INTERVIEW: Ruth Gilligan on beefburgers, sausage wars and ‘The Butchers’

Photo credit – Paul Musso

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Ruth Gilligan on the research process behind her novel The Butchers (Atlantic Books, 2020).

The Butchers is set largely during the BSE crisis of the late 1990s, a time of radical disruption for rural Ireland and the borderlands. I remember the noise around Mad Cow Disease in the UK, especially when our then-Minister for Agriculture John Selwyn Gummer fed his daughter a beefburger – that seemed to capture something of the strange fear of the time for me. I’m curious as to your memories of those years, if you have any? Was there anything in remembering or reading about this time that stuck in your mind, and how did that end up feeding into your work two decades after the event?

So in 1996 – the year the book is set – I was only eight, so of course I do have memories from that time. But in terms of the actual BSE stuff, the best I can recall is my parents warning us that we weren’t allowed to get burgers from McDonald’s anymore (though as it happens, I had always been a chicken nuggets girl myself) or the boys in school making silly jokes about mad cows or seeing those horrific images on TV of dead cattle in the UK being heaped up and burned in giant pyres.

By contrast, my strongest memories of that year are things like the Spice Girls releasing their first single or the day Veronica Guerin (a prominent Irish journalist) was shot dead by one of the criminal gangs she had been investigating or the Summer Olympics, where an Irish swimmer actually won some medals for once (only to have them later taken off her for drug allegations). They are the memories of a child, not of a news- or politics-engaged adult, but in a way that was useful too because Úna, one of the book’s main characters, is only a kid herself, so it was important to know the kinds of things that would have been on her radar; the kinds of things her peers would have been chatting about in the school playground. As for the other stuff, that was where the research (all four years of it!) kicked in.

Four years is a long time. Actually, something that jumped out at me is the hint in your Acknowledgements that during that time you undertook field research (literally field research), visiting farms and speaking with rural community members in Ireland. Was that part of your four years of research, or was it a product of visits with friends, family members, etc.? Did your feelings about agricultural Ireland change when you made this trips, and what effect did they have on your plot design?

So yes, as alluded to above, The Butchers – much like my previous novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan – required a hell of a lot of research. Although, as I’ve already said, I was living in Ireland at the time the book is set, I was down in the middle-class suburbs of Dublin, so life on a farm along the border counties may as well have been another world away. My research was very deliberate and, arguably, unnecessarily in-depth. I read endless books about BSE; I subscribed to numerous farming journals; I did a butchery course; I analysed every single newspaper published in Ireland in 1996; I poured over tribunal reports; I watched countless documentaries. On top of that, as you’ve mentioned, I went out and actually visited the region to try and really soak up a sense of the place. I also interviewed a number of farmers who gave me a tour of their land, generously answered all my inane questions (‘what’s that?’; ‘that’s called a cow, love’, etc. etc.) and gave me lots of wonderful stories and gossip about that time.

My feelings about agricultural Ireland certainly changed over the course of this process, largely because I hadn’t realised just how murky certain aspects of it were, at least back then. The dodgy deals; the tax evasion; the elaborate scams to avoid and exploit the various EU tariffs – obviously they weren’t all at it, but the ones that were were pretty elaborate in their schemes. It was like the bloody mafia! All of this gave me such wonderful fodder for the novel – that’s what’s so great about research, to be honest. Yes it’s important in terms of accuracy and authenticity, but so often real life is even madder than what you might invent, so I kept discovering absolute nuggets of gold to include in the book. For example, after British beef was banned internationally, which obviously meant Northern Irish beef too, some farmers started smuggling beef and cattle south over the border to try and pass it off as Republic of Ireland (i.e. uncontaminated) stock. But the smuggling got so prevalent that the army ended up having to come along and actually barricade the entire border shut – and this still right at the tail end of the Troubles. The official name for that army operation was ‘Project Matador’. What a gem! You literally couldn’t make it up.

I’m fascinated by those threads of Irish history, the ones that have repercussions which echo deep below the surface. It seems to me like the Ireland of The Butchers is not just one in which rural life is changing, but one in which society as a whole seems to be moving towards a broad liberalisation. Recently I asked author Helen Cullen how she approached these changes in her novel The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, and if I may I’d like to put the same question to you on The Butchers. I feel in both novels that the signposting of Irish history and culture implies mixed feelings, what I described to Helen Cullen as ‘a landscape of contradictions’. Does that ring true for you?

Oh, that’s a great phrase, and such a great book. I love Helen’s writing, and I think yes, she is also exploring the ways in which Ireland has, over the last few decades, both changed dramatically and, in some ways, stayed the same. This tension – the explicit clash between tradition and modernity – was exactly what I wanted to explore in The Butchers, the original starting point for the whole thing, if you will. I also wanted to explore the way Ireland has always managed to hold competing faith systems side by side – like, on the one hand, obviously the Church has been such a dominant presence, but at the same time, people have always been very superstitious and, in many regions, have clung to these almost pagan beliefs and rituals. Many see no issue, for example, with being a devout Catholic and also believing in the Fairies – it’s fascinating! I was curious to examine that duality up close. And yet, of course, as soon as other external faiths or belief systems come along, there is immediate scepticism. It’s hard, because there seems to be so much momentum in recent years in terms of Ireland becoming a more liberal country – the abortion referendum, same-sex marriage – all this astounding, grassroots-led progress. And yet, we’re still uncovering the bodies of women and babies who suffered at the hands of the Church only a matter of decades ago. This culture of shame and silence; until we face up to the past we can never fully move forward.

Perhaps it’s a leap, but that idea really reminded me of another conversation, my chat with Ruth Padel around the mythological motif of the Minotaur, which has come up multiple times during these interviews and which I can’t seem to shake off my mind. It’s an image you use in The Butchers: the threat of the Minotaur as an obstacle to escape, as explored through Davey, a young man motivated by his own visions of autonomy and freedom. For me, and in tandem with Ruth Padel’s perspectives on civilisation, it seems as though we could equate the Minotaur with those pre-modern forces of superstition (as you allude to) that live under the surface of the novel. What’s your take on that? Is there something analogous between the twists and turns of the labyrinth, and modern Ireland in a state of change?

Oh, I love this – what a great analogy! I guess the main role of the Minotaur – and indeed, of all the Greek myths and legends that feature via Davey’s point of view – was to add yet another layer of superstition or belief into the mix. It’s kind of saying – look, we all know that the Ancient Greeks had these stories to try and help them make sense of the world, and now we have ours, and other groups have theirs. But what’s to say that yours is better – or any more ‘real’ – than mine? Why is Abram being tested by an angry Old Testament deity more acceptable than Prometheus being punished by the Gods? Why is a group of eight men wandering around Ireland killing cattle in a certain way any stranger, objectively, than not eating particular foods on particular days? I am not for a second undermining or belittling anyone’s creed – in fact, quite the opposite! – instead, I wanted to place all these contrasting versions and systems and stories side by side to show how they can all be true, all be sacred to different people at different times.

Before we close, I’d like to pull back to your ideas about Ireland. I’m curious as to how you view the political changes which are bringing divisions at the borderlands back under the political spotlight. Just recently, the UK government announced their plans to abandon prosecutions for Troubles-related murders, something that will no doubt spark controversy and possibly violence in the coming months. After so much progress, how does it feel to see tensions beginning to flare? And how might writers in Ireland and the UK help us deal as a society with the re-emergence of problems we had hoped were buried for good?

It’s strange, because when I was first working on the novel, people would ask me about it and I would give a brief summary and they would immediately say ‘oh, wow, the border counties? Oh, the smuggling of goods between the UK and Ireland? Oh, national identity? How very topical!’ Because at the time of writing, the news was full of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, so I assumed that, upon publication, those would be the kinds of conversations people would want to have around the book. But then of course, by the time The Butchers actually came out, we were right at the start of a global pandemic, so suddenly people were like ‘oh, wow, a widespread disease with an unknown source? A contrasting approach to how it’s being dealt with – and portrayed – in the UK and Ireland? How very topical!’ Suddenly the book had taken on a whole new resonance.

As you say, things have now evolved again, and in the wake of Brexit actually ‘taking place’, we are seeing a resurgence of tensions in Northern Ireland, and a so-called ‘sausage war’ between the UK and the EU. It’s fascinating to spot the echoes of what happened with BSE – even down to the media using those old photos of Boris Johnson with a link of sausages draped around his neck as compared to John Gummer back in the day posing with his daughter and a hamburger to try and convince people that British beef was safe / best. I guess to answer your question, though, I’m always a little wary of how writers can ‘help’ – I never see myself as any kind of sage or wisdom-dispensing seer – I’m finding the world as baffling as everyone else right now! But I do think we can at least foreground the cyclical nature of things, the precarity of peace. As a society, we seem to have such short term memories, so maybe by simply telling and retelling these stories we are less likely to forget and make the same mistakes all over again.

Ruth Gilligan is a writer and academic from Dublin now based in the UK. She has published five books to date and was the youngest person ever to top the Irish Bestsellers’ List. Her most recent novel, The Butchers, (published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US) is a literary thriller set in the Irish borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis. Ruth holds degrees from Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter. She contributes literary reviews to the Irish Independent, Guardian, TLS and LA Review of Books. She works as a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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