“May the curse of Christ light upon you, you bitch”: Trauma and Mother Ireland in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy
Neil Jordan's 1997 The Butcher Boy is defined by its recurring theme of loss: loss of family, loss of innocence and loss of sanity. Framed as a flashback from 30 years later, The Butcher Boy details the story of Francie Brady (Eammon Owens/Stephen Rea), a young boy growing up in a small Irish town in the 1960s with his violent, alcoholic father, Benny (also Stephen Rea) and depressed mother (Aisling O'Sullivan). Despite tragedy after tragedy – including his enrolment at an institutional school and sexual assault – Francie maintains an unwavering optimism for his life and his best friend, Joe (Alan Boyle). However, following the destruction of his family, Francie begins centering his paranoia on his neighbour, Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw). Sinking deeper and deeper into paranoia, Francie becomes consumed by increasingly disturbing fantasies of a bad-mouthed Virgin Mary, the apocalypse, aliens, bog-men and images from television and comics. In a psychotic episode, Francie kills Mrs Nugent, leading the police on a wild goose chase. The film ends with Francie's apprehension and life-long incarceration in a mental hospital.
Despite all this, the film can best be described as a comedy. In fact, Jordan's usage of noticeable Irish stereotypes, such as drunk fathers, old church-going women clutching rosaries, fumbling ex-IRA members and comically creepy priests, adds a sardonic humor to the film. Yet, reading The Butcher Boy through a psychoanalytic lens, these stereotypes are far from being exclusively comedic. They act as sites of subversion that probe the cultural memory of Ireland's past, specifically its memory – or, as the film argues, lack thereof – of child abuse, enforced ignorance and complacency. More specifically, throughout the film Francie is failed time and time again by the system and by passive bystanders, such as the nosy Mrs Nugent.
Clothed only in green, Mrs Nugent seemingly represents the maternal spirit of Ireland. According to Colin MacCabe, who studied the film's production history, Mrs Nugent's name refers to the character Grace Nugent of Maria Edgeworth's 1812 novel The Absentee, who "functions as a representative of the Irish Gaelic traditions." MacCabe also notes that Jordan accepted the designer's suggestion that Mrs Nugent be clothed in greens, "thus identifying cinematically with the Wicked Witch of the West and politically with Mother Ireland."1 Mrs Nugent is overbearingly protective of her son, Philip, but is more wicked than maternal to Fancie and regularly treats him with disdain. Mrs Nugent's rejection of Francie and protection of Philip appears to mirror the historical attitudes of 1960s Ireland. In the 2009 Ryan Report, the Ryan Commission found that the majority of offences committed by those sent to reform schools throughout the era owed more to poverty than to criminality.2 Hoping the Church would "sort them out," reported children were often viewed as social deviants and as potentially poor influences on their other – notably wealthy – children.3
Mrs Nugent manages her guilt by denying her role in Francie's abuse and neglect. In one scene, she sends her brothers to beat up Francie and one of the brothers accidentally holds Francie's head underwater for too long. After realising what her brother has done, Mrs Nugent panics and runs away instead of trying to help Francie. Here I recall that by refusing to recognise their crimes, indirect perpetrators often circumvent the burden of guilt. By distancing themselves from such atrocities, they can rationalise their refusal on their lack of action.4 With this in mind, Mrs Nugent's denial of Francie's existence and her demonisation of him5 functions to placate her guilt as an indirect perpetrator of abuse.
The film reveals systemic failings by portraying the complacency of the indirect perpetrator and – eventually – illustrating the repercussions of that complacency. Notably, this particular framing of the indirect perpetrator becomes important when discussing Irish historical trauma, as the Ryan Report identified that multiple state departments, religious orders and communities refused to recognise the endemic practices of abuse. Through The Butcher Boy's characterisations, including that of Mrs Nugent, the film thus illuminates a chapter of Irish history that many have chosen to forget. But how? In Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia," mourning is categorised as a healthy response to loss and melancholia is conceived as an unhealthy reaction. However, Freud concluded that mourning could not be completed without melancholia, alluding to a possible resistance to such schematic delineations. Focusing on this area of ambivalence, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian's work on melancholia and loss – a study greatly influenced by Walter Benjamin's work – can be used to illustrate that The Butcher Boy's conception of melancholia is not necessarily a pathologic response but rather an engagement with the past that "generates sites for memory and history."6 Eng and Kazanjian's insistence that "mourning remains" provides a framework to interrogate the "political and ethical misappropriations of loss."7 As Eng and Kazanjian re-interpret it, the nature of melancholia facilitates a continuous re-engagement with the past; to "pathologically" grieve the remains of the past "is to establish an active and open relationship with history."8 Therefore, the portrayal of the characters is intentionally – but paradoxically – concrete and distorted. As a result, Irish cultural nationalism, including the "Mother Ireland" image, is refracted.
Thus, if Francie's fixation with Mrs Nugent can be seen as him grieving the loss of his own mother, his murder of Mrs Nugent can therefore be interpreted as his pathological refusal to respond to the call of reality. However, Eng and Kazanjian's interpretation of Walter Benjamin's analysis on melancholy provides a different discursive viewpoint through which to understand Francie's obsession. They write, "The politics of mourning might be described as that creative process mediating a hopeful or hopeless relationship between loss and history."9 Therefore, Mrs Nugent's murder serves to confront both her and the community with the traumatic consequences of the failures of the past. In the scene of her murder, the coinciding of Mrs Nugent's death and the town's congregation to welcome the apocalypse perverts the image of the Second Coming. After Francie shoots her, Jordan cuts between Francie butchering Mrs Nugent, an image of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered in blood, an unbloodied statue in the middle of the town square, and the unsuspecting townspeople, all while "Ave Maria" plays in the background.
The placement of the statue in front of the mirror and in the centre of town reads as a beckoning towards reflection and questioning of religion's centrality to Ireland's moral structure. By physically "disemboweling tradition" – a sacrificial gesture towards Christ – Francie appropriates and repurposes the sacred idols that failed him for a new kind of salvation, "a continuous engagement with loss and its remains."10 In this way, The Butcher Boy serves to confront Ireland with the site of trauma through reinterpretation of "lost" objects and, as a result, unearth the nation's repressed collective trauma.