What makes a tradition a tradition? How and when do we pass from routine to ritual, and ritual to sacred rite? How do we decide what it kept, what is left behind, and what must be destroyed for the good of the future?
Ruth Gilligan knows, but she will not give us any easy answers. Instead, she gives us snapshots; a literal photograph sets us in motion, but glimpses into the life of “modern Ireland” connect the pieces by stringing one red knot to another.
In 1996, Úna is standing at the precipice of the future while flinging herself back into the past. She is the daughter of a Butcher; Butchers travel the countryside in a group of eight, following the old ways of cattle slaughter by protecting Ireland from disease, wrath and woe. The people of the peaty hills and desolate borderlands used to revere the Butchers, but their days of respect are limited. People are forgetting the old ways. People are pushing back against those who haven’t forgotten. The power of the Catholic church is falling while the Celtic Tiger rises, but the lore of the Butchers is even older and less stable than that of the church.
Cattle from England are getting sick, and they are sickening others around them. BSE (Mad Cow) is rotting their brains, and Ireland stands to rise out of the mud on the backs of clean and safe beef. Men make dangerous choices, women bare the brunt of disasters, and children attempt to free themselves from folklore and poverty by eating McDonalds and listening to the Spice Girls on the radio.
While these people are steeped in mythology, the world they come from is very real. Violence waits around every turn. The people of the border counties have only just recovered from The Troubles; they’re only just finding forgotten appliances tossed into the muck and mire instead of bodies. Divorce is just recently legal, but it is still a largely masculine world should one attempt to go it alone. Tradition makes and breaks success.
Much of the folklore woven throughout the tale is “true”; as in there is a record of oral tradition, but Gilligan builds her own folklore around the Butchers and the men that wear their triple-knotted boots and thick overalls. The power of myth is terrifying; Gilligan creates the Butchers, but the people around them; their families, clients, and naysayers create their mythic power.
I received this ARC from the Tin House Galley Club in exchange for a fair and honest review