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NYIA The Brother’s Lot
My father attended a Christian Brothers’ school beside the Black Church. If you run around the Black Church three times at midnight you’ll meet the devil, they say. One entrance was on Paradise Place, a street that was still boarded up and garbage-ridden during the Celtic Tiger.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Oh, and they expelled him at thirteen, because he chose to play soccer – an English game – instead of Gaelic football. He – a snot-nosed slum kid – had just come second in the country in national exams, but had to go to work, and never got to college. That was Irish independence for you.
“Soccer,” Brother Kennedy tells one of the kids in Kevin Holohan’s marvelous new novel, The Brothers Lot, “Bloody vile foreign garrison game!”
Set in the Brothers of Godly Coercion for Young Boys of Meager Means, where Father Boland is convinced that something is amiss in the very walls of the building and where the retired “brudders” are stuffed in the attic, and where the pupils end up having to wear tally sticks around their necks to show how much they’ve sinned and how much punishment they’ll get, the novel mines the absurdity of the cruel Dickensian reality.
The school’s patron saint is the Venerable Saorseach O’Rahilly, whose figurines might promise a bloody miracle. Father Mulvey comes into investigate – the Vatican meets CSI:
“Father Mulvey pulled on his surgical gloves and moved carefully into the oratory …This could really be it. This could be the one that put him on the miracle map.”
Meanwhile the school has their annual O’Rahilly pageant, where the kids dress up and reenact his life, including the “pivotal” being tempted by whores scene:
“Get away from me, ye fallen women! Do not flaunt your shamelessness in my presence! Tempt me not with your sin!” bellowed Kelly, and flounced offstage, this time tripping and breaking the nose of Turlough Halpin, who was the only enthusiastic volunteer in the whole production and was playing the Pope.”
On the syllabus at the school is how to spot a Protestant, “The yellah skin, the eyes to close together, and the quarter-past nine feet,” and what soft hats not to wear:
“It may begin with soft woolly hats, but mark my words, it will not end there. Then there will be the trilby, the fedora, the soft slouch, or any number of feeble pieces of millenary, and before you know it, you will find yourself peering into public conveyances with lustful intent, and that way lies sickness and depravity and the path to Hell and damnation.”
The blessing of Flann O’Brien is on Holohan’s writing: the Brannigan Brothers, for instance, who reappear in different entrepreneurial guises through the novel are pure exuberant riffs on O’Brien. These seeming blue collar guys are actually more learned than the Brothers. At one point, as electricians, they’re called in to fix a clock:
“Time’s a quare thing all the same,” mused Lar.
“Like as the waves hasten toward the pebbled shore, so do our moments hasten to their end,” intoned Con.
“Ah, the bard. You can’t beat the bard.”
“Indeed and you can’t, Lar. Though there are some of Wyatt’s lyrics I’m partial to. They have a Petrarchan quality to them. Very sophisticated for their time.”
They’re told to shut up and get the “clock lads” to look at the broken clock, “Horologists, they’re called,” noted Lars.”
O’Brien, of course, put his masterpiece The Third Policeman in a desk drawer in 1940 knowing it would never get past the Irish censors with its suggestion of a non-religious (and certainly non-Catholic) hell. It would only be published posthumously almost thirty years later.
Holohan is luckier; The Brother’s Lot comes out at a time when shocking things are happening in Irish life, like the Taoiseach criticizing the Vatican, and when, finally, a real reckoning seems to be coming.
Brother Boland is right to be checking those walls.
The beauty of Holohan’s prose, with its Gothic, Castle of Otranto-ish narrative, sucks you in and makes you laugh out loud. Reading it on the train, a woman beside me started talking to me because I was trying not to laugh too out loud. She was going to a night shift at Sing-Sing and told me about all the classes the prisoners could take. That’s great! I said, but realized she thought it a horror and she laughed, thinking I was being sarcastic.
But, in the end, the mind is its own place (as Milton’s Satan says), and the grand irony was that while the Church’s sadistic attempts at indoctrination (its little archipelago of Sing-Sings) led to abuse it also led to fine rebellions against it. Holohan’s novel is one of them.
Dad went on to play for Shelbourne F.C, one of the best teams in the Irish league. When we asked our portly, balding Dad why he gave up soccer, he’d say, “Ah, women and drink.” Then, after a pause, “And rock n’roll.”
There were some things the Church couldn’t touch.
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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts