Thanks to Barry Houlihan (no relation) for this thoughtful review at Staged Reaction
“For all the kids who never got a chance to answer back” reads the dedication in The Brothers’ Lot, the debut novel from Kevin Holohan.
Set in Dublin sometime during the 1950’s or 1960’s, this was a time when Ireland and its social, moral and physical attributes were not so much guided as forcefully pushed into being by the byword of the Catholic Church. Constitutionally and personally, those in charge handed the most vulnerable and needy of children into hands that were most certainly unqualified to care for them. Such was the life for the children-turned-inmates for the school for “young boys of meagre means” run by the Brothers of Godly Coercion and housed at the dead-end of Greater Little Werburgh Street, North.
Holohan’s depiction of life behind the walls and fences in this school is devastating while also darkly comic. It is a world of tally sticks, novenas, Latin grammar and rote-learned lessons doled out to the children via the leather strap, a fist or a boot as much as they are through the considered teachings of the Brothers. At times it can read with shades of Mannix Flynn, Frank McCourt or Flann O’Brian. It is no direct memoir, but still a fictional account of a world all too familiar to those who were schooled in Ireland at this time.
The Brothers range from those who are closet alcoholics, to those who are more blatant sadomasochistic and to others who disturbingly eat the very words of profanity they ripped from books in a sort of act of cleansing and also censorship. Always the threat of violence and also abuse hangs over the school, never more evidently than when Brother Moody arrives and takes up a post, having come from a post in DrumGloom IndustrialSchool.
The imagery skilfully wrought out by Holohan echoes so much of how Church teaching – and misinterpretation of this teaching, coupled with inefficient monitoring from State bodies allowed such systems to remain in place in these schools and also residential schools. The school building itself is a crumbling wreck, symbolic for the Catholic Church as a whole, left without maintenance it has fallen to rack and ruin – physically, spiritually and morally. As was declared toSt.Peter: “Upon this rock I shall build my church” – On Greater Little Werburgh Street, North, this ‘rock’ was condemned before the school was even built. The band of workmen who came to ‘inspect’ the property were ran-off the premises in a frantic panic by the Brothers in case they prevented the school from cashing-in on ‘miraculous events’ and other interventions by the spirit of the order’s founding Brother; the Venerable Saorseach O’Rahilly.
Holohan’s prose is delicately arranged and he always in control of the tone and level of anger expressed. The book is no anti-clerical rant and Holohan never allows to be a personal crusade but rather an expression of the mood of the nation in trying to grasp an understanding of what happened to so many of the country’s youngest citizens.
Saying all this, the Brothers’ Lot is also genuinely hilarious in parts. Holohan’s characters, from the children to the exasperated janitor do highlight that humour and wittiness of the soul is not so easily extinguished. Finbarr, the Cork boy who moves to Dublin to this alien world with his family is, often like the reader, looking at life inside such schools for the first time. Holohan also highlights a touching reference to those girls who also suffered in residential laundries and I believe readers of all ages will take much away from reading this story. The Brothers’ Lot is a delightful book that will raise laughs, tears and grimaces from readers, and all in quick succession. It was submitted for the Guardian First Fiction Award and is published in paperback by No Exit Press.
There is an interview with Kevin Holohan on Writing.ie here and there also copies of The Brothers’ Lot up for grabs.