Akashic's former intern extraordinaire, Kyle McEnery
from Cork, Ireland, interviews Kevin Holohan,
author of THE BROTHERS' LOT
1. How similar was your school experience to that of the boys at the Brothers of Godly Coercion School for Young Boys of Meager Means?
To some extent it was similar. It was similar in shape if not in intensity. Corporal punishment was the norm. There were Brothers that you knew well to steer clear of lest you became a “favorite.” There were some decent folk among the staff but the overall sense of going to school was one of dread. I set the story in a secondary school to give more flexibility for the story of resistance to unfold but you have to remember that kids from the age of 6 were being educated in this same way. I came out of the whole machine literate and numerate but it really didn’t have to be so painful and dispiriting.
By the time I was in secondary school, the whole thing was beginning to fall apart but the vestiges of the real bad old days were still there. The Industrial Schools, Magdalene Laundries and the Reformatories were largely shut down but the recent specter of them still hung around and they were spoken of with fear. To tell the larger story, I conflated elements of the 40’s through the 80’s and set the Brothers’ Lot in a vague time period incorporating and heightening for satiric purposes elements of my own experience with stories from friends and family and history.
2. Finbar is typically more well-behaved than the other students. Is he based on you in any way, or would you say you were more of a troublemaker like Scully and Lynch?
Finbar is not based on me. He starts out good but is corroded by the treatment he receives and the environment he is in. I think I always wanted to be a tough kid like Lynch or a Scully but could never really pull it off. I hovered somewhere between the well-behaved and the troublemakers. I was more of the Scully perhaps, scutting on the back of trucks but secretly being scared of it with a little bit of McDonagh’s insouciance thrown in. I got into more trouble for being a smartass and not working.Some of the more decent souls who taught me used to get on my back for wasting my time and not working hard enough but by that time it was too late - school was what THEY wanted you to do and THEY had to be resisted. It was foolish and self-sabotaging but I think many of us felt that way.
3. The ending of The Brothers' Lot seems quite cathartic, especially for someone who was put through similar experiences. Is this something you have wanted to express for a long time, and how does it feel to have it out in the open?
This is something that was inchoate for a long time. The germ of it had been in the back of my head since the late 80’s.A dear friend of mine in Spain, one evening while were telling stories, told me of a new kid in his school in Dublin who, when one of the Brothers started having a heart attack and it looked like the rest of them were going to just let it happen, panicked and ran for help.What, I asked myself, did you have to do to basically decent 16-year-ld boys to make them so hardened? That question floated around in my head for years. Often I would talk with old school friends about how many of our cohort had underperformed academically and how even those who were successful often felt like undeserving imposters thorough years of being hit, shouted at, and belittled. The book really started to take shape in the late 90's when the church abuse scandals began to emerge and with them half-hearted apologies from some of the orders implicated.
So far the public reception has been very favorable, I have had several people in the US approach me after readings and tell me that they had gone through similar schoolings and felt liberated and in some way vindicated by having read the book. That was enormously gratifying and humbling.Similarly some of the reaction I have had from Irish people has been the same: people have found it cathartic. Some of it has been quite surprising like the mother of an old friend of mine, now in her 90’s who I myself would have been reluctant to give to book to, absolutely loved it and found it uplifting. With reactions like that my hopes for this book have been mostly met. My further hope is that it serves in some small way as a reminder to make sure similar stuff does not happen again, particularly the strange State/Church collusion that went on in Ireland. Everyone at Akashic was hugely helpful in helping me focus the story so that it struck a deft balance between being funny and serious without drifting into polemical preachiness.
4. Your views on a school system run by religious groups are made quite clear, but how do you feel about organized religion, especially Catholicism?
The Brothers' Lot is not a book about organized religion, nor about religious schools in general. I think it is more about one institutional manifestation of religion coupled with a peculiarly dark, almost Jansenist, view of human nature that festered in secrecy and unaccountability in much the same way that food in an unplugged fridge with the door closed will go rotten.
I think religion is a complex thing on both a personal and a public level. On a personal level I don’t care what anyone believes if it helps them get through the existential terror of a bewildering universe without damaging anyone else or imposing the nostra of their faith on anyone. It is the group think, and the dehumanizing of the “other” that is problematic.If the people who tie ribbons onto trees at dawn as part of their faith decide that the people who revere stone circles at dusk are wrong and must be obliterated, then that is a problem. Many times in history religion has been used as a pretext to set peoples against one another when it is was really for economic or political ends.
At the macro level, Catholicism, like any other religion, sets out an aspirational way of being in the world that in its essence is not necessarily bad. What centuries of power, politics and history might do to that initial impetus is a separate issue and one neither I nor The Brothers’ Lot attempt to tackle.
More specifically, there is a huge spectrum within the Catholic Church from liberation theology and those who dedicate themselves selflessly to caring for the sick, the marginalized and forgotten to the other extreme of those who committed physical and sexual abuse with impunity and the hierarchy who covered up for them. I do not feel it is my place to take issue with the entirety of organized religion. There are already many, many shrill zealots on both sides of the argument for and against religion and I don’t really want to join in.
5. The Brothers' Lot contains slang, language and references that areexclusively Irish. Have you found American readers experiencing difficulty or confusion with any of this?
I have not found that anyone has had any real problems with the slang or the references. I think from context they are mostly intelligible. One may not know the exact semantic field of “manky shite” but its gist is fairly clear. Many of the references are grotesques on existing placenames and the like that I think lend a fairly clear flavor: things like “the Oblates of the Impervious Heart of Herod” make their own point regardless of whether one knows that there really were similarly named entities. The one thing that some people have said would be nice is a pronunciation guide for some of the Gaelic so that they would know that Saorseach is “Seer shock” or Tiocfaid ár lá! Is “Chucky Oar Law!” so as to better hear the prose while reading. I have to wonder if there is some sort of prize for the contemporary novel for the longest continuous passage of Latin and if The Brothers’ Lot qualifies.