Promoted as a comic satire but often an ironic fable, Holohan’s debut excoriates the Catholic-run schools in a vaguely postwar Dublin. As a graduate of the Irish Christian Brothers’ schools there, he incorporates his own memories into the imagined re-creations of the abuse, mayhem, and foibles which characterized Irish education for most working-class boys. The Brothers, as the congregation is known in Ireland, have dwindled after their sometimes sadistic role in “industrial schools” as reformatories has become exposed in recent decades. But, as Kevin Holohan and his imaginary characters never forget, nobody in his novel is ignorant of the fate meted out to miscreants who report on their abusers. He embeds parallels to the real-life girls who, after delivering their illegitimate babies, find themselves referred to as numbers instead of names in the Magdelene laundries, here “Jezebel’s” workhouses for “Fallen Mothers”.
Such slightly exaggerated parallels speckle this story. For those familiar with Ireland, the novel’s allusions to its famine and its civil wars, alongside geographical and cultural referents, deepen with context. A playful yet wry tone resembles the satirist Flann O’Brien, as when a Fr. Mulvey, S.J. rides his bicycle into the plot. The industrial school lurks in Drumgloom; the Jezebel’s run by the Sisters of Forebearance near Dullow. Bishops of Dervish and Ossory, Cloynes and Bardgey, and Spokes and Duggery, or the place Knockpaltry-on-Fergus, sound plausible. Drimnagh’s orphanage run by the Oblates of the Impervious Heart of Herod reaches Monty Python’s heights of nomenclatural application.
This shift in names dominates the narrative. It enlivens its wit while sharpening its critique. Holohan strives to balance humor and dismay and The Brothers’ Lot shows his skill. As Paul Murray in his 2010 novel Skippy Dies did for today’s Irish secondary Catholic schools, struggling after scandals and secularism to survive as vocations dwindle and lay-teachers dominate the faculty, so Holohan does for the recent past. But then, legions of Brothers tyrannized the lot of those consigned to their care.
The term “lot” in the novel works three ways. Builders seek to take over the “lot” which for the Brothers of Godly Coercion’s School for Young Boys of Meager Means has supported a towering but ramshackle edifice for a century, founded to educate the humbler students for what one teacher predicts as “the lowest levels of the Civil Service or the Electricity Supply Board or the rare Gaelic football prodigy who might get slid into a sinecure at the bank”. Its North Dublin location represents a humbler status compared to the schools for the upper classes, as their rival visitor, a Jesuit superior, conveys in his tone, “with the assurance of one accustomed to never needing the imperative mode to have his bidding done”.
The “lot” of these lowly Brothers does not escape sympathy. They come from rural backgrounds, and they are tasked with trying to re-Gaelicize with football and leather straps a rabble of Dublin lads who resist their every dull lesson. The Brothers themselves may be recruited, orphans, or all but press-ganged as teenagers, the second son or the eighth. In Ireland, these boys did not inherit the farm but could earn an education and a sort-of sinecure in a job-starved Ireland. But, sinecure means “without worry”, while these Brothers do fret. So much that with their charges and among themselves, they reveal their lack of learning, their fear at being found out as less than masterful.
They whip and beat into their pupils, their own sorry “lot”, these deadened recitals of Latin, Gaelic, or geography by rote, as they teach to the state curriculum and its own pointless tests. Holohan sends up the mangled French and Irish articulated by recalcitrant or dull-witted students, and as for the Latin, a few samples from the Hail Mary convey the lighter tone that enlivens what can be a serious story. “Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus” transforms into a classroom chorus of “Ate Benny dicked us, fucked us, dangerous Twohey jaysus”. ”Ora pro nobis peccatoribus” translates as “Oh, rat, provo peck a Tory bus” .“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” turns “New kettle Nora, more tits no stray”.
But communal fear lashes out against such class-based frivolity, as the Brothers and (most of) their lay-teacher colleagues conspire to suppress any rebellion. This turns, as the novel’s course enters darker moods, into a rising death count and a massive cover-up. Symbolically, as the building begins to collapse, the novel depicts the doomed imposition of a sin-free school zone. “In the small shed Mr. Hourican was busy checking for sins of thought, deed, or omission, committed alone or with others, and on the far side of the yard stood Brother Walsh with what looked like a small pair of binoculars”.
Tally sticks must be worn by students; each sin earns a notch, with beatings accrued. No one is innocent, for no human equals Christ in perfection. Kafka’s penal colony may even stir within such episodes. “Yes and no had turned into equally wrong answers no matter what the question was”. This predicament hearkens back to the punishments inflicted on Irish-speaking students forced to learn English under the Crown: “for Irish people to use them on one another was vile and sickening in a deep, disturbing way”, comments the unseen narrator, filtered indirectly in Joycean manner here via Spud Murphy, one of the few lay-teachers who listens to his students. Holohan reserves his greatest contempt for the penalties and beatings meted out by lay-teachers, as they, unlike most of the Brothers, knew better: these teachers entered and left the schools to live each day out in the real world.