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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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 Brothers’ 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.