The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan: The old ways meet the new

Cover image for The Butchers by Ruthe GilliganIt took me some time to get around to reading Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers. I’m a little squeamish and its blurb plus that title was a little off-putting. Then I saw Kim from Reading Matters praising it on Twitter and decided to give it a try and I’m very glad I did. Gilligan’s novel begins with the photograph of a naked man hung upside down from a meat hook in an Irish cold store taken in 1996 at the height of the BSE crisis that spread from the UK to Ireland.

She would check the trap again tomorrow, right after her father had raised his leather hand to the morning sky and broken both their hearts

Almost twelve years old, Úna is helping set the table for the last meal she and her mother will share with her father before he sets of on his eleven-month tour of the country. Cúch is one of The Butchers, eight men who slaughter cattle for those who, like them, believe in the old ways, and are paid in meat for their trouble. Úna idolises her father, her dearest ambition to become a Butcher herself. Her mother spends eleven months of every year alone, occasionally visiting her neighbour whose husband is also a Butcher and thinking about the sister she has never mentioned to her family. Then she meets a young photographer keen to establish a career with shots of the beautiful Irish landscape. Meanwhile, as what the media have dubbed Mad Cow Disease ravages the British cattle population, Irish farmers are anticipating a boom. Desperate for funds for his wife’s cancer treatment, Fion picks up his old cattle-smuggling ways working for the man they call the Bull, steeped in power and corruption, while his son sets his sights on university in Dublin. As some greet Modern Ireland with arms wide open to embrace the new ways, no matter how those ways might be brought about, the Butchers face mounting abuse eventually erupting in violence. Two decades after the debacle, the now celebrated photographer exhibits the dramatic shot of a body in a cold store for the first time with fateful consequences.

He looked so giant as he moved – big enough to be a myth himself. The fields around were raw with silence, the hillsides stony pocked and sparse

Gilligan frames her story with that dramatic opening scene and its consequences. Her writing is often striking, landscapes lyrically described, and her characterisation convincing: Úna is particularly well done, an engaging narrator who grows up determined to put right what she sees as a terrible wrong. Gilligan deftly shifts her narrative’s perspective, managing to be both funny and sad with its uncovering of family secrets, sore and long hidden, all wrapped up in a fine piece of storytelling. Its exploration of the old Ireland, with its rich tradition of folklore, and the struggle towards the new, through two families who are more entangled than they realise, reminded me a little of Niall Williams’ This is Happiness. Such an enjoyable book, and I could so easily have missed it were it not for Kim’s tweet. You can read her review here.

Atlantic Books: London 9781786499448 304 pages Hardback

13 thoughts on “The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan: The old ways meet the new”

  1. Just ordered it as it sounds a good fit for my reading tastes as I’m a big fan of an Irish setting. Interestingly, I had the opposite reaction Susan and loved the cover and title. Another one for my lockdown tbr pile. Thanks.

  2. Yay So pleased you picked this one up and enjoyed it as much as I did. We practically wrote our reviews at the same time. I do fear this one won’t get much attention, so let’s hope both our efforts shine a light on what is a truly excellent novel

  3. Pingback: The Butchers – RBKC Libraries blog

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