Patrick McCabe Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.