We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – The Butcher Boy

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…

We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film


The Butcher Boy

(Neil Jordan, 1997)

‘… Funny, tragic and shocking, The Butcher Boy is both fascinating and disturbing for its unique depiction of psychosis…’

Emma O’Donoghue

In the early ’60s in a small town in Co. Monaghan, two best friends Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) and Joe Purcell (Alan Boyle) spend their days playing Cowboys and Indians, reading comic books and playing by the town’s fountain and stream. To Francie, Joe is the only stability in a chaotic and cold world. Francie’s mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) suffers from bouts of serious mental illness and his father (Stephen Rea) is an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic whose frequent outbursts of anger cause Francie to retreat into his own imagination – one which is rampant with aliens and communists and, in times of deep emotional distress, involves occasional visitations from a straight-talking Virgin Mary (Sinead O’Connor). Francie’s spiral into a world of sociopathic and violent behaviour is both aggravated and catalysed by a neighbour, Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw), who Francie believes is filled with ‘airs and graces’ and who frequently refers to him as a pig. Her overt snobbery towards him and his family enrages Francie, causing him to ransack her house and subsequently get sent to a home for boys run by ‘Fr Bubbles’ (Brendan Gleeson). It is on his return to his hometown and a very changed reality that Francie’s already fragile psyche is pushed to breaking point. The realisation that he has lost Joe as a true friend, and who worse still has befriended Mrs Nugent’s son Philip, is the final straw after a series of tragedies, pushing him to commit his final act of brutality.

The Butcher Boy

Feck off, you round tub of Guinness!

Based on the book of the same title by Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy was skilfully directed by Neil Jordan in 1997 and features a plethora of well-known and talented Irish actors. Although the movie explores solemn and tragic subjects – abuse, neglect, loneliness and mental illness – it is not entirely grim. Its upbeat soundtrack and lively performances provide a surreal quality that gives the movie a comic-book feel, making the horror slightly easier to swallow and giving us a sense of what it is like to live in Francie’s world. His increasing detachment from reality allows for a light comic relief as his inner monologue (an adult Francie played also by Stephen Rea) laughs, jokes and wilfully rejects reality, instead preferring to hunt monsters and aliens and fantasise about the bygone good times with Joe.

This is a phenomenal performance from Owens who we both pity and fear. He simultaneously embodies the playful recklessness of boyhood and the dark rage of a deeply troubled mind. The merit of the movie lies in blurring the lines between innocent childhood rebellion and dangerously psychotic behaviour. Funny, tragic and shocking, The Butcher Boy is both fascinating and disturbing for its unique depiction of psychosis, spreading from its quiet roots to its cacophonic fruition.


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