BookBrowse Reviews The Butchers' Blessing by Ruth Gilligan

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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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     Not Yet Rated
  • 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



Set amidst the devastating outbreak of "Mad Cow Disease" in the 1990s, The Butchers' Blessing is an achingly real portrayal of rural life in Ireland and an ode to the Republic's fraught history with its own folklore.

The Butchers' Blessing opens with a disturbing tableau — the image of an unidentified body suspended from a hook — before jumping back to explore the events that would lead to this man's grotesque end. It's a beginning of instant intrigue, and the stakes are consistently raised as we attempt to identify the victim and the perpetrator from a cast of complex, morally ambiguous characters.

The narration is split between five key perspectives: Úna, a preteen girl whose father is one of eight enigmatic Butchers (men who travel the country slaughtering cattle according to controversial traditional customs believed to stave off an ancient curse); Grá, Úna's mother, who feels trapped in a cold marriage with her absent husband; Fionn, an aging farmer desperate to save his ailing wife to atone for his violent past; Davey, Fionn's son, who dreams of escaping to the freedom of a cosmopolitan city; and Ronan, a photographer from out of town who longs to make a name for himself. Though presented in third-person, each viewpoint is distinct in tone and equally compelling, as author Ruth Gilligan introduces quiet revelations that weave the various narrative threads together with understated skill.

She also grounds the story firmly and expertly in a specific time and place. Not only is the rugged landscape of Ireland evoked in striking detail, historical touchstones depict the Republic in the 1990s as a time of great unrest and transition. This ranges from huge contextual influences (like the outbreak of "Mad Cow Disease," the impact of the Troubles, and the decriminalization of homosexuality), to the smallest cultural details that can instantly heighten a narrative's believability (such as the music playing on the radio and the movies screening at the local theater). Short interludes set in the present day highlight just how immersive Gilligan's historical setting is, while also providing the reader with further clues about the nature of the crime at the heart of the story.

Tonally, the novel has a melancholy feel, as each of the characters wrestle with their hidden angst and fight to take control over their own fate. Thematically, this feeds into the book's primary area of concern: whether or not it is possible to simultaneously honor the past and embrace the future. By juxtaposing Davey's impassioned study of the Classics with the community's increasing hostility towards the Butchers' folklore-fueled practices, Gilligan asks us to consider why society embraces and celebrates the legacy of some ancient beliefs while dismissing the value of others. By providing equal justification for each character's contrasting desire to either stick to tradition or leave it behind, she avoids sitting in judgement of either mindset, allowing readers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.

Though ostensibly a literary thriller, underpinned by the search for answers concerning the mutilated body presented to us in the opening chapter, The Butchers' Blessing transcends any potential trappings of the genre by opting for a character-driven, slow burn approach. The focus is placed firmly on providing a deceptively nuanced commentary on the fight for autonomy in a culture ruled by tradition, and the bravery required to defy society's expectations in search of happiness.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2021, and has been updated for the January 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Legacy of Ireland's Curses


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