THE BUTCHERS’ BLESSING by Ruth Gilligan
Tin House Books, 2020
Set in 1990s Ireland, The Butchers’ Blessing (originally published as The Butchers in the UK) tells the story of a group that travels through the country, practicing an ancient ritual of cattle slaughter for farmers who still believe in the old customs. It follows a handful of characters – primarily Úna, the preteen daughter of a Butcher whose life’s aspiration is to follow in her father’s footsteps. We also follow Grá, Úna’s mother, trapped in an unhappy marriage; Ronan, an ambitious photographer; Fionn, a semi-retired farmer whose wife is dying of cancer, trying to atone for past sins; and Davey, Fionn’s son, a teenage boy who’s immersed in classical studies and dreams of escaping to Dublin.
Gilligan does an expert job of weaving historical context throughout the narrative. The novel’s backdrop mainly concerns BSE, also known as mad cow disease, as the crisis kicks off throughout the UK and Ireland. While Gilligan excellently captures the resulting tension of that social climate, her skill in establishing the setting is right down to the nitty-gritty details; the Spice Girls playing on the radio, The Beauty Queen of Leenane on a the local playhouse, Ballykissangel on tv. Setting historical fiction in a moment that your readers have lived through is a unique challenge, but Gilligan has a talent for the immersive. The details of Celtic folklore were also well-woven in; this probably isn’t the Gothic or eerie book you’re expecting from its premise, but the way the folklore was presented as a part of these characters’ daily realities was handled incredibly well.
There were a few things that didn’t work for me – the whole story was framed in a past/present way with the present being narrated by the least interesting character, which unfortunately causes the interludes to lag more than they should. But on the whole I thought this was a clear-eyed, unsettling, morally ambiguous read that captures this moment in modern Irish history brilliantly.