In a phone-call to arrange our meeting, Pat McCabe begins by complaining about profiles of him in the past: “Journalists always come over and end up writing all this stuff about Sligo and its relevance to my work,” he grumbles down the line from his home on the west coast of Ireland. “But Sligo has absolutely nothing to do with my work. There is no mention of the sea in my work, and very little of the terrain that you find out here. It just so happens that I’ve lived in Sligo for the past few years, but that’s the extent of it.”
Instead, he chooses to meet deep in the Irish midlands, in a one-horse town called Longford where the few features of distinction include a hulking cathedral, a rash of fast-food joints, a grubby cinema and a shopping mall. It was here that McCabe lived in the mid-1970s, teaching by day in the local primary school and playing keyboards by night, as part of a local country-and-western combo, in the Longford Arms Hotel and in the pubs that line the main street.
Just as the dramatic coastline of Sligo and the west is known as Yeats’ country, this traditional Irish small-town ordinariness is the archetypal territory of McCabe: “I like to feel the place when I’m talking about it, that’s why I suggested that we meet here,” he says when picking me up from the station. “People who put down small towns are just trudging out the same old opinions – they don’t open their eyes. I had the time of my life in this place. There is a whole secret world here.”
Since the publication of The Butcher Boy in 1992, when he emerged from almost total obscurity to storm into the literary limelight, McCabe has established himself as one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary writers. His novels have earned him two Booker nominations, for The Butcher Boy (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto, in 1998, and an Irish Times/Aer Lingus prize for fiction. Far more importantly, he has managed to transform the microcosm of the small town, a neglected and disparaged corner of Irish experience, into an arena for burlesque humour and biting satire. In the process, he has single-handedly coined his own genre, the affectionately termed “Bog Gothic”.
“McCabe is a true original,” says critic and novelist John Banville. “Like Roddy Doyle writing about life in working-class Dublin suburbs, McCabe has used stuff the rest of us didn’t bother with and made a peculiar kind of rough poetry out of it. He catches that particular kind of bizarre, insane world of Irish country life in the 50s and 60s. People like [Sean] O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor wrote about it in lyrical mode, [John] McGahern wrote about it in tragic mode, but McCabe writes about it in a kind of antic black comedy that is absolutely unique.”
In his early novel Carn, published in 1989, McCabe had already mapped out the territory: the border town, closely modelled on his County Monaghan birthplace of Clones (pronounced Clone-es) where monotony and madness threaten. Only with The Butcher Boy, the story of a mentally deficient delinquent named Francie Brady, did he manage to find the right inhabitants for this landscape, a coterie of Arcadian grotesques whose broad psychological brush-strokes and deliberately caricatured contours reflected McCabe’s obsession with comic-book heroes, popular music, classic TV shows and film noir.
“An insidious, funny, breathtakingly horrific novel,” concluded the Observer, “switching from mischief to madness as an adolescent obsession turns Dennis the Menace into Jack the Ripper.” McCabe followed this up with two accomplished works: The Dead School, 1995, a story of gladiatorial confrontation in the staff room, and Breakfast on Pluto, whose protagonist is a transvestite prostitute.
Patrick Joseph McCabe was born on March 27 1955. As would be portrayed, in a heightened form, in The Butcher Boy, home life in the McCabe household could be less than tranquil. His father, Bernard McCabe, originally from Belfast, had a drink problem and moved between jobs: quantity surveyor, stone mason, town clerk. Throughout his life, Bernard harboured an ambition to become a musician and songwriter: “He was also a very fine trumpet player,” says McCabe, “with a very good knowledge of music, and very well read. Like a lot of that generation, he was poorly schooled but highly educated.”
Conflict in the home was not helped by the fact that McCabe’s mother, Dympna (née Maguire), originally from Tyrone, also possessed a fiery, self-tutored intelligence: “It made for one of those dangerous marriages where people are in competition rather than complementing each other,” says McCabe.
According to his sister, Mary, young Pat, a “very lively fella, with great interests”, first escaped from the tedium of small-town life through the world of comics: “My father used to arrive home with the Dandy, the Daily Express and the Irish Press,” she recalls. “And he’d read the Dandy first.” By the age of five, Patrick was avidly continuing this habit: “I moved on to the Victor, the Hotspur and the Hornet and then, in a parcel from America, you’d get the Marvel comics, all in colour. So, there were all these different worlds, and the Irish world of daily reality was kind of mixed up with the comics in my mind. To this day, I still draw on them all.” Even now, he still maintains an impressive comic collection in his house in Sligo.
By his teens, Pat had added the tiny Clones picture house to his imaginative armoury: “It was a beautiful cinema called the Luxor, with neon calligraphy right across the main street. As well as the movies, we had all the trailers, Movietone news, Pathé news.” It was at the Luxor that McCabe first saw the noir classics Night of the Hunter, Black Angel, Night and the City, as well as innumerable westerns that would become part of his literary vision.
Fuelled by these diverse creative sources, the boy excelled at the local primary school: “Pat was what I would call an all-rounder,” says his teacher, Gerry McMahon, “But in English he obviously had talent.” The young boy’s compositions were so exceptional that McMahon often read them out as an example to classmates and retained the best for future generations.
One piece, with the stock title of Robbing an Orchard, demonstrates an undeniable talent: “In the fence surrounding the orchard is a loose board that only I know,” the 10-year-old author began, “My means of getting the apples were as follows: I would wrangle away to get my father’s umbrella which has a curved-up handle. Then, using the handle, I would pull the branches and calmly pick the apples from them. I curled the handle of the umbrella around an overhanging bough and scaled the fence. I got my brolly and started to relieve the trees of their fruit.”
At the age of 12, McCabe was sent off to St Macartan’s College, a boarding school on the edge of Monaghan town. It was here that the confident, carefree phase of McCabe’s childhood came to an abrupt halt: “It was like Sparta,” he says. “There were an awful lot of empty hours, corridors, playing push-penny, time wasted at what should be the most vibrant time of your life when your character is being formed.” This was compounded by the death of his father in his final year: “I think then I got very morbid. Up to then I had been a very bright spark, first up to sing, first everything, and then I had a kind of personality change.”
Entertaining vague thoughts of becoming a writer, upon graduation McCabe headed off for Dublin, where he enrolled at St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in the suburb of Drumcondra. “Off the leash,” he launched himself into what he now terms his “wild years”, immersing himself in Dublin’s nascent hippy scene: “It was then the psychedelic gone wrong,” McCabe recalls wryly. “I would have been one of the ‘heads’, the incense brigade, but, of course, you needed money to do it right. You’d have the aul’ tie-dyed T-shirt, but you looked like a dog’s breakfast.”
Being a hippy in 70s Dublin involved consuming considerable amounts of hallucinogenic drugs: “There was a lot of acid going round,” he admits. However, he and fellow student John Maher stopped short of embracing certain flower-power sentiments: “We looked like hippies though neither of us would have bought into the ‘peace and love’ thing,” scoffs Maher. “We were far too cynical for that.”
One side-effect of this sub-culture experimentation was pitiful grades, with McCabe failing his final examination five times: “The way I eventually passed it was that the tutor there said to me: ‘Look, just tell me what you do know.’ And he set the paper around that out of sheer exasperation.”
Once he had qualified in 1974, McCabe took a job teaching at St Michael’s Boys’ National School in Longford. Once again, however, he was soon devoting much of his energy to activities outside the classroom, this time joining a touring ballroom music group called the Oklahoma Showband: “I was badly stuck for a keyboard player,” says Paddy Hanrahan, founder and leader of the band, “and I heard of this teacher in Longford who was teaching in St Michael’s at the time, who played keyboards, so I called in to see him. He thought I was the parent of some child he’d beaten. I knocked on the door and asked him did he play the keyboards and he said he did, so I said ‘Be ready at four o’clock, we’re going to Cork’.”
McCabe recalls that the music itself left quite a lot to be desired: “It was country and western mostly. When sung by Kenny Rogers they sounded great but when they were sung by us, with the rinky-dink piano, they were godawful.”
What interested McCabe most was the camaraderie of being on the road: “He was some character,” remembers Hanrahan, “coming home at night he’d be rabitting away, talking about nothing but still you’d have to listen. And the boys would be dead tired and would want to sleep. In the end they would tell Pat to shut the fuck up.”
During this time in Longford, Pat also met a girl named Margot Quinn: “We met at a party when we were both very young, Pat was 20 and I was still at school,” she says. “He was very funny and good craic. He was also writing poetry and short stories, and that was impressive.” In 1978, he and Margot decided to move back to Dublin, where they were married in 1981.
By this time, McCabe was in the process of building up a considerable body of work, and was soon being published in the showcase new Irish writing pages in the Irish press. Often set in Clones (or Clones clones, as one wag reviewer noted) and displaying the McCabe style in embryonic form, these stories included “The Call”, an expressionist coming-of-age sketch about a young man leaving teacher training college and encountering adulthood. This won the Hennessy award in 1979, giving McCabe his first major boost.
He also wrote several radio plays produced by both RTE, the national Irish channel, and BBC Radio 4. These included The Ulster Final, a lyrical “tone poem” conjuring up life in a northern border town and Frontiers, a low-key piece about a traveller crossing the northern Irish border in the 70s.
McCabe was now a feature on Ireland’s unruly literary scene: “I used to run a writers’ workshop in a little basement in a Georgian house in the late 1970s,” remembers Bolger. “You had a collection of strange and unusual people wandering through the workshop, people riding bicycles around the room and performance poets jumping in through the windows, and Pat came across as a very quiet sort of fellow with a big beard who read out these amazing short stories.”
Through a newspaper advertisement, McCabe found a job teaching at a special school in Brent, north London, while Margot enrolled at St Martin’s College. Once settled, McCabe began working in earnest on Carn, a portrait of a small Irish border town, published by Aidan Ellis in 1989. For the first time, McCabe enjoyed a positive review. The Guardian wrote: “McCabe has captured the monotony and camaraderie of youth in the drab little town with a conviction that should have anyone left in the old country running like hell for the ferry. His writing is raw and sometimes didactic but it is memorable. The accidental killing which ends his story bears a hideous ring of authenticity.”
The basic outline of McCabe’s next work had long been a piece of Clones folklore: the notorious murder of a young boy in 1904 by his best friend. McCabe first developed this story into a mammoth expressionistic rambling manuscript, “a limbo land that eventually became The Butcher Boy”, he recalls, which prompted his baffled publisher to summarily drop the budding author from his list.
After the initial devastation, this liberated him to write exactly the story he had in mind: “I got up every morning at half seven and I just wrote. I wasn’t expecting anything. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t published. Just write the real story and I swear to God I thought nobody would read it. I didn’t make that many concessions to the reader. It just sweeps along.”
Snapped up by Picador, the resulting book, published in 1992, was powered by the unhinged teen narrator, Francie Brady’s relentless drive towards self-destruction and the murder of his imagined tormentor, Mrs Nugent. However, the novel’s real pleasures are incidental, the teenage obsessions of the protagonists, ranging from Dan Dare and Spiderman to the eccentric utterances of the vividly Technicolor cameo characters: “It’s a bitter day for this town if the world comes to an end,” one exclaims. “A prime slice of modern Gothic that risks experiment without forfeiting accessibility,” concluded the Sunday Times. “McCabe presents a study of spiritual derangement that rivets rather than repels our attention.”
The greatest tribute was yet to come, when McCabe became the surprise entry on that year’s Booker shortlist, though his reaction to the news was characteristically low key: “The Booker thing came as a complete shock. I just grabbed some reading material and went to bed.”
Suddenly catapulted to literary fame, it was precisely this stubborn waywardness that allowed McCabe to simply concentrate on his next book: The Dead School, published in 1995. Inspired by McCabe’s conflict with a Dublin headmaster in the 70s, it follows the rivalry between Raphael Bell, an old-school buttoned-up Irish educational conservative, and a teacher on his staff named Malachy Dudgeon, a child of a more progressive, chilled-out age.
Both have emerged from rural Ireland and overcome considerable personal tragedy (Bell’s father was killed by the Black and Tans, while Dudgeon’s succumbed to lovelorn suicide), only to be consumed by their ecstatic hatred for one another: “The jaunty, musical tone of the novel belies its harrowingly bleak content,” concluded the Financial Times. “The cheap, childish chirp of surface brightness is set against the ominous, subterranean rumblings of tectonic plates grinding together.”
For the most part muted and self-deprecating, McCabe himself maintains an air of unsettling unpredictability: “You can find him in either of two modes,” says his friend, the academic John Maher: “One would be that brooding mode and the other would be a wild, madcap mode. Those are two opposite ends of the spectrum.”
In brooding mode, he can be gruff, defensive and forbidding, batting off inquiries with a brusque lack of ceremony. “A lot of that is South Ulster gruffness,” Maher continues; “you hear the same sort of truculence from the aul’ lads in the bars in Monaghan.” Once the barriers come down, however, this exterior cracks open to reveal a warm raconteur, a brilliant mimic and the life and soul of every Guinness-fuelled sing-song: “He can literally keep going until five or six in the morning,” confirms Maher, “and he could go from Neil Young to civil-war ballads. And the voice is quite good, a solid ballad singer. We’ve had plenty of sessions, both of us taking turns at knocking one another off the piano stool.”
Both ends of this spectrum are, naturally enough, reflected in McCabe’s work: the dark, macabre vision, dealing with grand themes of death and isolation and the bright, riotous spirit that gives the work its vibrancy and humour: “I’m not interested in writing about murder and mayhem per se,” he says, “I think that is a kind of conduit or filter through which I refract or push my imaginative view of what the world is all about. Being born, living and dying – it is mayhem, chaos and madness.”
His characters reflect a more precise and potent reality than might be possible with strictly realistic creations: “People have often commented that everyone in the books is mad or damaged. But you should view them as prisms through which the feelings of society are reflected. These are not naturalistic fictions. There was a term that I came across in Sight & Sound that was mentioned in the context of Sam Fuller or something like that, that came close to describing it – the ‘social fantastic’.”
McCabe strenuously denies the common criticism that his work is an attack on the ethos of small-town Ireland: “It is an assault in that I want to capture it in all its magnitude,” he says, “but it is not solely an attack. For example, with The Butcher Boy people said: ‘What have you got against this town?’ But I never suggested that there were small-town hypocrites in any of these places. I said that there are times in the book when the guy looks down on the most beautiful happy town that God ever put on this earth. The reason that I write about small towns is that I love them so much. That’s where all human experience is, on a very small canvas.”
Breakfast on Pluto (1998) was in many respects the spiritual successor to The Butcher Boy. The South Ulster protagonist chosen by the author this time couldn’t have been more outrageously marginal: a down-and-out Irish glam transvestite prostitute named Paddy “Pussy” Braden. The spectacularly pitched, preening central voice, so distant from McCabe’s own, was an even more staggering achievement, perfected, he says, by reading Colette and women’s magazines: “It’s meant to be a small hand-grenade of a book, but a burlesque as well. I remember the 70s of that time and those lurid glam-rock colours alternating between horror and frivolity.”
Overall, the book, which follows Pussy’s flight to London and his mistaken arrest in connection with a pub bombing, is a devastating challenge to the macho terrorist culture of Northern Ireland: “McCabe’s latest may be the most successful book yet to be born out of violence,” concluded the New York Times Book Review. “The underlying grief resonates deeply and personally, transforming what could have been a literary trifle into an obsessive gift, from a man who may be one of Ireland’s finest living writers.”
Breakfast on Pluto picked up McCabe’s second Booker nomination, but also alienated some, a trickle of negative reviews that turned into a deluge with McCabe’s next two books. Mondo Desperado (1999), a spoof collection of short stories based on the Mondo shockumentary movies of the 60s, met mixed reviews: “The mannered narrative style is a repeated joke that proves wearing,” complained the Independent.
Emerald Germs of Ireland (2001), a gory portrait of an Irish serial killer, received an outright critical drubbing: “The tales are maddening in their inconsistencies and alternative narrative branches, boring in their wordy breaks for tension-slackening exegesis, and clichéd even in their looting of genre clichés,” the Observer chided. “Emerald Germs reads as if Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books had been rewritten by Ardal O’Hanlon, but without decent jokes.”
All of this has made McCabe extremely anxious about the reaction to his new book Call Me the Breeze, set in the town of Scotsfield (an amalgamation of Clones and Longford), centres around a “psychobilly” roadie named Joey Tallon whose unhealthy obsession with Hermann Hesse, Pink Floyd and a local girl leads him straight to a Dublin jail: “I don’t really believe in writing a novel unless it’s urgent,” he says, “and this was one that I had to write. I spent four years on it, which is a long time for me.”
Regardless of the critical reaction, and early reviews from Ireland indicate that McCabe may be in for another rough ride, his vision will remain as anarchic and irrepressible as ever: “I have a few books simmering away,” he says. “One of them is a ‘deep south’ of the Irish mind and another is about a show band. But I’m so relaxed about writing now, because my kids are older now, and it’s late enough in my career to know that nobody has been damaged by any of it. And I don’t expect anything of the literary world. So, I’ll only do these books if I really want to. Which of course I do.”
Life at a glance
Born: March 27 1955.
Education: 1962-67 Largey Primary School, ’67-72 St Macartan’s College, Monaghan, ’72-74 St Patrick’s Teacher Training College, Dublin.
Married: 1981 Margot Quinn, two children Ellen (b1985) and Katie (b1987).
Career: 1974-78 St Michael’s Boy’s National School, Longford, ’78-80 St Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin, ’81-87 St Theresa’s National School, Balbriggan, ’87-93 Kingsbury Day Primary School and Special School, London.
Novels: 1985 The Adventures of Shay Mouse, ’86 Music on Clinton Street, ’89 Carn, ’92 The Butcher Boy, ’95 The Dead School, ’98 Breakfast on Pluto, 2001 Emerald Germs of Ireland, ’03 Call Me the Breeze.
Other works: 1992 Frank Pig Says Hello, a play based on The Butcher Boy, ’97 Butcher Boy, screenplay with Neil Jordan, ’99 Mondo Desperado, A collection of stories, Breakfast on Pluto, screenplay with Neil Jordan, awaiting production.
Awards: 1992 The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize, ’92 Booker shortlist, ’98 Booker shortlist.