The Headmaster's Ritual
This dictated piety is constructed as the Brothers, and their opportunistic Diocesan Investigator of miracles, Fr. Mulvey, seize their chance to save the lot from demolition by builders. The Brothers seek to cash in with relics after a supposed miracle witnessed by one of their more mentally feeble members occurs on the crumbling site. They hasten to credit their Order’s founder, the Venerable Saorsach O’Rahilly, whom they wish to advance to sainthood.
The Venerable Saorsach’s life, commemorated on his death day yearly in a dreadful school pageant, earns its cameo. We watch as enacted by sullen students the story of his stereotypical life. We see his pious mother’s demise after her son runs off to sea and her bag of gold meant for the leprechauns to ransom him is stolen, Saorsach’s rejection of “harlots” dressed as third-year students in old kitchen rags which “would not have tempted the most starved lothario”, and finally his “dementia and death from something that very much resembled syphilis but was referred to as a ‘fever’”.
This endless ritual, Holohan’s omniscient narrator tells, “flapped its leaden wings on the first stage of its long flight toward lunchtime”. Often, the author opts for this elevated tone, which may seem either subtly overwritten in the style of too earnest a teller or intentionally pitched for the satirical mood which Flann O’Brien favored. “Around the whole school the desultoriness of last class gasped its way toward the final bell”. The radio news with its “quotidian normality clashed horribly with the laden silence oozing out of the oratory”.
Finally, the whole building nears its end. While this escapes the realistic bounds of what might be expected on a day class is still in session when the school’s been falling apart, and fatally on top of some Brothers, Holohan describes the weighty scene: “Every weakness, every crack and fissure, every stress point and loose shingle had only to will itself and it could put an end to its sorry lot of bearing witness to the daily enactment of a vision twisted and thwarted that now blighted everyone and everything in its ambit”. Meanwhile, under the tension of the Brothers who scurry for proof of their miracle, an inspection team arrived to survey the curious situation, and the growing anarchy among the students, a “big blackout”, a mass refusal to cooperate, breaks out among the boys. “Every imaginable annoyance was brought to bear in one united front of provocation”.
The novel concludes with an island-wide rebellion as the very institutions give way and their lunatic keepers turn their own incarcerated, doomed victims within the walls they have erected to lock up sinners and somehow keep out sin from infecting themselves or the rest of Ireland. It’s a metaphorical end to the story which Holohan builds up as an indictment of the Irish nation’s cynical republicanism built on a corrosive clerical power and a crony-ridden leadership which refused to honor its own ideals.
Holohan shifts his narrative, from where I expected it to settle, on Finbar Sullivan, a boy newly arrived from Cork coming in to the school. Instead of a following a conventional way into the school, through a newcomer’s eyes, the novel refuses to settle. It roams from the Brothers, to Fr. Mulvey, to the parents and—more briefly—the inspectors and builders and bureaucrats. The shifts in tone and indirect narration via the omniscient voice may surprise those looking for a lighthearted romp. This novel, using clever dialogue and outlandish names, disguises but does not deflect its serious intentions.
It may demand closer attention, and it may force the reader to examine how everyday complicity works to poison pure intentions. This refusal to stick with one perspective characterizes the author’s approach towards a sensitive subject. To address a topic as painful as clerical abuse abetted by state collusion and lay cowardice, he opts for passages of pain alternating with those of play. The novel grows grimmer as it continues, yet Holohan’s honesty forces him, as we who read it, to question our own participation and reactions to similar situations, however obliquely conveyed, that confront us.
Upon this ethical foundation for an entertaining tale, Holohan follows a satirical tradition which questions authority, undermines cliché, and upends the social order. Reading “The Brother’s Lot, I thought not only of Flann O’Brien and Kafka but of another Dubliner, Jonathan Swift. He constructed his own moral tales inflating the small and deflating the large, while working at a splendid church across the Liffey River, on the nicer side of the city. Not far from where sometime late this past century, this school of Godly Coercion is said to have risen and fallen.