Excerpt from The Butchers' Blessing by Ruth Gilligan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Butchers' Blessing

by Ruth Gilligan

The Butchers' Blessing by Ruth Gilligan X
The Butchers' Blessing by Ruth Gilligan
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2020, 312 pages

    Nov 2021, 305 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

And since the war had claimed all eight of her men
She decreed, henceforth, no man could slaughter alone;
Instead, seven others had to be by his side
To stop the memory of her grief from dying too.
—from "The Curse of the Farmer's Widow"


New York, January 2018

Even now, twenty-two years since he took the photograph, he still cannot quite believe the lack of blood.

The cold store isn't a big room, maybe twenty by twenty at a push, the wall-tiles riddled with cracks and greenish buds of mould. Below, the floor is a dismal skim of concrete; above, the bulbs' glare is a merciless white; in between, the metal brackets traverse the ceiling, the meat hooks laned empty in their rows.

The lack of windows means it is impossible to tell whether it is night or day outside. It also means the walls are bare, save where a portrait of the Virgin Mary has, inexplicably, been nailed. And apart from Our Blessed Mother, there is only one other person in that dilapidated room.

There is a man, hanging from the ceiling, upside down.

The Butcher is still fully clothed, minus his socks and boots. His overalls are fastened. His pale shirt is neatly tucked. Only the wounds confirm the worst—that he isn't just unconscious; isn't just sleeping the wrong way up like a bat—only the holes in the bridge of his feet where the rusty hook has been pierced through, taking the weight of his body and holding it aloft.

Leaving aside the wounds, there is something almost languid to the flow of the Butcher's limbs. The flesh has been drained of any trace of violence—any trace of how he possibly found himself up there—while the eyes betray no pain as they stare out from beyond death towards the cold-store doorway, where they meet the blinding flash of the camera.

"Jesus Christ."

Ronan steps back from the photograph and trips on a roll of bubble wrap by his feet. Usually his apartment is pristine; today it is a chaos of boxes and gaffer tape. He glances at the clock on the wall. The delivery men will be arriving any minute. He is leaving this one unwrapped until the last possible moment.

Two decades on, there is still no denying the impact The Butcher has on him. He has started to accept that, maybe, he will never produce a finer shot; that maybe, despite the awards and the international shows, his peak was right back at the very beginning when he was only a young eejit wandering the Irish borderlands with a second-hand Canon and a baggie full of pills; a determination to find the perfect image that would get his career off the ground at last.

So he supposes it is ego, more than anything, that has finally persuaded him to put this photo on public display. It is good—very good. It deserves to be seen. In the past he always concluded, reluctantly, that showing it just wasn't worth the hassle. There had been rumours around the body—suspicious circumstances and all that—which meant the image would have been treated more like a piece of evidence than a piece of art. But by now the dust has long settled—no one even mentions it any more, the ancient group they called "The Butchers"—especially not over here in some small museum on the outskirts of Manhattan where every curator looks about half his age and every photograph is accompanied by a brief wall text that reduces the image to its biographical minimum:

The Butcher
by Ronan Monks
(County Monaghan, 1996)

The man in the photograph is thought to have belonged to a group of ritual cattle slaughterers known as "The Butchers." Composed of eight men, the group travelled the length and breadth of Ireland practising their folkloric customs. However, around the time of the photograph, "The Butchers" disbanded after hundreds of years of service. Today, very little record remains of their ancient, unorthodox traditions.

The buzzer sounds and Ronan startles. He presses the button by the intercom, then hears the delivery men coming up the stairs, their heavy footsteps and easy drawl. It won't take them long to move the pictures; the museum is only a twentyminute drive across the river. Some of them will probably be half-Irish just like him. All of them will probably expect a tip. But for these final moments the only man that matters is the one in the photograph, his shadow pooled black, his toenails curved white in ten tiny crescent moons.

Excerpted from The Butchers' Blessing by Ruth Gilligan. Copyright © 2020 by Ruth Gilligan. Excerpted by permission of Tin House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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