reform School and songs like “The Butcher Boy”—“about a woman hanging from a rope because this butcher boy told her lies.”


(The entire section is 429 words.)

Michael Hemmingson (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring, 1995, p. 172.

[In the following review, Hemmingson discusses the characters' insanity in McCabe's The Butcher Boy.]

This trade paperback reprint of McCabe's 1992 Booker Prize Nominee and winner of the Irish Times-Aer Lingus Literature Prize for Fiction launches the “Cutting Edge” series from Delta, one month after the imprint's founding editor, Jeanne Cavelos (who also began the Abyss line of literary horror titles for Dell), left the company—so whether or not this interesting series continues (interesting with the other titles they have announced for the...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Josephine Balmer (review date 21 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Master Class,” in Observer, No. 10622, May 21, 1995, p. 15.

[In the following review, Balmer discusses the randomness of fate in McCabe's The Dead School.]

Patrick McCabe used to walk up and down Kilburn High street in search of a happy ending. He was turning over the idea that there might be a gentle way out of the blackness of his new novel, The Dead School. The men living on the pavement outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop would shout: ‘Hey pal, got any money?’ They could have stepped out of his book. Or perhaps they stepped into it. The happy ending, at any rate, was nowhere in sight.

Patrick McCabe made his name with...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Sean O'Brien (review date 26 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Terror in Transition,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4808, May 26, 1995, p. 22.

[In the following review, O'Brien discusses the inevitable outcome of McCabe's The Dead School.]

Life in Patrick McCabe's The Dead School rapidly becomes terrible. Then, for a time, things appear to the protagonists to be otherwise, until fate closes its waters over their heads and throws in a few hand-grenades for good measure. If the characters have some margin for illusion, readers are never in doubt about the outcome. Cornered by the author's insinuating tones, though, most will find it hard to resist hearing his dreadful and sometimes appallingly funny story...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Rosemary Mahoney (review date 28 May 1995)

SOURCE: “The Tale as Talisman,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 28, 1995, pp. 1, 5.

[In the following review, Mahoney asserts that “McCabe can be forgiven … for his occasional ham-handedness and unlikeliness of plot purely based on the agility of his prose, the sheer force of his language ” in The Dead School.]

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. So too, it seems, is love. Patrick McCabe's new novel provides horrible and humorous confirmation of both. The Dead School is a tale of the calamitous clash between old Ireland and new, a spellbinding story of betrayal and broken dreams narrated to wonderfully menacing effect by a professional storyteller...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 8 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Kicking the Air,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 10, June 8, 1995, p. 45.

[In the following excerpt, Donoghue complains that McCabe does not bring the city of Dublin to life in The Dead School, and that the novel is not as powerful as McCabe's earlier The Butcher Boy.]

Patrick McCabe's reputation largely depends upon The Butcher Boy (1992), a gothic tale of small-town Ireland in which a boy, Francie Brady, starts out sounding like Tom Sawyer and ends up murdering a local woman, Mrs. Nugent. Francie's mother is insane and drowns herself; his father is a drunk. Francie gets a job in a pig slaughterhouse. The culture The Butcher...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Kate Grimond (review date 24 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Teaching Them No End of a Lesson,” in Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8711, June 24, 1995, p. 35.

[In the following review, Grimond asserts, “Though here and there it irritates, Patrick McCabe's lilting way with words [in The Dead School] is ultimately memorable and persuasive.”]

The headmaster—a man of influence and stature—of St. Antony's Boys Primary School in Dublin appoints in 1975, many years through his headship, a newly qualified young teacher to take charge of Class 3. [The Dead School] tells the story of Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon, the first born in 1913 and the second in 1956, and their downfall following the coming together...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 December 1996)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 December 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Carn, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIV, No. 23, December 1, 1996, pp. 1694-95.

[In the following review, the critic lauds McCabe's Carn.]

The first U.S. publication of an early novel, [Carn] by McCabe (the acclaimed Butcher Boy, 1993, and The Dead School, 1995) once again demonstrates his unsparing, precise view of the mingled anger, sorrow, and boredom at the heart of modern Irish life.

The town of Carn is somewhere up north, near the border where Ireland ends and North Ireland begins, and it's not much of a place. A small railway...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

George O'Brien (review date 26 January 1997)

SOURCE: “Coming of Age in a Time of Troubles,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 4, January 26, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review, O'Brien points to some of the flaws in McCabe's Carn, but asserts that the novel is still “notable and worthwhile.”]

It’s 1959, and the last train has left the town of Carn, “half a mile from the Irish border.” But instead of this being the end of the line for Carn, it turns out to be the beginning of a new era, the era of James Cooney, meat factor, property developer and returned Yank (prominent in his refurbished Turnpike Inn are pictures of John F. Kennedy and Davy Crockett).

Soon Carn...

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Patrick McCabe with Christopher FitzSimon (interview date Spring/Summer 1998)

Patrick McCabe with Christopher FitzSimon (interview date Spring/Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “St. Macartan, Minnie the Minx and Mondo Movies: Elliptical Peregrinations through the Subconscious of a Monoghan Writer Traumatised by Cows and the Brilliance of James Joyce,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1998, pp. 175-89.

[In the following interview, McCabe discusses his background and career.]

[Christopher FitzSimon:] Ladies and gentlemen we're here to welcome and listen to Pat McCabe, author of Shay Mouse, Music on Clinton Street, Carn, The Butcher Boy and The Dead School. The Butcher Boy, as everyone knows,...

(The entire section is 7339 words.)

Hermione Lee (review date 24 May 1998)

SOURCE: “Bloody Sunday in Hot Pants,” in Observer, May 24, 1998, p. 17.

[In the following review, Lee discusses the horrifying world of Patrick Braden in McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto.]

This is a horrible and pathetic story, told with irresistible zest, brio, and gaiety. That's what we've come to expect from Patrick McCabe, and Breakfast on Pluto is no disappointment. He is a dark genius of incongruity and the grotesque. Whether with the boy misfit-turned-crazed-murderer in The Butcher Boy, or the demented headmaster in The Dead School, McCabe's brilliant, startling talent is to make enchantingly dashing narratives out of the most ghastly states...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Colin Lacey (interview date 16 November 1998)

SOURCE: “Patrick McCabe: A Comedy of Horrors,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 46, November 16, 1998, pp. 50-1.

[In the following interview, McCabe discusses his career as an author.]

On a Wednesday night so dark and wet it has cleared the Sligo streets of life, P[ublishers] W[eekly] arrives at Patrick McCabe's terraced house in the center of town and immediately feels like an intruder into a scene of everyday domestic turmoil. McCabe, a two-time Booker Prize nominee, is cursing a computer that will not allow his 13-year-old daughter to go on-line in search of information on the Titanic. It's for a school assignment, she...

(The entire section is 2090 words.)