by Kevin Holohan
Despite being enjoyable, upsetting, disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny, the overwhelming emotion I’m left with after reading The Brother’s Lot is disbelief that such things could happen in a developed country in our times; that they did happen is now beyond doubt, a matter of documented history, the truly incredible part is that so many colluded with the perpetrators and enabled such cruelties to go on for so very long.
I loved the names, Our Lady of Indefinite Duration, the School for Young Boys of Meagre Means, the Brothers of Godly Coercion and the many strange rituals they use to turn their minds from sin – and there are many sins; proscribed, depraved activities with which ‘da Brudders’ have to abstain from each day, like the wearing of soft hats, the public fondling of young boys, the peering into public conveyances with lustful intent and the foreign evil of soccer.
The Brothers are a wonderfully drawn clutch of grotesques, ranging from the psychotically violent Brother Moody, the pragmatically vicious, ambitious Brother Loughlin, to gentler souls, driven insane by the strangeness of their lives like poor Brother Boland, who hears the crumbling walls speak to him, and Brother Tobin, who exorcises sin by carefully razoring out and eating the words of the softly pornographic novels he bribes boys to bring him from England, now that he’s been banned from the public library and his library card revoked.
The miracle alluded to on the cover-blurb plays only a small role in the actual plot which mainly concerns itself with the many mundane horrors the boys endure over the course of a school year – Not only boys, we get glimpses, too, into the harsh conditions endured by convent girls and those unfortunate enough to be sent to the ‘Jezebel Laundries’. It’s remarkable how much comedy Kevin Holohan manages to squeeze out of a situation that was about as far from funny as it’s possible to get. The comedy is the main reason to read this book, rather than any of the (many) misery memoirs that treat the same subject with the gravity it clearly deserves; no one watches Father Ted to learn about the Catholic clergy in Ireland – or maybe they do, and maybe they should? A lighter treatment and a fictional approach often says far more about reality than any number of darkly-lit and mournfully scored films and documentaries.
The plot of The Brothers’ Lot, such as it is, is surely not meant to be taken literally. Far fetched and comically exaggerated, it gets more than a little beyond belief at times. The ending, especially, in which everyone gets their just desserts, is a little pat, but it’s a small quibble and had little impact on my enjoyment of the book as a whole (which was mighty).