THE BROTHERS’ LOT
320pp. No Exit Press. Paperback, £7.99.
978 1 842435052
TLS – August 5th 2011
Reviewed by Lucy McDiarmid
“Go serve your mass but don’t hang around with the priest.” So Diarmuid Martin, the current Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, was warned by his mother when he was a young altar boy. These days, ‘ a parental warning could be supplemented by a considerable Irish literature of clerical abuse – poems, memoirs, histories, films, official reports, novels.
The Brothers’ Lot, Kevin Holohan’s first book, is one of the best of these: it is a witty, brilliant, devastating expression of outrage. Set sometime in the 1960s or 70s, it tells the story of a moribund Catholic boys’ school in north Dublin built on a “lot” that is condemned before its owners understand why. As the boys are treated to increasingly vicious beatings and unjust punishments by the Brothers of Godly Coercion, the monastery and the attached school building collapse in a slow architectural apocalypse: slates fall off the roof, the clock stops, the electricity fails, walls crash, pipes burst, the bell tower twists and falls. Anxious, harmless Brother Boland hears “the weeping in the walls” and he senses “the fear in the bell tower”. None of the others notices: not Brother Kennedy, who beats the boys so fiercely that he suffers a heart attack; not Brother Loughlin, who fakes a miracle on behalf of the order’s founder, the Venerable Saoirseach O’Rahilly; not the alcoholic paedophile Brother Cox, who dresses for the founder’s feast day in ‘a costume that was somewhere between Henry VIII and an Edwardian pimp’; and not Brother Tobin, who reads books such as Where the Trade Winds Call Love in order to cut from the page, and eat, the offensive words: “breast”, “corset”, “moist buttocks”.
While the Brothers try to keep their edifice standing and get their miracle validated, the “young boys of meagre means” mobilize to defy their authority. Among the students pitted against the Brothers are the delinquent rebels Scully and McDonagh, the simple Maher who confesses “I took the name of the Lord in vain and I let the parish priest put his mickey in my mouth”, and polite, observant Finbar Sullivan, a “cu!chee” and “bogman” newly arrived from Cork, whose behaviour deteriorates as he comes to understand the extent of the school’s moral corruption.
With a steady control of tone, Holohan, a Dubliner who is now living in Brooklyn, manages to make a book about cruelty funny, but not too funny. A story like this one could easily turn into sentimentality or polemic, a therapy session or letters to the editor; in weaker hands, the narrative might offer only hackneyed replays of Joyce’s pandybat episode. But this novel is so subtly imagined, so elegantly structured, written in such hilarious prose but with such horrifying details, that what it offers is an overpowering, visionary judgement on a society. The publisher’s blurb invokes Flann O’Brien, Monty Python and Kingsley Amis, but the novel ‘s vision is also close to that of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy: it reveals the damages inflicted by Ireland’s “institutions of containment”, but unlike The Butcher Boy, it shows a little post-apocalyptic recovery.
The Brothers’ Lot is not anti-Church or anti-religion; Archbishop Martin himself might find it sympathetic. The epigraph from Matthew 25:40 provides the spiritual value lacking in the school and in the Brothers: “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me”. Matthew, in fact, is the name of one of the Brannigan Brothers, a mysteriously reappearing crew of workmen (a better kind of “brothers”) who cheerfully determine that the monastery’s physical plant is unfixable. Other names suggest that possibilities of renewal exist already within Irish traditions. Matt’s helpers are Lar and Con, whose names link them with the Irish labour leaders Larkin and Connolly. The new owners of the lot are “Fionn and Patrick Sweeney”, whose names suggest earlier, purer forms of State and Church. Finbar is named after the patron saint of Cork. The presence of these names, as well as the justice of the buildings’ collapse, hint at the novel’s moral universe. At the end, a sign hung on the railings announces that “planning permission” has been granted, and Fionn and Patrick will soon build “a storage and warehouse facility” on the Brothers’ lot.