Pat McCabe resurrects his most famous creation for his latest novel. He tells Richard Fitzpatrick why he’s gone back to The Butcher Boy and characters inspired by his hometown
PATRICK MCCABE is back in the saddle with one of Irish literature’s great anti-heroes 27 years after the publication of The Butcher Boy, his Booker Prize-nominated novel that was later made into a Neil Jordan film.
This time out, McCabe shows us what happens Francie Brady when he’s grown up into man.
He’s holed up in Fizzbang Mansions, an asylum with an 18ft wall in Dundrum village. He keeps himself busy — and distracted from the spectre of terminal cancer — beavering away on the publication of a magazine, The Big Yaroo (which shares a name with McCabe’s novel) and the derring-do exploits of characters like the crack RAF pilot Cat’s Eyes Cunningham.
Francie also has half an eye set on escaping. Again.
His last burst for freedom — back in 2001, “on the same night as the collapse of the Twin Towers in NY; I mean I ask you!” — foundered. This time, having checked the meteorological charts, he’s dressed head to toe in waterproofs and a Biggles-style leatherneck cap, which he got for a song on eBay.
Francie’s thoughts regularly drift backwards over his life, and in particular the cost of slaying Mrs Nugent (“the mistake that ruined me”). They dominate the mood of the novel, creating a sense of melancholy amidst his madcap antics. Despite being capable of despicable acts, McCabe pulls off the feat of making us want to pull for Francie.
“This Francie Brady character kind of spun out of control because he’s just an alter ego,” says McCabe.
“It’s kind of an autobiography — in the sense that folk songs take incidents in people’s lives. If you think of how many murder ballads there are that found their origins in, say, factories and railways and places where people gathered.
“They sing songs like ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ or ‘The Old Woman from Wexford’, which contain unspeakable things — of people being murdered — that people would never do.
The function that those songs fulfil is that they release anxieties and upsets so that people don’t have to do these sorts of things. That’s all The Butcher Boy is.
“People apprehended it as a sociopolitical treatise. That I was some kind of authority on damaged boys or the ills of Irish society. None of that was in my mind. Neither is it in my mind with this one. I returned to him because I hadn’t written about the 1970s and ’80s.
"Obviously you don’t go around finding people drinking paraquat in out-houses or innocent women being butchered, and you don’t find the old woman from Wexford feeding her husband eggs and marrow bones to make him blind either. These are just conceits to share with other human beings the problems of being alive."
McCabe, 64, grew up in Clones, Co Monaghan, a fevered landscape that provided the root soil for many of his fictional towns (or Clones clones, as one wit put it).
His novels include The Dead School and Breakfast on Pluto, another Booker Prize-nominated work which was given a film treatment by Jordan.
McCabe also helped birth the short-lived but legendary Flat Lake Festivals with the Welsh actor/ director Kevin Allen.
One of McCabe’s gifts is his knack for the wry phrase. The way, for example, Francie is interrupted from work on his magazine by the appearance of Dr Cecil hovering at the door, “standing there yoo hoo and all the rest”.
McCabe creates a picture, too, of small-town Ireland that is vivid and realistic, a time in the recent past when a walkabout in town for Francie leads to meeting eccentrics with “something to say” like Hughie ‘Kerensky’ Mackleson of The Terrace, a fellow preoccupied that “any day now the Cold War is destined to turn hot”.
It’s a reflection of McCabe’s experience of growing up in Clones. “People wouldn’t mediate their dialogue to suit a child,” says McCabe.
“They would say what was in their heads whether it was a man, woman, child, or beast. The character The Weasel Finnegan in The Big Yaroo is based on a guy I used to know. Everybody thinks these people are all drunks. They weren’t. They were highly intelligent people that never got schooling. They lived life by their own laws.
“It kind of begs the question of how suppressed society was because if those people were around now they would be repressed in a way they weren’t then. People wouldn’t be able to deal with them and would run away from them.
“The guy I’m talking about would call me across the street. He used to say, ‘Young Mac Cába!’ I was about nine years old. He’d say, ‘Fucking bastard Duffy.’ And I’d say, ‘What?’ Then he’d go into this demolition of Duffy’s Circus and how he didn’t get his proper wages for being his Indian in the circus and that they should never be let back into the town.
“This could go on like a Beckett monologue for 20 minutes. It was very much a three-ring circus kind of town.”
Pat McCabe’s novel The Big Yaroo is published by New Island. He is in conversation with Áine Lawlor at Dublin Book Festival, 6.30pm, this evening (Thursday, November 14) at Smock Alley Theatre.