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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel by Patrick McCabe, which was made into an award-winning film directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan in 1997, is based on the true story of a young Irish boy who brutally murdered an older woman in his neighborhood. In trying to understand the psyche of a young boy who would commit such a crime, the author creates a fictional structure that exposes the dysfunctional family the boy was born into.

The novel is narrated by Francie Brady, the main character and the "butcher boy" of the title (the name comes originally from an old song about a girl who is betrayed by the local "butcher boy," who was once her lover). Francie is an intelligent and imaginative boy, whose working-class family is beset with difficulty. His father is an alcoholic, and his mother suffers from depression. He is jealous of his neighbors the Nugents, who have more money and a nicer home. After Francie and his friends play a prank on their schoolmate Phillip Nugent, his mother, Mrs. Nugent, refers to Francie's family as "pigs." This sets in motion Francie's hatred of her and his desire for revenge.

Eventually, Francie's anger at Mrs. Nugent grows, and he is driven to kill her in a horrifically violent manner. The novel portrays Francie's anger in a way that is idiosyncratic and embraces the humorous and fantastical tone the author maintains throughout the novel. Part of the rich appeal of Francie's narrative voice is the general sense he conveys of the poetic nature of the Irish character—a common feature often referred to as being unique to Ireland, separate as it is from the rest of Europe and possessing a unique culture steeped in mythology, literature, and music. This cultural legacy informs the novel as well, imbuing the language with a heightened sense of history and national pride, at odds with the realization Francie struggles with: that his family is of low quality, that they are indeed "pigs." By portraying Francie's murderous behavior as an outgrowth of his personality, the author depicts a segment of dark history that is manifest in Ireland's less fortunate citizens. Francie blames others for his bad behavior, suggesting the status of Ireland as a victim of its circumstances (including being occupied by British troops for much of its recent history).

Ireland's main economic industry for most of its history has been agriculture. The great famine that occurred after massive failure of its potato crop in the mid-nineteenth century—which was not a shortage, but rather a blight that made the potatoes poisonous to people and animals—necessitated a mass migration of its citizens to America to begin new lives.

The association of the Brady family with "pigs" speaks to this legacy of farming and animal husbandry, as if their troubles are somehow connected to that dark period in Irish history, and it stays with them like a curse. On some level, Francie's parents represent the "tainted" aspect of Irish history, because their human flaws (alcohol addiction and manic depression) leave them economically disadvantaged, unlike the victims of the famine who traveled to America to improve their lot. The portrayal of the Brady family as quintessentially "Irish" (especially Francie, with his red hair and lilting, poetic speech) underscores the struggle between cultural pride and economic disparity. Their status as "pigs" (animals connected to the earth due to their penchants for sniffing out truffles and wallowing in mud) suggests that their innate "Irishness" is partially responsible for their mental and emotional weaknesses. Francie's acting out of perverse rage (fueled in part by his odd fantasies about the Virgin Mary) is portrayed as a natural outcome for this doomed family that represents Ireland's troubled past.

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