So very appreciative of this considered review in this
weekend’s Irish Times:
Finbar battles the Brothers grim
Sat, Aug 13, 2011
FICTION : The Brother’s Lot, By Kevin Holohan, No Exit Press, 320pp. £7.99
WHEN THE FLOODGATES finally opened in the early 1990s, the murky torrents swept across this country, permeating our national consciousness and gradually washing away the shaky moral foundations upon which we stood. With each new report the grim facts of institutional abuse cast a longer shadow over Ireland’s past as our view of who we were becomes intrinsically linked to the Celtic Gulags that blighted the Irish landscape, physical and psychological, throughout the 20th century. If Enda Kenny’s impassioned speech to the Dáil last month confirmed where we now position ourselves, as a state and as a people, in relation to religious authority, Kevin Holohan’s darkly comic satire returns us to a time when this authority, in all its brutal ferocity, still reigned supreme.
This assured debut is the tale of Finbar Sullivan, a fish-out-of-water Cork youth, whose family move up to Dublin in the wake of his brother’s girlfriend’s pregnancy and subsequent abduction into the black hole of the Magdalene Laundry system.
Enrolled in the gleefully named Brothers of Godly Coercion School for Young Boys of Meagre Means, Finbar soon finds himself pitted against a hissing, bile-spitting rogues’ gallery of extremist Brothers, hell-bent on crushing the spirits of their mischievous charges by any means necessary.
While learning the ropes from class clowns Scully, Lynch and McDonagh, whose creative techniques for frustrating class progression are nothing short of inspired, Finbar attempts to fly under the radar of Head Brother Loughlin and his horde of cassocked underlings.
The day-to-day rituals and recitations of life in such an institution are given just enough of an absurdist tweak to render them wholly ridiculous, yet instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent time under the thumb of such guardians of moral rectitude. The monotonous drone of daily Irish prayers becomes an opportunity to sound off as much puerile gibberish as humanly possible, while an attempted PE class descends into a furious tirade against the evils of foreign games and the sanctity of Gaelic football above all else.
Inevitably any and all deviation from the Brothers’ divine curriculum is met with a swift leathering and a colourful shopping list of put-downs. Indeed some of the most hilarious of this book’s wealth of comic moments are to be found in the clash between the Brothers’ fire-and-brimstone linguistic dexterity, and the feigned ignorance of messers McDonagh, Scully and Lynch as they attempt to burn down every class through self-immolation.
Holohan’s ability to write the kind of free-flowing naturalistic dialogue that so potently conveys the anarchic spirit of schoolboy warfare – and as the Brothers themselves become more and more unhinged, a war is truly what is ignited – is grounded by a shadow play of macabre references to horrors that ghost around the edges of the narrative, many eerily similar to some of the more infamous real life reports that have emerged in recent years. Chinese whispers of teenage suicide, muffled comments in the confession box, half glimpses into the steam-veiled “Jezebel” laundries – all hint at underlying realms of depravity that are beyond even the solace of POW camaraderie that sustains Finbar and his motley crew.
Reminiscent of not just the verbose satirical creations of Flann O’Brien, a clear stylistic influence, but also of the wish-fulfilment revenge fantasies of Quentin Tarantino, this is a world where the cruellest, most unapologetically sadistic Brothers receive their comeuppances through a violent, poetic purging of the school; where noble-minded lay teachers rise up to defend their hunted pupils and publicly condemn their tormentors; and where the Irish government becomes an active, investigative force for modernity and reform. Our knowledge of just how far removed these historical amendments are from the chilling findings of the Murphy, Ryan and Cloyne Reports adds a level of quiet sorrow to the story’s uplifting conclusion.
Dan Sheehan is a freelance journalist. He edited the 2010 collection Icarus: 60 Years of Creative Writing from Trinity College
© 2011 The Irish Times