Monthly Archives: December 2012
Bitter feud between fellow Limerick men over destiny of ‘Angela’s Ashes’
One person will be spinning furiously in his grave at the unveiling of sculptor Seamus Connolly’s bronze bust of Frank McCourt in Dublin’s Writers Museum.
The late Richard Harris would not take kindly to the bronze veneration of his fellow Limerick man and Angela’s Ashes author alongside such a luminary as John B Keane.
If the Man Called Horse actor was still living and breathing in his £2,000-a-week suite in London’s Savoy Hotel he would mouth the words ‘chancer’ and ‘fraud’ before dissolving into mischievous laughter and decanting to the nearby Coal Hole pub for a foaming pint of Boddingtons ale.
The feud between the Hollywood actor and the Pulitzer-winning author of the prototype misery memoir was a gossip columnist’s dream. But, alas, Harris died in 2002 aged 72 and McCourt seven years later aged 78. So neither is on hand to badmouth each other.
To his dying day Harris was convinced McCourt had exaggerated his impoverished childhood on the banks of the Shannon. Before fame swept McCourt to riches and fame, Harris knew him as a thirsty New York lecturer he occasionally encountered when touring with his lucrative earner, the musical Camelot.
I had no idea of the antagonism when, as said gossip columnist, I had one of my regular encounters with Harris in the Coal Hole one afternoon in the late Nineties.
We talked rugby and drank Boddingtons.
At about 6pm he asked me to join him in his suite atop the Savoy where he was planning to watch the Sky transmission of a football match involving his beloved Chelsea.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” I explained. “I can’t, I’m going around the corner to Penguin Books where they’re having a party to celebrate the millionth copy of Angela’s Ashes in paperback. Why don’t you come?”
His demeanour changed dramatically. “Angela’s Ashes? Frank McCourt? Will he be there?”
“Of course,” I replied. “He has flown in from New York especially.”
Then Harris said: “You ask McCourt what happened to his mother’s ashes. I know he f**king lost them.
“When his mother died he hadn’t a bob to rub together. He wanted to ship her ashes to Limerick to be scattered over the family grave. I was touring in Camelot and helped him out with cash to pay for the shipping.
“Frank went to a cheap shipper in Queens and he lost his mother’s ashes. He f**king lost them. You ask him.”
We finished our drinks and agreed to reconvene the following week at the Coal Hole. I meandered to the Penguin HQ and glass of wine in hand gravitated towards McCourt. He was surrounded by the usual meteorites of literary female totty who looked at him with unrequited adoration.
I introduced myself. He was charm itself. Then apropos of nothing I asked: “Tell me Frank, what happened to your mother’s ashes?”
The transformation was instant and extraordinary. He grabbed me by the throat and pushed me up against the boardroom wall.
“Harris sent you,” he screamed. “Richard Harris f**king sent you. You tell Harris I found my mother’s ashes. You go and tell him that.”
Having upset the famous author I was asked to leave the soiree. A badge of honour in my profession, I was unfazed, though my neck was a little sore.
A week later over more pints of Boddingtons in the Coal Hole I told Harris that McCourt had tried to strangle me. He was helpless with mirth. He couldn’t stop laughing.
“He’s a f**king chancer. He made up his childhood and he lost his mother’s ashes. What a fraud!’
Then Harris died. And before McCourt joined him on the banks of the celestial Shannon I caught up with him at an Irish embassy party for his second last book Teacher Man (his earlier follow-up to Angela’s Ashes, Tis was described by one reviewer as Tisn’t).
He recognised me and had the good grace to apologise for grabbing me by the throat when I turned up as Harris’s unwelcome emissary at Penguin. “I can tell you now. Yes, we did lose our mother’s ashes. I had too much to drink in a Manhattan bar and we left them behind. . . but we did eventually retrieve them.”
I hope Harris has given him a good ribbing in Paradise.
Originally published in
Gerard J. Hannan
The sun falls on a small group of people standing around a grotto praying the Rosary and led by FR SIDD (45). Five noisy teenagers, four boys and girl, are playing with a football nearby. The priest interrupts the prayers and insists that the teenagers move away. The tomboy girl SARAH HARPER (15) sarcastically apologises and demands that the boys move away and they do. As the prayers continue the adults ignore the teenagers as they move up the country road toward a road level old stone railway bridge. The teenagers are soon at the bridge and still noisily playing.
The railway hand signal drops down. The teenagers fail to notice an old man walking with a large German shepherd dog approaching from nearby. The sound of the nearby train is deafening. Three of the boys jump on the bridge announcing that the air blowing up from beneath is ‘amazing’. SARAH with fingers in her ears laughingly jumps back from the wall. BOB MORIARTY (15) hugs Sarah and she jokingly jeers him for not standing on the bridge. The man with the dog is closer now and the boys remain standing on the bridge as the high-speed train passes underneath.
The old man and dog arrive on the bridge at the same moment as the train passes underneath the bridge. The dog, startled by the sound of the train, barks loudly and scares Sarah who leaps back from the angry barking dog. In her haste she loses footing and tumbles forward against DANNY MORIARTY (15) who then loses his balance and falls forward and down into the path of the high-speed train. The teenagers look on in absolute horror as Danny’s sudden scream abruptly ends. The dog continues barking loudly and the sound of the train fades into the distance.
Twenty five years later an Irish Catholic priest, Fr BOB MORIARTY (40) is alone in a barely furnished living room. By the side of the door there are a couple of small suitcases. On his table is an American travel book; beside it is a plane ticket. The radio is playing and he hears the presenter talking about abuse in the Catholic Church. He stands up and walks to the radio and abruptly switches it off. He starts to make himself some coffee and stares at a crucifix on the wall and whispers; ‘You may forgive them but I don’t’.
Suddenly the telephone rings and he answers it. The caller is SARAH HARPER (40). She tells him she urgently needs to see him and pleads with him to come visit her in Glen Oisin. Bob is hesitant to return to the village of his childhood. She insists it is urgent and he must come. Reluctantly he agrees to a fast visit that evening and explains he must come back to catch a flight. She thanks him and promises him she won’t keep him too long and they hang up. He pours himself coffee and stares out the window in silence.
A battered sign welcomes visitors to the village of Glen Oisin as Bob drives by. Bob parks his car and steps onto the empty street surveying the unchanged landscape of his childhood. He walks past the Grotto toward the Railway Bridge and stops for a moment to watch a train passing below. Suddenly he is a child again and he sees his Brother Danny looking over his shoulder and laughing then suddenly helplessly falling. A man’s voice wakes Bob from the momentary trance. ‘Hello Bob’, it is GARY MORIARTY (45), his older brother. He greets his brother and they hug.
The winter wind is howling around them as they approach a forsaken grave. Bob removes the creeping ivy to reveal the inscription DANIEL MORIARTY. He solemnly stares at the grave as Gary stands behind. They talk about Danny and reveal to each other that they both believe if Sarah had not overreacted to the dog the boy would still be alive. Gary reveals he never could forgive her for that. He tells Bob that Sarah was once his girlfriend but he finished it after a few dates because when he saw her all he could do was think of Danny.
As they walk towards the graveyard gates Bob tells Gary his reasons for returning to the village. Bob asks about his estranged father and Gary tells him that he has become worse since the death of their mother and he is now living in Cork. Gary asks his brother if he intends to take a break from the priesthood and Bob confirms that he just needs some time to reconsider his position and was going to spend a few months in America. Bob sits into his car and promises to meet Gary later at the local bar then drives off.
Bob arrives at Sarah’s home and knocks on the door. After a moment the door opens and Dr HENRY SMITH (60) greets Bob. They stand outside the door to speak and Dr. Smith informs Bob that Sarah has Cancer and is dying and it is only a matter of hours as she is heavily tranquilised on Morphine. He explains that she is distressed because her estranged son, BILLY HARPER (20), who departed for college two years earlier, has never once returned following ‘personal problems’. Sarah is hoping that Bob’s intervention could appease Billy and bring him to his mother’s deathbed.
Now indoors Bob, without hesitation, refuses to accept the futile mission based on past similar experiences that were unfruitful. He explains it would raise false hopes. The Doctor explains ‘you and I know that’ but asks the priest to be kinder to her and allow her to believe there is some hope. Bob agrees but explains that he would, when Sarah asks, agree to try but assures the Doctor that it would be futile as Billy, clearly knowing his mother is ill and not visiting, could not be influenced to act against his own will. Bob walks up the stairs.
Sarah is drowsy when Bob enters. She talks about her angry son Billy and weeps as she explains she has never revealed the father’s identity to Billy’s and this angered him. The pregnancy resulted from a shameful drunken night with a stranger. She tells Bob she loved his brother Danny and they had a teenage romance that still impacted on her life. Bob promises he will try locate Billy but needs a photograph. She produces one from under her pillow. He stares at it in shock. The boy is identical to Danny. Sarah has drifted back into a deep sleep.
Bob arrives at a small empty bar and orders a drink. As he sips it, an intoxicated and dishevelled man BARRY HARPER (42) enters and approaches Bob. The BARMAN (60) shuns Barry but relents at Bob’s behest. Barry tells Bob he met Gary who told him he was in town. Barry states his life is pointless and how he crumbled at the news of his sister Sarah’s terminal cancer. Barry recalls Danny’s death and his remorse at not being there to catch Danny as he fell and now he could not be there for his sister ‘as she falls’ too.
Both men move to a table in the corner to talk. Bob tries to convince Barry that he is not responsible for Danny’s death. Barry refuses to accept this. Barry admits dark depressions and cannot rid himself of the image of Danny falling from the bridge. He tells Bob he believes that he will carry vivid memories, remorse and guilt with him to his grave. No words from Bob can convince Barry who remains tortured as he departs the bar. The BARMAN tells Bob that Barry is forever angry and depressed and finding fault at life and is best ignored.
Gary enters the bar and joins Bob at the table. Bob tells him about Barry but he dismisses it as typical behaviour. They discuss Bob’s reasons for leaving the priesthood. Bob explains it is not at all the lifestyle he believed it would be. He states that he now believes that he misinterpreted a dream for the holy calling to the priesthood. He explains that all he seems to be doing is dealing with death in all of its manifestations. Bob finishes his drink and tells Gary he would be staying overnight at a nearby Seminary then leaves the bar.
Bob enters the church through a side door and walks to the altar. Standing alone at the foot of the altar in silent prayer Bob fails to notice an old priest FR SIDD (75) silently sitting behind him. Fr Sidd asks him why he is so troubled. Bob, at first shocked at the old priest’s presence, sits with him and explains that he was considering giving up the priesthood. The old man seems unsurprised by the revelation and explains that the problem was the lack of spiritual enlightenment but God would respond to a heartfelt appeal to provide this nourishment.
Both men begin to walk down the aisle. Bob then tells Fr Sidd of the task that lay ahead and how best to encourage Billy Harper to return home. The old priest has little advice. Fr Sidd tells him that truth will reveal itself when necessary and not a moment sooner but to try convince the boy to return to his mother using ‘whatever words God puts into your mouth.’ The old priest reaches into his pocket and produces a small statue of the Holy Mother holding a baby. He hands the statue to Bob and says ‘give Billy this’.
The next morning Gary is sitting alone in his office reading through some papers. Bob enters and bids him good morning. Gary comments that Bob does not look well and Bob admits that he spent the night awake and was too tired to drive to Dublin but wanted Gary to travel with him to meet Billy Harper. Bob takes the photograph from his pocket to show Gary. Gary casually looks at the picture and hands it back saying ‘I don’t need that, I know what he looks like’. Bob is surprised that Gary makes no further comment and they depart.
On the road to Dublin Bob tells Gary that that striking resemblance of Billy to Danny suggested Danny may be the father. Gary becomes somewhat suspicious and recalls the fact that Sarah never openly admitted to anyone who was the father of her child. He dismisses the possibility that Danny fathered the child because he died five years prior to Billy’s birth. Gary suggests perhaps Billy could be older than they knew. Bob is confused as to why Gary seemed oblivious to the possibility that he was the father. Bob challenges Gary on this but he denies any such possibility.
At Trinity College Bob and Gary make their way to the Dean of Arts Office. Gary produces his badge and the receptionist cooperates. She calls the Dean and within moments he hastily emerges from his office. He invites the brothers into his office. The men enter and take a seat as the Dean dials a number and asks to have Billy Harper sent to his office immediately. The Dean hangs up and offers coffee to the men while they wait. Bob explains to the Dean that Billy’s mother is dying and has requested to see her son one final time.
There is a gentle knock on the door and the Dean quickly opens it. BILLY HARPER (22) enters the room and he is a good-looking, well groomed, intelligent bohemian looking man that looks beyond his years. On seeing the three men he seems surprised but immediately recognises Gary and shakes hands with him. Gary introduces him to Bob as the Dean excuses himself from the room. Billy takes a seat and sits upright, arms folded, firm expression and asks has she died? Bob replies that she is still alive and explains the situation while Gary stands silently in the background.
Billy tells Bob that he has no desire to see his mother dead or alive. He explains that he left Glen Oisin behind him and is making his own life in Dublin and while he has forgiven his mother for past crimes he has not forgotten them. Bob tells Billy that he knows the source of his anger but if he really wants to find out who his father is then maybe now was the time to do it because this may be the last chance. Billy laugh’s loudly and asks do you really think this is about my father?’
Billy states that there is more to this than identifying an incidental stranger. He explains to Bob that his mother’s crimes are much more than just that. He explains that he gave his mother his full forgiveness for withholding his father’s identity from him but he now has no desire whatsoever to reunite with his mother. Gary interjects and asks Billy would he reveal the reason why this seemingly irreparable rift has come about. Billy rises from his chair in anger and announces he is Gay and had been rejected by his mother who totally refused to accept his sexuality.
Bob and Gary are driving home. Gary tells Bob that during his brief relationship with Sarah they were never intimate. Bob is angered by Gary’s denials and demands he stops lying. Gary becomes irate and verbally attacks Bob for running away clearly unable to cope with his brother’s death, his mother’s death and his father’s alcoholism. Gary blames Bob for leaving him to deal alone with these all these tragic problems. In the heat of the row neither brother notices that the car has drifted to the wrong side of the road and it suddenly impacts with an oncoming car.
When Bob wakes he finds he is upside down and face-to-face with his brother. Bob reaches forward to touch his brother’s face. Gary’s eyes are half open but Bob realises that his brother is dying. Gary apologises for losing his temper and tells Bob he trusts him more than anybody else in the world. In his final confession he insists he is not Billy’s father. Bob hears the sound of an oncoming ambulance and begins to give his brother’s last rites. After a few seconds of prayer Bob’s voice begins to fade and he slips into a state of unconsciousness.
In the dark of night the railway signal drops to warn of a forthcoming train. From beyond the old Stone Bridge the lights of the train appear in the horizon. A man steps up onto the wall on the bridge and hands outstretched in cruciform he awaits the train. The beams of light from the train shine on the face of the man and it is Barry Hanlon. Just as the front of the train approaches the bridge Barry closes his eyes, smiles and whispers Amen. Hands still outstretched he silently drops himself down into the path of the train.
Bob wakes up on a hospital bed and sitting beside him is Fr Sidd. The old priest asks him how he feels. Bob asks the priest what happened and Fr Sidd tells him that he had an accident with Gary who did not survive. Bob rises to get out the bed but the old priest tries to stop him. Bob insists that he is feeling okay and needs to get on his feet. Fr Sidd reluctantly relents and allows Bob to sit on the edge of the bed. Bob begins to weep and the old priest tries to comfort him.
Sarah Harper is alone, erratically breathing, on her bed as Dr. Smith enters the room. He stands beside her and leans forward to listen to her heart with his stethoscope. He notices a tear rolling down her face. She struggles to speak and asks him where is Billy? He tells her that her son is on the way. She smiles and asks should he lie to a dying mother. The Doctor smiles and tells her about his Hippocratic Oath and could not lie even if he really wanted to. He then injects her and tells her to try to sleep.
In the hospital Bob tells Fr Sidd that he must go to Sarah to inform her of events. As Bob dresses Fr Sidd offers him coffee and Bob accepts. Fr Sidd leaves the room. Moments later a Doctor enters the room and asks Bob to sit on the bed. The doctor sympathises with Bob on the death of his brother and informs him of the suicide of Barry Hanlon. Bob immediately falls apart and has to get away. He dashes to the main entrance. When outside he hails a taxi and instructs the driver to take him to Sarah’s house.
The taxi is outside Sarah’s home and Bob jumps out. He dashes to the door and knocks on it. A Nurse opens the door and Bob rushes in. She tells him that Sarah is dying and the Doctor is with her. He follows the Nurse upstairs and they enter Sarah’s bedroom. Dr Smith is sitting by the side of the bed. Bob sits on the edge of the bed and asks if she can hear him to gently squeeze his hand which she does. He tells her that he found Billy but he would not return. Sarah opens her eyes.
The room is empty with only Billy sitting on the edge of the bed holding Sarah’s hand. Her tears are flowing as she tells him she loves him and is sorry for hurting him. She stares at him and tells him he has Danny’s face and eyes. He kisses her on the forehead and tells her that he loves her too. He tells her that she is a perfect mother and to go now for her reward from God and to be with Danny, the true love of her life. She closes her eyes for a moment and reopens them.
Sarah whispers the word ‘absolution’ to Bob. He begins to pray and Sarah’s hand slips from his. Bob looks at her peaceful face. He finishes praying and stands up as the nurse lifts the white sheet over Sarah’s face. Dr Smith whispers she is at peace now as Bob silently walks out of the room. Downstairs he opens the door and steps outside. The sun is rising behind nearby trees and soft beams of light pour onto his face. He raises his hand and gently removes the collar from around his neck as he walks dejected toward the garden gates.
Inside the small country church the congregation are starting to depart to the sound of lone bell. At the foot of the altar there are three coffins. Bob, wearing a grey suit, white shirt and black tie, is standing there staring at them. Soon the church is empty and a group of men dressed in black, the undertakers, approach Bob and tell him that the time has come to bring the coffins outside. Bob asks for a few minutes alone and the undertakers walk away. Bob raises his head to see Fr Sidd standing on the steps of the altar.
Fr Sidd observes ‘I see from your attire that you have made your choice’ Bob hangs his head and remains silent. Fr Sidd tells him he is not listening to God. He explains that death is God’s way of speaking to mankind. When God takes a sibling he takes the past, when he takes a parent he takes the present, when he takes a child he takes the future. God has taken all three from Bob and left him with nothing. Fr Sidd explains that now Bob has been brought by divine forces back to a state of childlike grace.
Bob remains standing in silence. Slowly he raises his head to answer but Fr Sidd has left the altar. Bob turns, walks down the aisle to the church doors, he opens them and the blinding enters. He steps back away from the blinding light into the shadows. He watches the undertakers re-enter and begin to roll the three coffins down the aisle. From behind the sacristy door comes three priests in full vestments as they follow the coffins. The coffins are rolled outside and turned in three separate directions with each followed by one priest and small groups of mourners.
Nearby Sarah’s open grave Billy steps out from behind a large headstone. Behind him emerges an old man (MR. MORIARTY 80). Billy looks around and recognises him but tells him to go away. The old man listens as Billy speaks, ‘your real son needs you more than I do don’t abandon him like you did me’. Mr Moriarty tells Billy that he was conceived during Sarah’s relationship with Gary. He explains he loved Sarah but the romance was doomed because she shunned it and made him promise not to reveal himself and she would keep the secret from his wife.
Billy walks to the grave and places a flower on it. He makes his way to a nearby parked car. He sees Bob sitting alone outside the church. He approaches and calmly reveals that he always knew who his father was. He tells Bob he believes he is a true priest and that God had called him to Glen Oisin because he was needed. He tells him he is convinced that there is some higher power and that Bob had succeeded in showing him that his mother loved and protected him and others by keeping his father’s identity a secret.
Both men begin to walk to Billy’s car. Billy tells Bob that he had spoken to his father, many years earlier, and now, as he always did, he would continue to respect his mother’s wishes. As Billy sits into his car he tells Bob that ‘you are a messenger of God’ and to never doubt it. Bob puts his hand in his pocket and takes out the miniature Mother and Child statue that Fr Sidd had given him and places it into Billy’s hand whispering this is a gift from your mother. Billy looks at it, thanks him and departs.
Bob walks towards the church where Fr Sidd is standing at the door. Fr Sidd tells Bob he will soon retire. He tells him ‘it’s not a bad parish and the parishioners need a good priest’ and here would be the best place for Bob to continue his priesthood. Bob steps through the doors of the church and tells Fr Sidd there is nothing he would like more. Fr Sidd tells Bob that he has a christening in an hour and maybe he would like to do it. Bob smiles and agrees. The old priest closes the big church doors.
If you were tracking the news from Ireland over the past two weeks, you might have noticed the ironic coincidence of two stories. When the author of the international best seller “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt, died on July 19, the Irish press was as quick to praise him in death as it had been to condemn him a little more than a decade ago when he published his controversial memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. A few days after McCourt’s death, legislation came before the Irish Dail that would make acts of blasphemy a criminal offence.
When “Angela’s Ashes” appeared in print in 1996, McCourt’s depiction of his childhood in the slums of Limerick was a punch to the solar plexus of Irish respectability. The Celtic Tiger was then just rising with its promise of a new economically prosperous Ireland and was not amused by McCourt’s stories.
There were charges that McCourt fabricated or grossly exaggerated the facts. This struck me as a bit disingenuous. After all, Irish writers have a long tradition of stepping over a few facts when they get in the way of a good story. The real complaint against McCourt seemed to be: Why did he bring all this old stuff up now just when Ireland was promoting a new image?
The prophet has no honor at home award went to McCourt’s childhood hometown of Limerick. The money in Limerick was not on McCourt’s side.
“Particularly incensed,” one observer wrote, “were the citizens of Limerick who, by the late 1990s, had embraced the idea of Ireland as the Celtic Tiger and wanted only modernity, change and growth. Talks of typhoid, rats and outside lavatories were not welcome.”
By the late 1990s, Limerick was boomtown in the Irish equivalent “silicon valley.” A Dell Computer Plant opened in 1991 bringing more than 4,000 jobs to the city. Other hi-tech firms followed Dell’s lead. Johnson & Johnson opened up a facility in the city. By the time “Angela’s Ashes” was published, Limerick had already demolished its slum district — the “lanes” of McCourt’s childhood — and put in their place a park along the Shannon River and new office buildings.
Charges of lies and plagiarism
One of his fiercest critics, Paddy Malone, had been a childhood friend and neighbor of McCourt in the “lanes.” Malone ripped up a copy of “Angela’s Ashes” at a reading McCourt gave in Limerick, charging his one-time friend both with lies and plagiarism. The photograph on the back of McCourt’s book, Malone alleged, was his photo. The international film star Richard Harris, also a Limerick man, went to the town’s radio airwaves to charge McCourt with slandering not merely their hometown. Harris also attacked McCourt for slandering his own mother.
A popular Limerick radio host, Gerry Hannan relentlessly pursued McCourt’s case. Hannan may have had ulterior motives. He had written two volumes of memoirs about his own Limerick childhood that was much happier than McCourt’s.
I had only one encounter with Limerick’s anti-McCourt lobby. It didn’t happen in Limerick — a city I have only visited once and spent most of my time lost in traffic and asking for directions to another town. Far away from Ireland, my Limerick moment happened in the unlikely setting of Nebraska.
It was the summer of 1998, when the squabble over “Angela’s Ashes” was still in the literary news. Driving back to Minnesota after a vacation in the Rockies, I ventured into North Platte, bypassing the franchise land that has sprung up along the I-80 exits and heading into the now mostly forgotten town center.
A storefront sign read “Espresso and Irish Specialties.” Inside, I found a floor space from another era living out the last chapter in its retail life as a used books and furniture store. At the back of the store, a fountain counter featured espresso drinks, sandwiches and Irish trinkets. An older gentlemen stood behind the counter.
Overhearing his accent, I asked him: “So, if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”
“Limerick,” he replied with a brevity uncharacteristic of the Irish.
I couldn’t resist. “So,” I continued, “did Frankie McCourt make up all those stories?”
“Look at me!” He ordered. “How old do you think I am?”
“Middle sixties?” I guessed.
“That’s right,” he said. “And how old do you think Frankie McCourt is?”
“About the same.”
“That’s right. Same age, same Limerick, same time.” The man was visibly angry. “Now you tell me how could McCourt tell the world all those terrible lies about the Church and the priests?”
I changed the subject, asking if he had seen the beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception just across the state line in Kansas.
To make sense out of why so much vitriol had been poured on McCourt, I turned to St. Paul’s Jim Rogers, writer and managing director of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. Although Rogers has reservations about McCourt as a writer, he attributed the spitefulness of the critics to something other than literary standards.
“Angela’s Ashes” reaped for its author more than $8 million in international sales, a Pulitzer Prize and a box-office hit movie version. It’s hard not to be envious.
Rogers also sees a much more sensitive issue at play in the reaction to “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt depicted an Irish Catholic Church that did nothing to help to his desperate family. A priest literally slammed the door in the face of the young Frankie McCourt when he sought help. In the years of the Irish Free State and early years of the Republic of Ireland, a cash starved Irish government was all too eager to fob off on the Catholic Church the responsibilities for providing social services.
Although McCourt may have overstated his point, Ireland understated the Church’s failure in social policy. Rogers suggests that there’s a lesson to be learned here. “Ireland tried ‘faith based initiatives,'” he said, “and it didn’t work.”
What is more, in 1997 McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was the first in a series of messages about a trust betrayed by the Irish Catholic Church. In 1998 a story broke about the discovery of a mass grave of 133 young women unearthed when the Good Shepherd Convent was closed in Cork. The women were among the thousands of “Magdalenes.” These were young Irish girls committed to orphanages run by the nuns where the girls labored in the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Their crime was to have born a child out of wedlock or perhaps to have impressed a parish priest, teacher or family member as displaying a promiscuous personality.
The worst news was yet to come. This May a court-appointed commission released the Ryan Report, which documented an “endemic” culture of abuse and rape in Irish church-run orphanages. From the 1930s until the last facility closed in the 1990s, more than 30, 000 Irish children underwent detention in these facilities chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order. The testimony revealed how the crimes of abuse against the children were compounded by the complicity of politicians and church officials both eager to cover up the matter. The public testimony that accompanied would have made even McCourt wince.
In the 1930s, McCourt was probably only one step away from becoming one more statistic to appear in the Ryan Report.
Limerick has put aside its feud with McCourt. Its mayor wants to pay tribute July 20 to its most famous literary son by having his ashes spread across the Shannon and erecting a statue of McCourt to stand beside the city’s other most famous son, the actor Richard Harris.
Better rethink the latter idea. Harris and McCourt once got into a bar room brawl in New York. A “walking tour” of McCourt’s childhood neighborhood is one of the city’s major tourist attractions even if all the tour guide can show the tourists is where McCourt’s “lanes” stood before their demolition in urban renewal.
The city’s change of heart may be a sign that now that the ride on the Celtic Tiger is over, Limerick sees less of a need to disguise its history of poverty. Dell has announced plans to close its Limerick plant in 2010. Other hi-tech firms are following Dell’s lead. Familiar old stores are closing their doors. Unemployment today in Limerick is 14 percent and predicted to rise as high as 25 percent next year.
Maybe Limerick has decided in these hard economic times it makes no sense to knock McCourt. The “Angela’s Ashes” walking tour maybe the best thing going for the Limerick economy these days.
Meanwhile, the Irish Dail weighs the merits of a law criminalizing blasphemy. Somebody in Ireland must want legal protection in place in case McCourt embarrasses them by writing from the grave yet another volume of memoirs.
THE STING OF MEMORY
FRANK MCCOURT, AUTHOR OF “ANGELA’S ASHES,” IS BEING HONORED IN HIS HOMETOWN OF LIMERICK. BUT SOME LOCALS HAVE THEIR IRISH UP ABOUT MCCOURT’S RECOLLECTION OF GRINDING POVERTY IN THE CITY’S “LANES.”
By Fawn Vrazo
The Philadelphia Inquirer November 4, 1997
LIMERICK, IRELAND: Frank McCourt is back in Limerick, the city whose poverty he depicted so vividly in his best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes. It has not been the easiest of homecomings.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author cried last week on the stage at the beautiful new Limerick University. He was both overwhelmed and in a state of disbelief: The poor kid from Limerick’s slums was wearing a cap and gown, receiving an honorary doctorate as the city’s highest officials applauded him.
“It was very hard to get through that,” McCourt said after the ceremony.
The return home, which has McCourt staying in Limerick for two weeks as writer-in-residence at the university, has been difficult in other ways as well.
Around this west Ireland city, there are those who love Angela’s Ashes and those who hate Angela’s Ashes and many who love it but feel its compelling tale of excruciating Limerick hardship in the 1930s and ’40s was an exaggeration that goes somewhat beyond the truth.
McCourt has come in for criticism and re-evaluation here, and not only from boosters whose civic pride has been wounded by his searing recollections of dying babies, starving children and cruelly indifferent neighbors and kin.
“It’s good, but it isn’t all right. You know it was overdone,” said Eric Lynch, who grew up with McCourt on the poor “lanes” of Limerick and was a classmate with him at the Leamy National School. “But that’s what a writer does,” added Lynch, who remains a close friend.
The book’s “forensic evidence, so to speak, doesn’t add up,” said Jimmy Woulfe, deputy editor of the Limerick Leader newspaper. Still, Woulfe added, that should not “cloud the reality this was a magnificent piece of literature.”
Not all of the criticism has been that polite. One Limerick resident, Paddy Malone, a childhood friend of McCourt’s actor-brother Malachy McCourt, ripped the book into five pieces and threw it on the floor in front of McCourt when the author was here last summer for a book signing.
More recently, threatening letters were received by Limerick University officials after they announced their plans to honor McCourt. Extra security – in the form of two beefy security guards in plaid sport coats – was in evidence last Tuesday when McCourt received his honorary degree.
McCourt dismisses the book’s criticisms with firm scorn.
The complaints are “peripheral,” he said last week. “It has nothing to do with me. You write a book, and that’s it. It’s gone.”
But the 67-year-old McCourt, a longtime New York high school teacher with white hair and a pale, delicate face, concedes that Angela’s Ashes is “a memoir, not an exact history.”
“I’m not qualified to do that,” he told the audience at his doctoral degree ceremony.
He has admitted one error. In the book, childhood classmate Willie Harold is depicted walking to his first confession while “whispering about his big sin, that he looked at his sister’s naked body.’
‘ The problem was that Harold did not have a sister, and last year the by-then aging and cancer-ridden Harold approached McCourt at a book-signing event to point out the mistake.
“I settled that with him,” McCourt said last week. “[Harold] said, `I’m in bad shape, I don’t have any money, could you give me a book?’ ” Of course, said McCourt, and he did. If McCourt thought this was in any way an inadequate gesture to a sick, wronged friend, he did not indicate it. Harold has since died.
Chief among the contentions of critics here is that McCourt simply could not have had as poor a childhood as his book relates.
In a famous opening passage of Angela’s Ashes, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography, McCourt writes: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly wort h your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
In the 426 pages that follow, McCourt describes a childhood of harrowing destitution. The chief cause is the alcoholism of his father, Malachy McCourt, a Catholic from Northern Ireland who settled in Limerick with his wife and McCourt’s mother, the former Angela Sheehan of Limerick, after the McCourts moved to Ireland in the 1930s from New York.
While Malachy drinks away the family’s few dollars or pounds, a despairing Angela huddles in a bed or dazedly smokes cigarette after cigarette. McCourt’s beloved and weak baby sister, Margaret, dies at seven weeks in New York; his twin brothers Eugene and Oliver die from apparent pneumonia as toddlers in Limerick; McCourt himself nearly dies of typhoid fever; his first young lover, a Limerick girl, dies from the tuberculosis that is raging through the city at the time.
The McCourt children survive on sugar water, soured milk, boiled pigs’ heads and occasional handouts from relatives and shopkeepers, while confronting bone-chilling winter cold and attacks of bed fleas. In school, McCourt and his classmates, some of whom go shoeless in the winter, are beaten relentlessl y with canes by their teachers.
Reviewers swooned when the book was released, and readers worldwide have kept Angela’s Ashes at the top of best-seller lists for more than a year. “Outstanding . . . a bittersweet and grimly comic narrative of growing up dirt-poor in rain-sodden, priest-ridden Limerick,” wrote reviewer Boyd Tonkin of the New Statesman.
But was it really that bad? Gerard Hannan, a Limerick bookstore owner and radio broadcaster who has written a rebuttal to McCourt’s book, says that McCourt created “sort of an illusion of Limerick” that ignores the fact that the people of the city’s impoverished lanes on the north side of town banded together to share food and give each other support. “I felt he totally ignored the sense of community among the people,” said Hannan. Hannan’s own credibility is being questioned in Limerick, though, since his rebuttal book is called Ashes and has become quite a local best-seller by riding on the coattails of Angela’s Ashes’ success. But criticism of McCour t’s book is being raised by others as well. “Is this the picture of misery in the Lanes?” said a Page One headline last week in the Limerick Leader. Beneath it, there was a picture of McCourt in the 1940s, smiling broadly and wearing the neat uniform of the St. Joseph’s Boy Scout Troop.
McCourt does not mention in his book that he was in the Boy Scouts, local critics note, nor does he explain how his poverty-stricken mother, now deceased, still found money to send him to Irish dancing lessons, and to buy packs and packs of cigarettes.
His now-deceased father, Malachy, is depicted in the book as being scorned by local employers because of his Northern Ireland accent. But in fact he was given what were considered then to be prime jobs at the city’s cement factory and flour mill, Leader editor Woulfe observed. McCourt does write about those jobs in his book, noting that his father lost both of them because of drinking.
“Most people would salute the [university’s] acknowledgment of Frank McCourt while some of his peers who live in the lanes dispute the level of poverty – he seems to be just one of the boys,” said Woulfe. The Leader, though, has strongly supported Angela’s Ashes in editorials.
McCourt said in an interview that not only was his childhood as hard as his book says, “it was harder. It was harder. My brother [the younger Malachy] said I pulled my punches. I was moderate. And who would know? How can you tell another person’s [life], especially with an alcoholic father and a mother worn out from child-bearing?”
Appearing Wednesday at a creative writing workshop sponsored by the university, McCourt observed that his book is a memoir, “and a memoir is your impressions of your life, and that’s what I did. There are facts in there, but I excluded other things.”
Among things excluded from the book, said McCourt in an interview, were accounts of sexual abuse by a local priest. McCourt alluded, without elaboration, to himself and other Limerick boys being “interfered with, as they say” by a priest returning from an overseas mission.
But “I didn’t want to write that,” said McCourt, “because it’s standard now” to blame one’s adult problems on having been sexually abused.
McCourt bears no ill will toward Limerick, a city he describes as “beautiful.” He said he plans to help both the university’s outreach program to the children’s poor and the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, which rescued the poor young McCourts many times with handouts of clothes and furniture and food.
But as for the criticism of Angela’s Ashes, McCourt said, it’s just “all kinds of sniping. I think nothing of it.”
ANGELA’S ASHES’ AUTHOR FINDS FOES, FRIENDS IN LIMERICK
By Kevin Cullen
Boston Globe Staff October 29, 1997
LIMERICK, Ireland — When he came back to this city that he hates, loves, and can’t get over, Frank McCourt brought along his three brothers because, as he put it, “In Limerick, you’ve got to watch your back.”
McCourt, whose memoir of growing up destitute here, “Angela’s Ashes,” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, returned yesterday to the city he has made famous to receive an honorary degree and take up his post as writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick.
But while McCourt’s poignant, unflinching account of how poor people were marginalized by the wider society and humiliated by the Roman Catholic Church is as wildly popular in Ireland as it is in the United States, there are some here who do not share the enthusiasm for a book that has s old more than 1 million copies worldwide.
It wouldn’t be Irish if there wasn’t a split, and the split here is between those who see “Angela’s Ashes” as an exaggerated, mean-spirited attack on the city and its people, and those who embrace the book’s art, humanity, and the attention, whether good or bad, it has brought Limerick.
Long derided as a backwater, and more recently as “Stab City” for its rough neighborhoods like Southill, Limerick has always had something of an inferiority complex. But as this city of 150,000, like the rest of Ireland, undergoes an economic renaissance, some people bitterly resent the image McCourt has presented to the rest of the world.
Gerard Hannan, who runs a bookshop here, has written what he calls “the other side of the story,” an account of those who grew up as poor and as disadvantaged as McCourt but who look back on those days fondly. Hannan claims McCourt embellished much of the misery contained in “Angela’s Ashes.” His literary retort to McCourt’s book is one of his own called “Ashes,” a title that he says, with something less than conviction, was a coincidence. Hannan’s book, which he published using his own money, is a view of Limerick through glasses far more rose-colored than McCourt’s.
“I loved `Angela’s Ashes.’ It was beautifully written,” Hannan says, sitting in the lounge of the Castletroy Park Hotel, just yards from where McCourt was celebrating yesterday with friends and family. “The problem with it is that it’s just one side of the story. Frank Mc Court had a miserable life. Lots of people grew up under the same conditions and don’t consider their lives miserable.’
Hannan says McCourt gets Limerick wrong. For example, McCourt ends his book with the single word “T’is” on the last page. Hannan says real Limerick people would say “T’was.”
It was inevitable, McCourt says, the confrontation between him and those who took his book the wrong way. “Begrudgers,” he says. “What would Ireland be without them?”
Everything is personal in this town. Hannan is angry that McCourt’s brother, Malachy, dismissed him as being from “the lower orders.”
“Do the McCourts know that I am a direct descendant of Bridey Hannan, who saved the life of Michael McCourt, Frank McCourt’s brother, as he was choking, something Frank McCourt writes about in his book?” Hannan asks.
The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, has made disparaging McCourt a regular feature. Over the weekend, it published a half-page of pictures showing McCourt in a Boy Scout uniform, with a headline asking, “Is this the picture of misery?”
Brendan Halligan, editor of the Limerick Leader, denied that the paper was engaged in an ongoing campaign to discredit McCourt, even while citing recent stories that purported to do just that. One story noted that Mrs. Clohessy, the woman whose home McCourt described as the ultimate in squalor, was still alive at 94. Another quoted McCourt’s scoutmaster as saying he gave McCourt a job fixing bicycles at a time when McCourt claimed he was scrounging for work .
Halligan says many people in Limerick resent McCourt’s book, and says attempts to dismiss critics as a few isolated cranks are misleading. But while his paper frequently attacks McCourt, Halligan, who is friendly with McCourt’s brother, Alfie, says he considers the book “a work of art.”
“It’s the truth,” Halligan says. “Despite its factual inaccuracies, it faithfully captures the impressions of a child who grew up here in the 1930s and 1940s.”
McCourt is alternately annoyed and bemused by all this.
“Some people are running around town saying I made all this suffering up,” he says. “I wish I did. I would have had a nicer life. My sister and two brothers wouldn’t have died as children.”
McCourt always knew that some here would hate his book. In July, when he did a book-signing at O’Mahony’s, a bookstore he got thrown out of as a child, one of his contemporaries, Paddy Malone, stood before him and denounced him while tearing up a paperback copy of the book. Malone was a classmate of McCourt’s at Leamy School, which McCourt portrayed as a place where most teachers delighted in humiliating the students, especially those who came from the lanes, the slums that housed the poorest of Limerick. While he complains about McCourt writing about people with o ut their permission, Malone’s real beef seems to be that McCourt somehow got hold of a school photograph that appears on the book’s cover. Malone, who is one of the schoolboys in the sepia photo that captures McCourt’s sad, tortured eyes, says he owned the original photo. Malone has retained a lawyer and talks about copyright infringement.
University of Limerick president Edward Walsh scored a coup in getting McCourt to agree to return here. But after the news emerged, the university received telephone threats against McCourt. If McCourt is worried about his physical safety, he isn’t showing it. His family came here en masse, in a show of solidarity and pride.
“If the begrudgers want a piece of Frank, they’ll have to take on the lot of us,” says Malachy McCourt, who was a little brother in the book but has grown up to be much bigger than Frank.
Yesterday, however, as Ed Walsh handed a diploma to Frank McCourt, there were no begrudgers in sight. The pomp and circumstance were punctured by Malachy McCourt, who bellowed, “Good on ya, Frank!”
Frank McCourt began his address by thanking his three brothers. And then he wept. And then he composed himself and looked about the Jean Monet Theater and pointed out his old friends, the Souths, the Costellos, Eric Lynch, and his best friend Billy Campbell, the same Billy Campbell who would an hour later, when the crowd had melted, press into his hand a piece of pavement taken from the street in front of Mrs. O’Connell’s shop, the shop where young Frank McCourt begge d for food, the shop that has been razed like much of the Limerick that Frank McCourt has preserved for posterity.
“Limerick,” Frank McCourt says in closing, his voice steady, his eyes bright, “is as beautiful as everybody knows.”
Richard Harris Stands Up For His Native City in Local Radio Interview
By Eugene Phelan
Airdate January 20th 2000
International film star Richard Harris has publicly lambasted his fellow Limerickman and contemporary Frank McCourt for his depiction of Limerick in the Pulitzer Prize winning book ANGELA’S ASHES.
He also launched an attack on film director ALAN PARKER whom he accuses of using Limerick as a ‘whipping boy’ to generate publicity for a twenty million-dollar flop.
In a frank two-hour live interview on the Limerick airwaves with Ireland’s most vocal McCourt critic Gerry Hannan, who presents a nighttime phone-in show on RLO, Harris spoke out for the first time on what he describes as a bitter attack on his native city.
Harris highlighted the fact that McCourt recently told the American media that the film star came from a different more up market part of Limerick than he did and couldn’t possible know about poverty and hardship on the lanes of Limerick.
‘But McCourt was very well versed in telling the press how well I lived. If he is so well informed about my life why is it unnecessary for me to be informed about his life?’
‘I knew Frank in his New York days and I found him to be probably the ugliest and the most bitter human being I have ever met in my entire life.
Frank was full of bitterness.
I don’t think I ever confronted a man that was so angry.
Ever fibre of his being was in rebellion against something.
I believe that he hated me with a passion because according to him I came from an elitist part of Limerick and because I became so successful.
Though he would use my success to promote himself he very much resented my success.
If Limerick is, as he claims, a city of begrudgers why then they did they give him an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Limerick and why did the Mayor propose making him a Freeman of Limerick?
Are these the acts of begrudgers?
I was offered an Honorary Doctorate by UL and though I never say never I would have to think very seriously about it because I don’t want to link myself to totally mediocre non-entities like McCourt.
So why does Harris believe that McCourt hates Limerick?
‘I really don’t know. I agree that there are stories about Limerick in ANGELA’S ASHES that just don’t make sense. Of course I knew that the poverty was going on but I also knew many people with difficult lives who grew up on the lanes of Limerick but yet, even to this day, there isn’t one ounce of bitterness in them.
There is a friendly tribal rivalry which exists in the rugby world in Limerick but when an outside team comes in to play they all come together in unison to support their own.
It is for that very reason that Limerick is unique.
The loyalty is absolutely astonishing and, I believe, that that element of Limerick totally by-passed the McCourts.
They are devoid of any sense of loyalty and are filled with hate for Limerick.
Here is a simple question.
Why wouldn’t Frank and Malachy McCourt hate Limerick – the fact is they hate each other.
Frank came out in a big campaign recently and knocked Malachy’s book.
When he was asked did he read Malachy’s book he said he wouldn’t read it.
He is quoted in some American newspapers as asking why Malachy dared to impose himself on my terrain.
They couldn’t even support each other.
Then Malachy came out and was vicious about Frank.
I’ve heard that Frank thinks of himself as a literary genius but I think his book has no literary merit whatsoever.
Recently the London Times carried an article about the terrible decline in the arts in the last century and it finished by saying that we started the last century with Henry James and we ended with Frank McCourt.
Harris laughs and says that he cannot think of anything more insulting.
But what about the Pulitzer Prize surely that is a real claim to fame?
‘Winning the Pulitzer is not that big a deal. I have seen hundreds of plays that have won the prize and you couldn’t sit half way through it. The Pulitzer is a common prize that means very little.
I was talking to Brian Friel recently who told me that there is not even one single line of poetry or literary merit in the book.
I asked Brian to explain to me why this book won the prize.
He believes that at the moment in America the fact that you are Irish is very fashionable and ANGELA’S ASHES, being Irish, is riding on this wave of enthusiasm for all things Irish.
Brian told me that if that attitude continues then the ANGELA’S ASHES of this world would deplete that opinion about Ireland.
A Coward Act
‘I first met Frank McCourt years ago in his brother Malachy’s pub called ‘Himself’ in New York and he was very derogative and derisive in his attitude and remarks about Limerick.
I was in discussion about Limerick to Malachy when Frank raised his fist and hit me a terrible belt on the nose. Like a hare running from a hound he raced toward the exit door and ran out of the pub. I said to Malachy, I’m afraid your brother is not really a Limerickman. When Malachy asked why not I told him that I have never yet been confronted by a Limerickman who ran away from a fight.’
We don’t do that in Limerick we stand our ground and we fight.
To run from a fight is not part of the Limerick character at all.’
‘I knew Malachy for years and he wrote a book called A MONK SWIMMING and I am very heavily featured throughout the book. I found both Malachy and Frank to be absolute users. They would use me and my position in America for them to gain some kind of notoriety and I can best characterise them both as users.
Angela’s Will to Die
‘I also knew Angela McCourt quite well and I visited her regularly and I spent a lot of time with her and they treated her really badly.
The way they spoke about their mother made me very angry.
They had an obvious disdain for their mother and I remember on one occasion in the pub where I grabbed her son Malachy by the neck and shouted that she is your mother and you cannot treat her like this.
Malachy’s only answer to me was that they were bringing her lots of beer and cigarettes in the hope that she would die because she is costing us rent money.
I believe in my heart that they were willing a death.
I found that very offensive to such an extent that I threatened to kill him.
‘When I met Angela she was in her old age and she was very quiet and once when I was alone with her she told me that she knew that they didn’t like her and wanted her dead.
She said that they don’t like me Dickie, they don’t treat me well, they don’t want me to be here, I am a nuisance to them and I am no more than a rock around their neck.
Angela told Richard that the boys treated her so badly that she wished she were dead and gone.
The Mystery of Angela’s Ashes
When Angela McCourt died she wanted to be buried in Limerick.
I happen to know that there is an Irish travel agency in New York where Malachy and Frank went to book tickets to take the coffin back to Limerick.
But the boys refused to pay the extra charge for the coffin.
So they decided to cremate their mother who allowed them to put her ashes into their overnight bags and take her back for nothing.
Now I know that Angela was a very devout Catholic and she would not have wanted to be cremated. Being cremated was something that she couldn’t countenance at all and she wanted to be buried.
But the boys were not willing to pay for that so they cremated her and put her into a tin.
When they got to the Airport in New York Frank turned to Malachy and asked ‘have you got her?’ and Malachy replied ‘Got who?’
They argued for a while and realised that the ashes had to be in one of the bags but neither one known which bag exactly.
The boys had to take separate flights for one reason or another and Malachy’s, who believed he had the ashes, plane got into trouble and had to go back to New York.
In all the coming and going the bags, containing the ashes, got lost.
It is a commonly held opinion amongst the Irish in New York that Angela’s Ashes are, in fact, buried away in some far distant remote lost property corner of Kennedy Airport in New York.
Speaking about Limerick’s influence on Frank McCourt – Harris believes that it is obvious that the author did not experience the true spirit of the city. ‘Limerick is a sporting city and when, as a young man, I had TB legions of my mates from the Young Munster’s Rugby Club of which I am a life time member came to see me in my sick bed. These guys were from the same background as the McCourts, they came from the lanes of Limerick and they had just as tough a time but, in spite of the poverty and hardship, they had an almost indestructible loyalty to Limerick.
You never heard from them one condemnation about Limerick. Not even one utterance of disloyalty and this was a quality that Frank never inherited.
Limerick people have passion about each other.
When I go back to Limerick they will attack me and they will make fun of me and they will pass jokes about me.
‘But God help if somebody from Dublin or London said anything nasty to a Limerickman about me – they would end up being killed.
‘Now that kind of loyalty is something that McCourt just did not have.
‘When Malachy McCourt played rugby he didn’t play with his own people. He didn’t play with Young Munster’s, St. Mary’s or Presentation, which was the clubs around his area. Instead he played for Bohemians and in those days they were the snobs, the most right wing club in Limerick.
Malachy elected not to play with his own class but to upgrade himself and play for Bohemians.
The man seems to be on a lifelong crusade to upgrade himself.
‘I believe that Malachy has always had ambitions above his station.
Alan Parker’s Agenda
We must remember that Hollywood is bereft of good material at the moment, all these remakes are getting tedious, ANGELA’S ASHES is such a worldwide phenomenon that it’s success was almost guaranteed.
But now that success seems highly unlikely.
Now it seems the only way to retrieve some of the investment is to create as much publicity as possible.
Alan Parker has come out in the past few days in a wealth of very bad publicity about Limerick.
He has been saying that Limerick is backward, uneducated and claiming that he got no cooperation whatsoever with the making of the movie.
He is accusing the people of Limerick of being catholic bigots.
All this negative publicity about Limerick is just a Hollywood publicity stunt to create interest in the film.
I believe that PARAMOUNT PICTURES know full well that this picture is not going to make it. It was test screened in America recently and the public reaction to it is very poor. Now they know they are into a twenty million-dollar loss here and they are drumming up as much bad publicity as they can to get people to come to the movie.
What they have done is they have picked Limerick as the whipping boy.
I have made 63 movies and I know how these guys operate.
I know exactly what they are doing and what they all about.
Alan Parker hasn’t directed a good movie in years, he destroyed EVITA, which went down the tubes for over one hundred million dollars, and he hoped that this was his chance to make a success.
The book was so successful and he hoped to ride on the coattails of the book but when he found out on screening tests that the movie is not going to make it his PR people, led by him, tried to create this huge publicity stunt just to get press.
‘They asked me a long time ago to come out and help them to create press but I refused because all I am doing is publicizing your picture.
That was my feeling until Parker came out and singled out Limerick for alleged prejudices, lack of education and so on. He even made the most stupid comment I ever heard in my life when he said that they are so backward in Limerick that they don’t even have EASTENDERS.
Can you imagine a man of culture making such a remark?
The man must have been mad to say it.
When I heard this I said to myself that this is it I have got to defend my city.
‘I am the man who should defend it, I love Limerick, although we have our bouts of hate and love this man has no right to make such ugly remarks and I will stand up against him and defend it now.
The portfolio that Alan Parker has given himself to try and create publicity for his movie at the expense of Limerick is totally unacceptable to me.
‘I saw ANGELA’S ASHES this week and I think the only Oscar it deserves is for special rain effects. The movie is two and half-hours of rain.
Parker has taken the Limerick of that era and he has dated it back to the late 19th Century.
It is more Dickensian in its squalor than it is accurately Limerick.
‘If so much rain fell in Limerick we would be famous for our water polo teams.’
I felt that, for the people not from Limerick, the book is a thrashey ‘unputdownable’ read but with the movie you can’t wait to get out.
It is a boring, dull and very repetitive movie and is totally unmoving.
I admit that McCourt had a wonderful sense of humor, an ironic sense of humor, which is characteristic of most Limerick people but I found that the picture does not have one bit of it.
The movie is nothing short of a two hour moan and the book was one long moan and ‘Tis is even worse.
The movie is one long perpetual moan.
It like McCourt is screaming out for love.
‘Feel sorry for me, love me, an endless search for love.
But I doubt very much that if he finds this elusive love that he can reciprocate.
I don’t think he can give anything back, it’s too late, not when you can treat your mother like that, what does his treatment of his mother in the book tell you about his emotional condition?
I don’t think all the money he has made by tarnishing the good names of people who cannot defend themselves against him will give him a moment of happiness or will fill that hollow in his life.
Rarely has a book had such a compelling opening line. ‘When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’
And so Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday aged 78 after a battle with skin cancer, launched a new literary genre: the misery memoir. Dozens have followed him – so much so that they are now generically called ‘mis-lit’. These tales of childhood woe have become highly lucrative.
Called ‘inspirational memoirs’ by publishers, ‘mis-lit’ now accounts for nine per cent of the British book market, shifting 1.9 million copies a year and generating £24 million of revenue. HarperCollins recently admitted to a 31 per cent increase in annual profits thanks to ‘mis-lit’.
But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.
Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.
One thing is not under debate – when it came to writing limpid, magical prose, McCourt was the real thing, following in his countrymen’s footsteps to emerge as an Irish writer par excellence.
So just who was the real Frank McCourt? Did he win the Pulitzer Prize with his lyrical, poignant memoir under false pretences? Or was he indeed the ultimate rags-to-riches story, who survived the grinding poverty of Limerick’s slums to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, triumphant?
The truth is, we may never know. Perhaps, as McCourt did in Angela’s Ashes, we had better begin at the beginning. In the book, set in the Thirties, McCourt writes that his parents returned when he was four from New York to Ireland, against the tide of Irish emigration.
His family consisted of ‘my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone’.
His mother, the Angela of the book’s title – had become pregnant in New York after ‘a knee-trembler – the act itself done up against a wall’. Four months later, she married Malachy McCourt, her family having pressed him to do the decent thing.
So began a downward spiral into alcohol and poverty, with a feckless father drinking his wages away.
Subjective: Frank McCourt said the memoir chronicled his family and his emotions
Far worse was to come. The death of their daughter at seven weeks sent McCourt’s parents into an abyss of despair, from which they never emerged.
They return, despondent, by boat to Ireland – with Angela pregnant again. But soon, one of the twins, Oliver, has died, too.
His second child’s death precipitated McCourt Sr’s complete decline into alcoholism. He promised coal for the fire, rashers, eggs and tea for a celebration of Oliver’s life, but instead took his week’s dole to the pub.
School, full of bare-footed slum children, is no relief. The masters ‘hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish. If you don’t cry the masters hate you because you’ve made them look weak before the class and they promise themselves the next time they have you up they’ll draw tears or blood or both’.
Then, worse. ‘Six months after Oliver went, we woke on a mean November morning and there was Eugene, cold in the bed beside us.’ He had died of pneumonia.
Another brother is born, Michael – Angela’s sixth pregnancy. As her husband continues to drink away the dole, a friend tells her off for cursing God, saying: ‘Oh, Angela, you could go to Hell for that.’ ‘Aren’t I there already?’ she replies.
Another baby arrives, Alphonsus Joseph. No matter that his family fight for charity vouchers for food, furniture and medicine and share a stinking lavatory with six other houses, McCourt Sr drinks the baby’s christening money.
His father leaves for England, finally abandoning his family. When they are evicted for not paying rent, Angela takes her family to live with a cousin, Laman.
McCourt wrote that his mother and her cousin had an incestuous relationship. ‘She climbs to the loft with Laman’s last mug of tea. There are nights when we hear them grunting, moaning. I think they’re at the excitement up there.’
Laman also beat the children. At 14, McCourt got a job as a telegraph boy. At 19, he left Limerick behind for ever for a new life in America. He first lived in Connecticut, where he became a teacher. He wrote Angela’s Ashes in his mid-60s, and became hugely wealthy.
But how much of his landmark book was true? Did McCourt cross the line between fact and fiction?
Limerick locals, horrified at the squalid depiction of their town, counted a total of ‘117 lies or inaccuracies’ in the 426-page book, that range from obscure details to wrongly accusing one local man of being a Peeping Tom. They called for a boycott of the film of Angela’s Ashes.
Paddy Malone, a retired coach driver who appears in the frayed school photograph on the book’s original cover, is among McCourt’s most furious detractors.
He, too, grew up in the Lanes of Limerick and went to the same school as McCourt.
‘I know nothing about literature, but I do know the difference between fact and fiction,’ says Malone. ‘McCourt calls this book a memoir, but it is filled with lies and exaggerations. The McCourts were never that poor. He has some cheek.’
Malone recalls the family having a pleasant green lawn behind their home, and Angela being overweight – despite the graphic descriptions of hunger in the book.
Limerick broadcaster Gerry Hannan spearheaded a campaign against Angela’s Ashes, confronting McCourt on a TV show and calling him a liar.
Although he is too young to remember the period of which McCourt writes, Hannan is convinced McCourt has twisted Limerick’s history to make his book more shocking.
‘As far as I’m concerned, he’s a conman and a hoaxer,’ says Hannan. ‘He knew the right things to say to get the result he wanted. He’s a darling on television. He’s got this beautiful brogue and he can put the charm on. And don’t get me wrong, the book is beautifully written. But it’s not true.’
Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.
They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.
Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.
‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’
McCourt said: ‘I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.
‘Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.’
Time will tell whether his impressionistic account of a brutal childhood endures. But whether embellished or not, it certainly left its mark on Limerick – and on literature itself.
A City Descending Into ‘Ashes’
By Gerard Hannan
He was known by his childhood friends as Frank ‘The Flay’ McCourt because on his first day at Leamy’s School he was handed a small bun with hard burnt raisins on top. He had never seen a ‘burnt raisin’ in his life and he threw the bun on the floor and danced like a spoilt child on top of it. ‘I ain’t eating that it’s full of fleas,’ he howled as he pounded up and down on the bun. The other hungry boys watched and laughed at the strange behavior of an odd American speaking child who didn’t know the difference between a raisin and a flea. But the name stuck and from that day on he was known as ‘the flay McCourt.’ To this day there are people living in Limerick who don’t know who exactly Frank McCourt is until you tell them he was ‘the flay.’ Invariably they will reply, ‘ah that fellow, sure he was nothing short of a miserable scabby eyed ‘ol snob.’
McCourt himself has something ironic to say about fleas when he writes, ‘the flea sucks the blood from you mornin’ noon an’ night for that’s his nature an’ he can’t help himself.
‘But there is a peculiar mockery about the nickname in the light of the nature of ‘flays’ book,’ says one caller to a late-night radio talkshow in modern downtown Limerick.
He explains, ‘flea by name, flea by nature. A flea will attack you when you are fast asleep and at your most vulnerable. This ‘flay’ called McCourt attacked when other’s were dead.’
In Limerick city, the home of Frank McCourt’s alleged miserable Catholic poverty stricken childhood it is said that everybody loves the author except the people who know him and everybody loves Angela’s Ashes except the people who know the truth.
Since I first became involved in what the international media now describe as the ‘Ashes Debate’ I have been defined as an opportunist, publicity seeker, begrudger, ‘cashier’ on McCourt’s success, plagiarist, a cribber riding on the coattails of Angela’s Ashes, literary social climber and, perhaps most offensive of all, Malachy McCourt publicly described me as a descendant of the lowest orders from the lanes of Limerick. He failed to explain that if I was that then what did that make him but he later apologised and added that bygones should be bygones.
I have spoken to hundreds of journalists from all over the world and I can categorically state that not once did I ever initiate any phonecall, issued no press releases, or made any opening contact with any newspaper, magazine, radio or television station.
In short, if I was guilty of any one of the charges leveled against me then I was doing a very bad job of it indeed. So if I wasn’t making contact with the media about my opinions and feelings on the subject of Frank McCourt and his book then how were they getting my name and number?
The answer to this question came in November 1998 when I received a phonecall from the UK TV company ITV who were producing a special documentary for ‘The South Bank Show’ and wondered if I were willing to be interviewed.
I was surprised to receive the call and asked the researcher where she got my name and private number. Her reply was instant and shocking. ‘It was given to me by Frank McCourt.’
Following from that phonecall I then rang Mary Finnegan who was a researcher for CBS TV’s ’60 Minutes’ for which I had also been interviewed and asked her how she first got my name and number and again her answer surprised me. ‘It was given to our producers by Frank McCourt.’
So if I was ‘guilty’ of exploiting McCourt it was clear that he was a willing participant and was issuing my name ad-hoc to journalists and media folk globally.
This seems totally at odds with a quote he gave to the Daily Mail in January 2000 when he states, ‘I can’t get concerned with these critics, there are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going.’ (Amusingly, it can’t be seen as a complete lie as McCourt happened to be in Limerick at the time he gave the quote.) The one observation that kept coming up over and over again was the fact that I was only 40 years of age and was not in the position to speak with any great accuracy about life on the post-war lanes of Limerick.
I believe that any journalist or reporter is only as good as the research he or she is willing to put into any article (you don’t have to be a former inmate of Dachau to report on what life would have been like there when hundreds of people are willing to testify) and I rate myself as an acceptable researcher and reporter of facts.
Apart from this, and more significantly, I always felt that this ‘your too young to know the truth’ observation was completely out of context with the issue at hand. For me, Angela’s Ashes is, and always has been, a bitter, untrue attack on the true spirit of my native city of Limerick which I dearly love. It was a biased book written and ‘designed’ to do maximum damage to the ‘spirit’ of the city and it’s people. In short, Frank McCourt was no authority on that ‘spirit’ because he never experienced it. He existed rather than lived in Limerick for 12 years and buried himself away in the backstreets of the city but he was also a social recluse and an out and out intellectual snob primarily motivated by the desire to ‘get out’ of his hated Limerick and back to his much loved New York as quickly as possible. He had nothing but hatred for the people of Limerick, it’s institutions and beliefs and his book is proof positive of that fact. These pages will prove the veracity of my allegations.
I, on the other hand, have lived in Limerick for over 40 years and this automatically makes me a far better authority on the ‘spirit’ of my city than Frank McCourt will ever be. It’s as simple as that.
Frank McCourt’s bittersweet memoir of growing up poor in Limerick has sold millions of copies worldwide, camped on the New York Times bestsellers list for months on end, won a Pulitzer prize, translated into 25 languages and finally made into a multi-million pound Hollywood movie. It’s crushing story of destitution and human resilience has touched hearts across the world.
But in McCourt’s undesired adopted childhood town, the setting for his memoir, his tales have touched ‘raw nerve’ more than heart and has been attacked as mean-spirited fiction, cruel exaggeration and character assassination. There remains a small but persistent minority who accuse the author of distorting his family’s suffering and humiliation they endured at the hand’s of Limerick’s elite, especially the Roman Catholic clergy and laity. As a boy Frank McCourt ran barefoot in the post-war slums of Limerick rummaging for food and coal for his hard up family.
His home, he claims, was damp ridden and filthy, sewage ran from the outside toilet and there was no knowing where the family’s next meal was to come from.
The controversy was born within weeks of the publication of the book in 1996 when immediate local reaction was to describe it as 426 pages exercising a grudge against Limerick. Many of McCourt’s childhood playmates and neighbours say the book is rife with factual errors, exaggerates the poverty and, most importantly, humiliates his contemporaries by branding them with various sexual transgressions and other so-called sins.
Nowadays, some people in Limerick are utterly fed up with Angela’s Ashes and its story of the McCourt children who lived in the city’s slums (excepting those who died in the family’s communal bed) in the middle of last century. There are those who don’t believe Frank McCourt’s memoir, and those, such as Brendan Halligan, editor of the Limerick Leader, who wish Angela, the Ashes and everyone else would just go away. The book is a ghost haunting modern Limerick life: ‘It overshadows everything.’
Arguments over the veracity of McCourt’s account have, in the year’s since publication, caused endless fuss. The Limerick Leader is well-used to receiving letters that point out flaws in the McCourt children’s saga, and the filming has touched nerves over and over again. ‘Frank McCourt’s book,’ said one Limerick Leader editorial wearily, ‘generated more controversy in Limerick than anything since the opening of the interpretative centre in King John’s Castle. And that was a long time ago.’
The basic geography of the city has changed little since McCourt, who was born in Brooklyn, moved there with his family. The majestic River Shannon splits the city into three clear sections that are tied together by a series of bridges. Georgian brick buildings line the neatly gridded downtown streets. To someone from 1930’s Limerick the character of the city today would be totally unrecognisable. McCourt’s Limerick was poor, wet, malnourished, filthy and miserable. He lived with his parents and three brothers in ‘the lanes,’ the city’s crowded slum district. Consumption and fleas were rampant and the communal toilets overflowed with waste.
But all that is now firmly in the ‘good old days’ and Limerick has risen from the ashes to become a modern, fast moving, thriving small-time metropolis that is not ashamed to openly discuss the sins of her past. Limerick historian and ‘Angela’s Ashes’ tour operator Michael O’Donnell is the first to admit that McCourt’s Limerick is long since dead and those who take the tour will be disappointed if they expect to see lanes, poverty, misery and hardship.
One such ‘tourist’ was Mike Meyer of the Chicago Tribune who was left scratching his head as to why the tour is actually called after the book at all.
He writes, ‘We stood on Arthur’s Quay, a flat green park fronting the Shannon where once stood the lanes, a maze of poverty and damp. O’Donnell raised his voice above the traffic din. ‘Of course, people want to see the Limerick from `Angela’s Ashes,’ but it doesn’t exist. The city has changed so much, and I’m proud of that.’ O’Donnell walked quickly, belying his age of 65. He flicked out a Major cigarette and lit another in one quick motion and led us across the narrow streets.
What followed was a retelling of the Limerick portions of the book in front of sites where it happened. Up Henry Street and past the General Post Office, where O’Donnell smiled his way through a repetition of McCourt’s coupling with Theresa Carmody, wherein they have ‘the excitement.’
O’Donnell led us past the old Dock Road, formerly the setting for picking up stray bits of coal, now the home of a luxury hotel. Mill Lane, where Malachy begged for work, now hosts an office block. Limerick is a clanging, booming town and Dell computers have covered the city’s billboards with messages like, ‘Bored with your job? Join us! No experience necessary.’ The scenes of poverty in ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ O’Donnell noted, had to be filmed in Dublin and Cork. Limerick simply doesn’t have scummy enough sets anymore.
We bustled past kids in Catholic school uniforms to Windmill Street, site of the McCourts’ first Limerick home. The boulevards around it are a sea of To Let/For Sale signs, but O’Donnell took us back by telling some stories about the mattress and fleas and Pa Keating and dying babies. He’s a grand storyteller, Michael O’Donnell is, but I suspect he has better stories to tell than just Frank McCourt’s.
We continued on to Hartstonge Street and Roden Lane and Barrack Hill, and by now O’Donnell had retold most of McCourt’s Limerick life. Dusk broke over the city’s green hills, and we heard about some more of ‘the excitement’ (this time between Angela and Laman Griffin) and then it’s on to St. Joseph’s Church and the St. Vincent De Paul Society and Leamy’s School where the young McCourt was instructed to stock his mind, for it is a palace. O’Donnell paused and pointed to the doorway, ‘Can you imagine? A Pulitzer Prize winner coming from the lanes of Limerick and going to this very school. Why wouldn’t we be proud of him?’
We enjoyed a break at J.M. South’s pub, where McCourt had his first pint, but O’Donnell says he is on the job and sips Coke while I savor a fresh, creamy Guinness. O’Donnell explained that he charges four Irish punts for the tour and that the money goes into the St. Mary’s Integrated Development Program, which funds house painting, hedge cutting and window repairs for the older parishioners. ‘The people of Limerick are still benefiting from `Angela’s Ashes’,’ he said with a smile. Business keeps improving, especially during summer, when O’Donnell leads as many as three walks a day.
The drinking done for now, the two of us walked past the Carnegie Library (now an art museum) and People’s Park, where McCourt had ‘the excitement’ on his own. Youth hostels line Perry Square, facing the neatly manicured fenced-in park lawn. O’Donnell stopped us at Tait’s Clock to tell a story about Peter Tate, tailor to the Confederate Army, and later, having simply dyed the uniforms blue,
Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. ‘Can you imagine, Irish fighting Irish in North America, Irish fighting Indians? We fight everyone,’ he said, and laughed. I’m amazed at the wealth of architecture, monuments and neighborhoods we have walked through, details omitted from McCourt’s narrative, which made Limerick sound like wasteland. Maybe it used to be.’
As the controversy raged on throughout the streets of Limerick it quickly attracted the attention of the world’s journalists and media who flocked to the city to ascertain for themselves why ‘this book’ was being ‘flaked’ by some of the people of Limerick while the world’s intelligentsia continued to sing it’s praises.
It seemed to many people in Limerick that these journalists and reporters were evenly split into two clearly separate groups – firstly, those who loved Angela’s Ashes and it’s author and secondly – those who didn’t. Some came to defend him and prove him right while the others came to ‘exclusively’ reveal that the book was rampant with inconsistencies and that McCourt was the creator of a work of pure and absolute fiction.
Tara Mack of the Washington Post visited Limerick in January 2000 and was charismatic about what she found. ‘An economic boom in Ireland, fueled by subsidies from the European Union and growth in the hi-tech sector, has radically altered the fortunes of Limerick. The city’s economy is thriving. Resident’s, many of whom work at a Dell Computer plant, are confidant and prosperous. O’Connell Street, the main retail thoroughfare downtown, bustles with pedestrians and traffic. The tenements have been torn down.’
New York Times journalist Warren Hoge was not so upbeat. ‘This sodden city in Western Ireland has been such a hard-luck town that it cannot even lay claim to the form of verse everyone assumes was named after it. H.D. Inglis, author of an early travel guide came here in 1834 and found Limerick ‘the very vilest town’ he had ever visited. Heinrich Boll, the German Nobel prize-winning novelist saw it for the first time in 1950 and pronounced it ‘a gloomy little town’ with ‘everything submerged in sour darkness.’ Hoge continues, ‘More recently it has been made fun of in a popular television show as ‘stab city,’ a label – arising out of several muggings in the 1980’s – that the (then) Mayor Frank Leddin, finds so objectionable he will not utter it. Long considered Ireland’s most entrenched Catholic city it has suffered from stereotyping as ‘violent, intolerant, obscurantist and reactionary.’
Paul Daffey writing for the Evening Standard had a different spin on modern Limerick when he reported, ‘Two families were feuding over ascendancy in the drug trade. A member of one family was walking along a footpath when a car sidled up to the kerb. A member of the opposing family jumped out of the car and stabbed the pedestrian in the stomach – with a pitchfork.
The weapon of choice threw a rural twist on an urban tale. It was emblematic of an Ireland that, in the final decades of last century, was wrangling with itself over the shift from rural backwater to urban dynamism. The pitchfork incident could have taken place in Dublin or Cork, maybe even the light-spirited Galway, but somehow this seemed unlikely. Right or wrong, it did suggest merit behind Limerick’s reputation as Stab City. It is a reputation that Limerick hates, largely because it is distasteful, but also because the sobriquet was applied 30 years ago and the city has changed since then.
In the ’70s, the development of high-tech industries and the University of Limerick, which specialises in science and technology, brought a measure of wealth and vitality to the city. But it also created an income gap, with residents of rugged housing estates resenting the new order. Crime and violence were the inevitable result. The rest of the country gained the impression that stabbings were frequent. It titillated some to think of Limerick, with its reputation for inwardness and pious Catholicism, as a bloody frontier.
Violence in Limerick lessened in the ’90s after, among other things, the formation of ‘combat poverty’ groups with funds from the European Union. EU money was also put towards restoration of the town’s fading buildings. The Civic Trust, formed in the late ’80s as the first restoration body in Ireland, was instrumental in giving the worn city a facelift that impressed the rest of the country, although not enough to stop the stabbing slurs and the tittering. Frank Larkin, the public relations officer for Shannon Development, says half the city claims the poverty in Angela’s Ashes is exaggerated. ‘People felt it reflected poorly. They claim they had happy childhood’s and were happy in Limerick. You have that dichotomy of discussion. But there’s certainly a contrast between what Frank McCourt described and today.’
Larkin is unable to put a figure on Angela’s Ashes importance to the city, although he admits it has become a huge selling point. Other attractions include castles, cathedrals, Georgian architecture, the ‘Limerick Expo’ and the International Marching Bands Festival which attracts 40,000 people.
The city’s push – and for that matter Ireland’s push – to improve the poor quality of mid-range restaurants has spawned the International Food Festival, which is held annually, and the Good Food Circle of Restaurants. Limerick might be trying to improve its culinary standing but it has no doubts about its sporting prowess. The city thumps its chest about being Ireland’s sporting capital. It is, at best, a dubious claim, but one that receives support every autumn when Limerick hosts the battles between Munster and touring rugby sides from the Antipodes. Munster, the province that takes in the six counties in Ireland’s south-west, attacks the touring teams with a fervor that inevitably attracts ‘Gael force’ headlines. In 1978, the attack was so effective that Munster defeated New Zealand, a feat that was barely believed across Europe, and less so in New Zealand. The victory remains an Irish side’s only win over the All Blacks and it is not surprising that each player was guaranteed free pints for life.
The city has every right, however, to claim a rich history. Its city charter, drawn up in 1197, is the oldest in the British Isles, which includes Ireland and Britain, and King John’s Castle is a feature of the Heritage Precinct. The castle, built at the beginning of the 13th century, was the stronghold of the British empire in western Ireland and its presence is a reminder of Limerick’s struggles under a hated foreign power. The Heritage Precinct also includes the Castle Lane project, which is the reconstruction of a street from two centuries ago.
Downriver are the docks, which are undergoing a makeover not seen since the Vikings sailed up the Shannon in the ninth century. A handful of pubs in the city centre have also been refurbished. Some are modern and gleaming, but I preferred those with a traditional touch, such as WJ South’s on O’Connell Street. South’s is where Uncle Pa Keating bought the 16-year-old Frank McCourt his first pint. It looks like your average poky Irish pub from the street but opens out generously inside. It was a local for the men from the lanes of Limerick; now the clientele ranges from young professionals to older regulars. The floorboards and decor have been tastefully scrubbed up and Pa Keating would probably wonder where all the sawdust on the floor had gone. The bulldust, though, remains as thick on the ground as ever.
The Limerick banter is fun. Wit and irony are staples and all sentences are delivered with a delightful lilt. The accent is less distinctive than the sing-song carry-on in neighboring Cork but, since the publication of Angela’s Ashes, the language of Limerick is among the most distinctive in the world. Which, if anyone were in any doubt, just goes to show that the pen is mightier than the pitchfork.’
The controversy rapidly gained momentum over a period of two months after the publication of Angela’s Ashes and in that time the so called ‘inconsistencies’ started to emerge. ‘No one in Limerick denies that there was awful poverty in the city in the mid 1900’s, but further investigation has led them to wonder just how poor the McCourts really were. Some people have pointed out how overweight Angela and some of the children were, while the Limerick Leader dug up photographs of McCourt in his boy scout’s uniform. Scouting was expensive and usually for middle-class boys – ‘Is this the picture of misery?,’ asked the newspaper.’
The problem for the pro-McCourt camp is that their man’s mistakes are just the one’s that are likely to cause maximum offence among the people of Limerick, and the guardians of the truth. Queuing at a Limerick book-signing in 1997 was another contemporary from the Limerick Lanes, Willie Harold. Mr. Harold, now dead, appears in the book at his first confession, telling a priest how he has sinned, looking at his sister’s naked body. The problem is, Mr. Harold never had a sister. Many older Limerick people are incensed at the portrait of Angela herself. There’s no doubt that Mrs. McCourt would not like her son’s portrayal. Shortly before she died, in 1981, she was taken to see Frank and brother Malachy perform a stage show about their early lives. She stormed out, shouting: ‘It didn’t happen that way. It’s all a pack of lies.’
Mike Meyer of the Chicago Tribune saw a different Limerick to the one he expected having read Angela’s Ashes when he wrote, ‘Arriving in the city, I walked across the Sarsfield Bridge over the River Shannon. The description of the river was the only passage I remembered from ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ about how Angela could hear the river sing. The water surged quick under my feet, slicing the town in two, running the color of Guinness, all black flow and tan swells. It sang a song of urgency, and the first thought that struck me as I looked at Limerick was: This is a very pretty place.’
He continues, ‘A footpath edged the bank and I followed it west toward the ocean. A pair of swans swam calmly toward me, and past. There were no ashes here, only tranquility and the opposite bank lined with luxury hotels. I asked a few passersby what they thought of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and about the controversy, but their responses were noncommittal.’
There can be no doubt that Angela’s Ashes has certainly placed Limerick firmly on the international map. The city has rarely attracted so much publicity and for that some of her natives are grateful. However, there are others who don’t believe for a moment that there is any truth whatsoever in the saying there is no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, some would go so far as to say that ‘no publicity’ would be better publicity than the sort of ballyhoo Angela’s Ashes generated for their native city.
Are these people really, as McCourt describes them? ‘Begrudgers.’
When I first heard of Angela ‘Sheehan’ McCourt in 1996 it was from two aunts of mine who told me that they went to Bingo every Saturday night with two ‘lovely women’ from the lanes of Limerick.
It was a regular Saturday night outing for the four ladies as they made their way through the streets of their native city to see if they could ‘turn a bob’ at the local bingo game.
Those so called ‘lovely women’ were Agnes ‘Aggie’ Keating and her gruff mannered but talkative soft-spoken sister Angela ‘Angie’ McCourt.
Angie had long since lost her childhood nickname of ‘Angel’ Sheehan and was nowadays gigantic in stature with a matching ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ that were proclaimed for their kindness and gentleness of nature by those who knew her best.
In fact, there are some Limerick people who argue that the references to ‘the angel on the seventh step’ in the narrative may have been allusions to one-to-one conversations the young Frank had with his own mother.
‘Angie’ was born at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day at No. 3 Pump Lane in 1908 but not, as Frank states at the hands of mid-wife Nurse O’Halloran who, in fact, was not attending to that district.
She was, by all accounts, a very proud but stereotypical post-war, working class, hard pushed Irish slum mother who, like many of her contemporaries, was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure that her family would survive all the hardships God would throw their way.
There were no price tags too high for Angie and her family and she was determined to ensure that her children would have the best that she could afford at any given time regardless of what personal sacrifices she had to make to achieve this.
Angie was perhaps one of the most ‘street wise’ women that ever graced the lanes of Limerick and her reputation as an innocent, humorous, soft spoken, polite but notably slothful person was justified.
In the following pages I have attempted to outline as best as possible the true story of Angela McCourt and her contemporaries as told by the people who remember her and them best, their families, neighbor’s, friends and acquaintances.
The very people who touched, in one way or another, their often hard and tragic lives during those days in Limerick. I have conducted hundreds of interviews on the airwaves of Limerick since the publication of Angela’s Ashes and I have quoted extensively from these.
I have also quoted extensively ‘The Old Limerick Journal’ from editions which were published long before the arrival of Angela’s Ashes so the commentaries can not be described by the pro-McCourt brigade as being ‘begrudging’ of the author’s success.
The primary character of Angela’s Ashes is without question Frank’s mother Angela who emerges from the narrative as a woman who cares little for her hungry and cold family, turns her back on an alcoholic husband, imposes herself on her family, silently accepts the hardships inflicted on her, lazily and selfishly lounges before the fire smoking cigarettes while her children starve, prostitutes herself with her own family members and goes through life on a selfish quest for pity, charity and state handouts.
The people who remember her say that this is a highly distorted, completely inaccurate depiction of the woman they remember as being almost the exact opposite of all these things. Those neighbours and friends and family who remember her insist that she was a delightful woman, who struggled valiantly to hold her family together and who earned the title ‘Angel of the lanes’ for her kindness to others.’
So who is speaking the facts – McCourt or his critics?
When we hear the testimonies of the latter the answer becomes perfectly clear. Are we to believe that the many people who have spoken out are all lying while Frank himself is the only one in the crowd to speak the truth?
By most accounts Angie had made herself very well known as a ‘character’ throughout the poverty stricken slums of Limerick.
She was best known for her wicked sense of humor, storytelling, gossiping, laughing and cajoling and tremendous sense of support and desire to help, albeit in a limited way, those she came into contact with.
It seems she was never without a ‘fag in her gob’ and spent most of her time leaning against the doorway of her home, brush in hand, perfectly willing to get into conversation for hours on end with anyone who cared to stop and chat with her.
Her childhood friend Moira Gallagher best remembers Angie as a loving and caring young girl who never hesitated to be the big sister to many of her contemporaries from the local neighborhood.
‘Angie was a talker all her life and that was the one thing that never changed about her when she came back from America.’ Moira claims.
But aren’t these glowing descriptions completely at odds with Frank McCourt’s perception of his own mother? A woman described as ‘pure useless’ by her mother, willing to have intercourse ‘at the drop of a hat’ with drunken strangers, sexually incestuous, manic-depressive, beggar, verbally coarse, ruthless to her children and husband, non-caring, lazy and selfish.
Could this be the same woman that was once known as ‘Angel’, a God fearing and lovable girl by her friends, companions and playmates?
So what do her friends have to say about it?
During her final days in Limerick she befriended her neighbor Josephine Malone former tenant of the McCourt family home at Barrack Hill and mother of Frank’s schoolmate Paddy Malone who still remembers Angela vividly as a very friendly, talkative and intelligent religious lady.
Paddy says that Angela was called the ‘Angel’ of the lanes and she was a robust, loving, caring woman – not the cold drudge that Frank paints her. He is infuriated by the allegation that Angela was having a sexual relationship with her first cousin ‘Laman’ Griffin.
Paddy told the Daily Record in Scotland that Angela was a very religious woman and, ‘I don’t believe she did that.’ ‘I cannot think of anything more wrong than to tear Angela’s name apart like that. She had been left down by men all her life and in the end Frank did the same thing.’
He further believes that Frank is guilty of mocking and prostituting his own mother. He was so distressed about this when Frank McCourt returned to Limerick in 1997 for a book-signing, he asked the author if he remembered him and then ripped the book in half, shouting: ‘You’re a disgrace to Ireland, the Church and your mother.’
‘Lies, lies, lies, lies,’ is how he described Angela’s Ashes to journalist Anne Molloy of the Irish News and further states that McCourt ‘prostitutes his mother’ in the book.
‘He named names. He insulted people,’ said Malone.
‘Most of the people are dead. But the families have to suffer and live with the consequences.’
‘Angie’ is foremost on the list of people whose names were sullied, critics say. In the book the writer says that she has ‘the excitement’ with her first cousin ‘Laman’ Griffin so that he will continue to let her family live with him rent-free. For many older residents, even the suggestion of such a thing is, as Angie might have phrased it, ‘beyond the beyonds.’
‘For a man to write what he wrote about his mother is unforgivable,’ said local historian and former two time Mayor of Limerick Frank Prendergast, who grew up near McCourt. He thought ‘Angela’s Ashes’ was ‘one of the most beautifully written books I ever read. But what I do resent very strongly as a Limerickman is that someone comes in and traduces the people and institutions who are very dear to the people of Limerick.’
He argues that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father, not because of the failings of the city or the Roman Catholic church or the tenants of Limerick’s lanes.
He told Rebecca Fowler of the Daily Mail (Jan 2000), ‘McCourt suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick but he has reduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’
‘If you see someone coming into your community saying something monstrously untrue, I don’t care if it’s the Queen of England or the Pope himself, it is our duty to point out the truth.’
Further testimony on McCourt’s distorted perception of reality comes from family friend and neighbor Josephine O’Reilly who says she used to play bingo with Angela and she cannot recognise her in the wan character portrayed in the book.
‘She had big, fat jaws and her body was as fat as mine,’ she says. ‘I’m the same age as Frank McCourt and I don’t remember ‘Angie’ as being anything like the way she is depicted in that book. If anything she was the exact opposite of almost everything Frank had to say about her.’
Even Angela herself apparently had reservations about the accuracy of her own son’s allegations against her. It is common information amongst the Irish community in New York that she once stood up in a theater where the two McCourt brothers (Frank and Malachy) were spinning stories of their childhood in a play called ‘A Couple Of Blaguards’ which, some say, was the template for Angela’s Ashes and said, ‘It didn’t happen that way! It’s all a pack of lies!’
Malachy acknowledges the incident to journalist Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune in 1997 who writes, ‘While their experiences have flowed from the mouths of Malachy and Frank, their mother, Angela, never came to terms with this public reckoning. She watched ‘Blaguards’ in New York years ago and expressed her irritation with it. ‘She stood up and said, ‘It wasn’t that way at all. It’s all a pack of lies,’ Malachy said.
‘And I said, ‘Well, come up on the stage and tell us your side of the story.’ ‘I will not,’ she said, ‘I wouldn’t be seen on the stage with the likes of ye.’
Malachy further pooh-poohs the notion that Angela would be offended by such descriptions in the Washington Post when he selfishly speculates on his mother’s thoughts on the incident.
‘It’s something that happens to the Irish when they come to America. They began to get amnesia about the circumstances that they’re from. My mother thought it was shameful to be talking about lavatories and buckets you would use for bodily functions, about poverty and being poor.’
But was it simply ‘lavatories and buckets’ that offended Angie?
While McCourt sees his detractors in Limerick as ‘begrudgers’ and ‘in need of psychological help’ one international journalist Gary Younge of the Guardian Newspaper (UK) sees it quiet differently.
He writes, ‘the complaints about Angela’s Ashes are understandable. McCourt has dismissed his detractors’ complaints by insisting that Angela’s Ashes is ‘a memoir, not an exact history.’ But, since the lives of Limerick’s working class rarely make it to the international stage, it is not unreasonable for them to want to see themselves portrayed accurately and sensitively.
It is a constant irritation to those on the margins that they are often ill represented by those who make it into the mainstream. ‘We who survived the camp are not true witnesses,’ wrote Primo Levi of his time in a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We, the survivors, are not only a tiny but an anomalous minority. We are those who through prevarication, skill or luck never touched bottom. Those who have, and have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.’
The burden of representation on those who do emerge from desperate circumstances is a heavy one. But that is no excuse to try to deny the validity of their voice.
In the case of Angela’s Ashes there is, of course, no such thing as the Limerick experience but, instead, several Limerick experiences.’
In order to completely understand these ‘experiences’ of ‘Limerick poverty’ as McCourt describes it in his book it is necessary to take a closer look at how life really was for the people of the lanes in the period 1930 to 1950.
Limerick writer Paddy Carey affectionately remembered the lanes of that era vividly when he wrote in 1987, ‘There were several laneways running off Carey’s Road where I was born. You had King’s Lane, Young’s Lane, Richardson’s Lane, Dickson’s Lane, Sparling’s Lane, the Quarry Boreen, Anderson’s Court, Pump Lane, Walsh’s Lane, Punch’s Lane, Lee’s Lane, Donnelly’s Lane and Glover’s Lane.
Some of the laneways were paved with cobblestone and the houses in the laneways were small as a rule, but there were some exceptions. The houses had slated roofs, some of which had to be grouted with mortar when the rain leaked through. The houses had, for the most part, lime or cement frontages. There were, at the time, a few thatched houses left. Window shutters and half doors were in vogue then and many of these shutters were a throw-back to the War of Independence when they had been fitted to prevent the Black and Tans from shooting-up and wrecking the people’s homes.
The houses were invariably kept neat and tidy and the people were the salt-of-the-earth – a true spirit of Christian sharing pervaded the community.
There were all kinds of people living on the lanes, stonecutters, masons, dockers, railway workers, shoemakers, dressmakers, Corporation workers, painters, carpenters, fitters, seamen and, of course, many were forced to take the emigrant ships to the United States of America and Britain as unemployment was ever prevalent.
(In fact, McCourt’s memory fails him when he claims in ‘Tis’ that he sailed from Cork in October 1949 to America on the ‘MS Irish Oak’ but that was an impossibility because that ship, owned by The Limerick Steamship Company, was exclusively used as a cargo vessel and was torpedoed in 1943.)
‘The aftermath of the First World War and the Wall Street crash of 1929 did nothing to improve the situation. People were mostly poor, but happy, despite their circumstances. There were no electric appliances and gas cookers were a rare commodity. There were a few ranges and most cooking was done on open fires and baking on bastable ovens and griddles.
There was the rare radio, usually of the wet-battery type. Most babies were born in their mother’s homes or at the lying-in hospital in Bedford Row.’
It must also be clearly understood that Angela’s Ashes is not a book about the lanes of Limerick but merely set in them.
It is a book about a poverty stricken family who allegedly fall victim to a misconstrued ‘spirit’ of a city and it’s people. There is no doubt that an element of abject poverty did exist on the lanes but the questions are for whom and for what reasons?
The ‘poverty’ dwelled with a rather curious backdrop.
It is both interesting and important that Limerick in that era was in fact the capital of the food production industry in Ireland. The city’s importance in the food manufacturing and processing industry in the early part of the 1900’s was directly attributed to the existence of her three internationally famous bacon factories.
Business flourished at Matterson’s, Shaw’s and O’Mara’s as Limerick bacon and hams became well known and in heavy demand throughout the world.
Bacon curing was Limerick’s chief asset but there was also plenty of work, for those willing to do it, in the thriving flour mills and cement factories.
No one doubts the poverty of Limerick in the Thirties. They were tough times. But despite the collapse of a number of industries, including ale, paper and linen factories, there was still a lot of work albeit low paid. There was also a dual welfare system – backed by the Roman Catholic Church and state – for those who did run into trouble.
Many locals argue the system worked, by-and-large. The huge bacon industry meant there was always cheap food and – despite what McCourt says in his book – there was no shame in eating pig’s head, even on Christmas Day. Josephine O’Reilly who lived a stone’s throw from the McCourts believed that pig’s head was a delicacy. ‘You had money if you could dine on a pig’s head for Godsake there was no surer sign of no shortage of cash in the house if somebody came home with a pigs head under their arm.’
Actually they weren’t known as pig’s heads at all but as ‘a Minister’s face.’ You could go to Nonie Maher’s on Parnell Street and look on the long shelf behind the counter where the pig’s heads were lined up and ready for purchase. The women would go there and buy half a head for half a crown. There is a well known Limerick story about an old lady who calls to Nonie’s for her pig’s head and sees all the snouts looking down on her from the long shelf.
‘For God sake Nonie throw me down one of them minister’s faces and will you for Jasus sake make sure there is some class of a smile on it.’
Former Limerick politician, historian and writer the late Jim Kemmy sang the praises of the ‘pigs head’ in 1980 when he wrote, ‘Limerick was the centre of the country’s bacon curing industry. This position was reflected in many ways in the life of the city, particularly in it’s food. During the depressed times of the thirties, forties and fifties, ‘bones’ of all shapes and descriptions – backbones, eye-bones, breastbones, spare ribs, strips, lots and knuckles – were familiar sights on the kitchen tables of those working class families fortunate enough to be able to afford them. Pig’s heads, tails, toes (crubeens), sheep’s head and feet (trotters) were also eagerly devoured in many homes in those not too distant days.’
And so it was to this ‘thriving’ city that the McCourt family arrived. On their arrival in Limerick the McCourts’ lived for a few weeks on Little Barrington Street before they moved to Windmill Street.
One of their neighbors on Little Barrington Street was Gerry ‘Gigli’ Lillis (74) who claims he remembers the McCourt family quite clearly and the day they first came to town.
‘Gerry Lillis is Limerick to the core,’ says the Limerick Leader in a detailed article entitled ‘Gerry recalls memories of fame and the McCourt’s.’
As a young boy he lived a few doors from the famous McCourt family in Little Barrington Street.
‘My mother used to keep 80 hens and Bill Whelan’s (Composer of ‘Riverdance’) mother would come down every day for eggs. She told us that she wanted to build Bill up by giving him the white of the eggs.
‘I used to pal around with Frankie and I can best describe him as a very deep thinker but very clever. He would go round on his own a lot, he was a real loner.’
Gerry went to Leamy’s school and left when he was 13 years old to take up a messenger boy job with Hartstonge Street Dairies. After six months working there he moved to Hutchinson’s Newsagents on Cecil Street and then moved to England before coming back to Limerick to work as a taxi-driver right up to his retirement.
‘I loved the book and felt it was ninety-percent accurate. The atmosphere of the book was right but I felt that he exaggerated on his own lifestyle. He overstated the misery a bit too much.’
Gerry was born in 1925 at the Mechanics Institute on Pery Square where his father was caretaker of the building. His family moved in the early 1930’s to Little Barrington Street only months before the McCourt’s arrived.
‘There was great excitement on the street because American’s were moving in and I remember that the word spread like wildfire that the McCourt’s were back in town.’
Gerry remembers looking up the street and watching the family coming down with bags and trunks in hand and he says that his first impression was that they looked ‘well off’ and fairly prosperous..
‘They were dressed in colorful American clothing while we were in rags and I remember thinking to myself that I had never seen clothes like that before.’
The McCourt’s were moving into their Grandmother’s house and were to share it with Aggie Keathing (temporarily separated from her husband Pa) and Pat ‘Ab’ Sheehan.
‘Aggie was a good neighbor and was always there in times of trouble. She was the woman who would call to the house when there was a death in the family and she would not only wash the body but would help to organise the funeral.’ ‘I don’t believe that ‘Ab’ was (as Frank claimed) ever dropped on his head but he was a little bit simple and he was also, like his sister Aggie, very thrifty and shrewd.
Gerry remembered Angela before she went to America and thought she hadn’t changed much at all when she came back.
‘Angela was an overweight and very talkative woman and was well liked by the people of the lanes.’
He admits that there was a powerful sense of community alive and well on Little Barrington Street and has no doubt that the McCourt’s shared in that sense of community and were, for the most part, contributors to it.
‘My clearest recollection of Angela is a woman who always stood at the front door with a broom in her hand and a Woodbine cigarette in her mouth.
‘She would stand there for hours on end laughing and joking and talking to almost everybody who passed the door.’ Former neighbor Mae Leonard whose family owned the local shop frequented by Angela describes ‘Mrs. McCourt’ as ‘a great talker and storyteller.’
‘I’ll never forget that woman. She trots out all sorts of tales while she enjoys the Woodbine cigarette right down to the smallest butt. So closely does she smoke that cigarette that her upper lip is permanently brown – as iodine colored as her index finger and thumb.’
Leonard describes Angela as a large woman with a moon shaped face that has threads of broken veins purpling it. ‘Her tweed coat is shorter than the skirt, which hangs lankly some inches below it. The buttons are strained over her broad chest giving her a slightly humped appearance. A woolen headscarf holds the bushy pepper and salt hair in check.’
‘Mrs. McCourt has time to tell yarns ‘to beat the band’ and to me she was a storyteller to the power of brilliant.’
Lillis’s most abiding memory of Frank as a little boy is one of ‘a young man who was more reserved and a kid with more ambition in life than any other boy living on the lane.’
‘Frank was practically friendless and more ‘learned’ and did not connect with the other children on the lane. He never took part in the innocent childhood shenanigans we got up to. He was above all that.’
‘Unlike his younger brother Malachy who loved a bit of fun he was above the common herd and rarely, if ever, associated with the boys from the lanes.’
‘Their father Malachy had no savvy and was known around Limerick as a ‘shinner’ (Sinn Fein member) who frequented the pubs and was over generous when he had money. He spoke with a northern accent and always sang old rebels songs and told wild stories when he had a few pints taken.
‘The odd thing was that he always struck me as a highly intellectual man and he was hard to understand with his mix of big words and funny accent.’
It was obviously a happy community living on Little Barrington Street and Gerry says those were the best days of his life.
‘There were no bolts on door and people helped each other out every day and the McCourt family shared in that. I very often came home and found groups of women, including Angela, sitting around the table talking and smoking, laughing and joking and gossiping.’
However, Lillis does remember a strange incident-taking place that spoke in volumes about the lack of willingness of Angela to help out in times of trouble.
‘At the time there was talk of three members of the Sheehan family (Angela’s first cousins) being sent to Glin (a borstal for young unruly or orphaned boys just outside of Limerick) and the neighbors got together to prevent this from happening.
‘Their father had died with TB and a few months later their mother died too and there was nobody to look after the family.’
The plan was that Aggie Keating was to take one of the Sheehan boys, Lillis’s mother would take the second and Angela was to take little Tommy Sheehan.
Both Aggie and Mrs. Lillis agreed to take the boys but Angela, for no obvious reasons, quickly and callously refused and the boys were sent to Glin.
‘That decision did very little for her reputation and the people of the area were shocked that she would see her own nephews and niece packed off to Glin rather than help them in their time of need.
‘It must have caused something of a rift in an otherwise close-knit family and I’m surprised that McCourt never elaborated on it in his book.’
It’s clear from this that while Angela begged for received and accepted the support of her immediate family she was not willing to do the same for them when the need arose.
Lillis believes that it is possible that Angela simply could not afford to help her cousins but the reality is that she wasn’t willing to try.
That story is confirmed by the same boy in question who still resides in Limerick. Tommy Sheehan now lives in the city centre and remembers the day when Angela was asked to take him into her home.
‘I was only a child and I remember sitting on the floor and looking up into her face as she thought for a moment about the idea of taking me into her home. I was filled with a sense of childish excitement at the idea of going off to a special school but I didn’t know just how bad things would turn out to be. She shook her head and said words to the effect that her life was hard enough and how could she be expected to look after yet another child when she could barely look after her own. She dismissed the idea very quickly and then left the room and there was no more about it.’
In the book ‘Suffer The Little Children’ by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan Tommy reminisces about those days and the consequences of Angela’s decision.
‘We were so hungry we’d eat dilisk (seaweed) along the strand at Glin. We’d eat haws off the bushes, and leaves on hedges as well, but it was mainly the dilisk. You’d have to sneak it up – if the Christian Brothers caught you, you’d get a hiding. It tasted very salty, but it wasn’t too bad. It probably saved our lives.’
Tom and Pat Sheehan were born two years apart and Angela was their aunt, their father’s sister. In 1945 their parents both died of tuberculosis within eleven months of each other. The two boys, then aged six and eight, were sent initially to the boys’ section of St. Joseph’s Industrial School, Killarney, run by the Sisters Of Mercy. Pat says, ‘When we were in Killarney, we got a big box of chocolates one time from our grandmother and even though we had been sent away she still cared for us. I firmly believe that she was the main reason that the McCourt boys didn’t end up in Glin Industrial School. Because they could very easily have. But it was Angela, their mother, and the grandmother who kept that family together.’
He continues, ‘But the grandmother died very shortly after she sent us these chocolates, and for us that was really the end of the family. Our Aunt Aggie visited us the odd time, and we were allowed out during the Summer to stay with our Uncle Ab, but we never really had much of a sense of family.’
Both Tom and Pat have few complaints about their time in Killarney. The food was adequate and the nun in charge was kind to them. They remember, however, that some of the lay women working there used to beat them.
When Tom and Pat reached the age of 10, they were each in turn transferred to St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Glin, run by the Christian Brothers. They were to find conditions in Glin dramatically different. It was big, with about 220 boys, ranging in age from about six to seventeen. What both brothers talk about most is the hunger.
Tom says, ‘We were just always starving. For breakfast, we got two slices of bread and dripping. Your dinner would be some kind of watery stew, hardly any meat, and a few potatoes if you were lucky. Supper, you got Indian meal, horrible lumpy yellow stuff. Around 1948, they phased out the Indian meal, and gave us gruel instead. It was a little bit better, but not much.
‘I used to climb over a little wall and go to the ash pit, where they burned the rubbish. I’d root around in there and often find bits of vegetables that I could eat.’
Pat agrees whole heartedly with his brother.
‘The only time you ever saw an apple was when you robbed an orchard. At night you couldn’t sleep because your guts would be rolling about so badly from the hunger. In the winter, you’d be freezing. We never had coats or jackets. Just short pants, shirt and jumper. They’d leave us out in the yard until eight o’clock at night, then we’d have to go in and have a wash before bed. The water was always freezing – we never had hot water for anything. So you’d be in bed, shivering, and it could take you till half-ten or eleven o’clock before you could get a bit warm. I’d be down under the blanket squeezing my feet to try and warm them up. And this was night after night, all winter long.
‘If you ever complained about anything, you’d be hammered. So you just never opened your mouth. The one thing that saved my life was my brother Tom, when he was working on the farm, he managed to slip me a turnip from time to time. I’d hide it, and wait until everything was quiet at night in the dormitory. Then I’d eat the turnip under the blankets. To my ears the sound of my teeth crunching the turnip was deafening. I was terrified eating them, but I was very, very grateful for those turnips.’
Tom adds, ‘When I was fourteen they put me working on the farm. That was a bit better, because you could steal the animals’ food It was my job to look after the pigs, all sixty or seventy of them. I’d have to clean out the sties, and I’d prepare their food as well – loads of boiled potatoes. But I made sure that I was Number One Pig, I fed myself first. The truth is that the pigs were better fed than the boys were. The Christian Brothers had a great big farm there. Some of the stuff, the potatoes and a few vegetables, would be used to feed the boys. But most of it was sold. The pigs would be sent into Matterson’s Meats for butchering, and the cattle were sold at the fair. They had a bout twenty cows, and the milk would be sent to the creamery. So it was like a commercial farm. The boys all worked on it for free, so I suppose they made a bit of money out of it.
He continues, ‘They also kept hens, about twenty of them. The eggs were strictly for the brothers – they’d have one in the mornings or maybe a fried egg with their tea. We only ever saw an egg at Easter. You would get one as a treat on Easter Sunday and that was your egg for the year. The egg store was a kind of hut and it was where boys would sometimes be taken for beatings from the Christian Brothers.’
Neither Pat nor Tom has any memory of anyone coming from outside to inspect conditions at the school.
Tom says, ‘We always knew the Christian Brothers could do what they liked. There was no one to stop them. They could kill you, and no one would know. I remember one Brother punched a boy in the refectory, in front of everyone, and knocked him out cold. He accused him of smoking and just knocked him flat. I got a kicking one night, I was about ten. This brother pulled me out of my bed and punched and kicked me all over the place. The only explanation was that he thought I was playing with myself. But he never really said why. We never saw any sexual abuse. But there was definitely sadism there. Maybe they got pleasure from that.’
Both Tom and Pat say that they have survived the experience of Glin. Neither feels that it damaged them unduly. Tom is married and still lives in Limerick. Pat emigrated for many years, and has now also returned to Limerick.
The McCourt’s soon moved to a place known as ‘the Windmill, just off Henry Street, where many of the houses on the street were pretentious with fine big rooms and it is best remembered by locals (of that time) as a hive of industry and trading for local merchants.
Because of it’s close proximity to the River Shannon it was said that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s ships could sail right up to the doorsteps of the homes and consequently most of the inhabitants in the 30’s and 40’s were descendents of families who were in some way connected to ships and the sea.
Foreign names such as Genoux, Ketlabug, Sciascia, Alta and De Ferrar were a dime a dozen in the vicinity of Windmill Street and the area was deemed more prosperous than most other parts of the city in that time.
Butchers, fishermen and country people came there to sell their produce and the ‘Windmill’ was best known as a sort of self contained village which resulted in a lack of interest shown by the rest of the city in the every day life of the district.
Foreign, British and Scotch captains and sailors had spent a lot of time coming and going to and from the area and this earned the Windmill the unusual nickname of ‘the flags’ (short for ‘the flags of all nations’) by the locals.
Emigrant vessels also came and went from the quays just yards from the Windmill and houses had been built to accommodate the crews of these ships who would stay in Limerick for days at a time. There was no shortage of rooms on the street and this explains how the McCourt’s were so quick to find lodgings near their relatives Aggie and Pa Keating.
Limerick historian and writer Jack O’Sullivan writing for The Olde Limerick Journal states that, ‘The outstanding characteristic of the people of the Windmill was their friendship and loyalty to one another. This is still noticeable, especially among the older generation. They seemed to be one big family and joys and sorrows were shared alike.’ In view of this fact the question must be asked as to why the McCourt family didn’t experience or share in that spirit. What was so different about them?
Limerick historian and former resident Gerry Gallivan writing in Autumn 1987 also remembers the vicinity with great affection.
‘The Henry Street that I knew during the 1920’s and 1930’s was a comfortable, down to earth place to grow up in. It was a close knit community and, while we might not have all been on first name terms, there was very little we didn’t know about each other. One feature of life indelibly associated in my memory with the Windmill is the singing at the corner of the street. Around eight or nine o’clock at night, young men would gather on the steps near Bridie Brown’s to swap yarns and to sing old songs in natural untutored harmony. I have only to close my eyes in moments of nostalgia and I’m back once more in the drowsy calm of still summer evenings hearing them again, and the words of the old favorite ‘Heart of my Heart’ could have been written specially for them:
‘Heart of my heart, how I love that melody, Heart of my heart, bring back a memory, When we were kids at the corner of the street, We were rough and ready guys, But oh how we could harmonise.’
‘All right, so if it’s easy to be sentimental looking back from a distance of fifty years and more I readily admit it. There had to have been problems, disappointments, disruptions, of course there were, but none of it changes the fact that Henry Street was a good place for a youngster to be when feeling his way towards life.’
Most of those who lived on the lanes of Limerick speak in glowing terms about that sense of community spirit, which was rampant throughout the poverty stricken alleys.
Limerick writer, historian and former Leamy’s School pupil Paul Malone has clear, but more optimistic, recollections of life on Limerick’s warren of lanes and at the school. He was born and raised at 14 Picquet’s Lane (better known as Piggott’s Lane) which was one of the last of the lanes to be demolished.
In the Summer of 1986 he wrote:
‘The lane was narrow at the top and widened out into a triangular, open space at the lower half; it’s houses ran into Dixon’s Lane at the right and left angles, thus forming an enclosed playing area.
‘My family lived in the lane during the Second World War years and we were all very poor but, as we knew no better, we were happy enough. Our parents had to put up with great hardship caused by the harsh environment. Poverty was the one common feature we all shared. We had a cold water tap but no toilet and buckets were used by all the families and had to be emptied each night at the top of the lane. Each house had three rooms: a kitchen, bedroom and attic. There was also a little yard behind.
‘The neighbours were generous with what little they had and everyone seemed to help everyone else. If a man was out of work, a pot of boiled potatoes would be often sent up to his house, with a pinch of tea and sugar.
‘People pulled together and did their best to help one another and we would seek almost any occasion for a sing-song and get together.
‘At Leamys the masters were good and kind but we hated school and how we learned anything at all after all the ‘mooching’ (skipping) was a miracle. We all retained one common goal in life and that was to leave school at fourteen, get into long pants, find a job as a messenger-boy on a bike and have a few bob to spend – after we had given the wages to the mother.
‘Looking back now with nostalgia, I can only remember happiness and courage, along with grinding honesty.
Closer analysis of some of the primary characters and situations in Angela’s Ashes reveals that Frank was ‘liberal’ with the truth and ‘scarce’ with the reality when it came to how he perceived and then described each and every one of these people and circumstances.
It’s best to illustrate this by example.
From the outset it seems strange that Malachy McCourt (Snr) and Angela Sheehan McCourt should uproot their entire family, for no obvious reasons, and move back to Ireland from New York in the mid 1930’s when the trend at that time was the exact opposite.
The expensive journey back to Ireland for Malachy, a pregnant Angela and the four children (Frank, Malachy, Oliver and Eugene) was financed, we are told, by Angela’s mother Margaret ‘Grandma’ Sheehan. A simple enough revelation and an apparent statement of fact.
But does it stand up to close scrutiny?
The revelation seems rather odd for many different reasons.
Malachy is depicted throughout the narrative as man who refuses point blank to accept charity from any person regardless of how desperate the situation is.
He frequently lacerates Angela for begging from St. Vincent De Paul and refuses to accept charity from his own family and friends. He even finds it unacceptable for Angela to go to the Dock Road to pick up loose pieces of coal off the roads.
‘We’re not beggars’, he insists.
Yet, this proud and independent man willingly accepts the return fare from a complete stranger (to him) without so much as a single word of objection.
Is it also somewhat odd that if she did, in fact, pay for the journey home why did the McCourts go straight to Toome to see Malachy’s family?
Would it not have been more appropriate for them to go directly to the source of their generous benefactor and come to Limerick?
It seems unreasonable that Margaret would pay for the more expensive boat trip from New York to Donegal when it was slightly cheaper and more convenient for the family to sail directly into Cobh Harbour.
On top of this one must ask was it necessary to send the money in the first place?
Why not go directly to the local booking office, which was the done thing, and pay for the one way tickets and just notify the family in New York that the passage has been paid?
It also seems highly unlikely when one discovers that while Margaret was not a poor woman she did live in the slums of Limerick and was not noted by her still living grandchildren for her generosity.
McCourt refers to her miserliness may times throughout the narrative from the moment she appears right up to her death.
She even begrudges her hungry grandchildren food.
‘Grandma grumbles around the kitchen making tea and telling Mam to cut the loaf of bread and don’t make the cuts too thick.’
Her grandson Tommy Sheehan remembers her as a strict and severe woman who was not given to extraordinary acts of kindness. He does admit that she was some times willing to do all in her power to keep the family together under dire circumstances but he has no clear recollection of any acts of philanthropy.
Former Neighbor Gerry Lillis says that it doesn’t sound feasible that she could afford to pay for the entire family to travel to Ireland.
‘She was a very thrifty woman with only a little money to play with and I found it hard to believe that she could afford to ‘shell out’ for the trip.’
We can justifiably conclude then that it is possible that Margaret was not the generous benefactor at all. Limerick people ask, ‘So if she didn’t pay for the journey who did and why? But perhaps this is jumping a little too far ahead. There is a more significant question to be answered.
Why was Angela Sheehan sent to America in the first place?
We are told that she worked for a short time ‘ a charwoman, a skivvy, a maid’ but she could not manage the curtsy and for that reason her mother packed her off to America.
A very rash punishment for such a little crime.
But is there more to it then that?
There is a different theory on the reason for the sudden migration. This theory is based on a common rumor in Limerick amongst many senior citizens and McCourt contemporaries.
Is there any truth in the stories which flew around Limerick at the time of her sudden departure that she may have been pregnant and the Catholic family couldn’t face the disgrace of it and sent her off to her first cousins Philomena and Delia MacNamara in faraway New York?
The main text gives many clues to the possibility that this could very well have been the case.
Consider for a moment the testimony of Angela’s childhood friend Moira Gallagher who claimed that the woman was too much of a devout Catholic and too ‘anti man’ to literally jump off a boat in New York and on the very same night find herself up a lane with a drunken stranger (Malachy Snr.) having full penetrative sex described by the author as a ‘knee trembler.’
‘I knew Angela too well and it is inconceivable to me that such a thing could happen. It would go against everything that Angela ever believed during her teenage years in Limerick.’
However, there are clues to a different sequence of events than Frank reports in his memoirs.
The first salient clue is when McCourt discovers that his parents were married on March 28th 1930 while he was born five months later in August – the famous ‘knee trembler’ (a euphemism for the moment of his conception) allegedly took place on the previous November – a perfect nine month period and a ‘perfect’ explanation.
It could be true but it’s doubtful.
We are asked to believe that a God fearing, practically teetotal, (at that point in her life) Catholic Irish young woman arrives for no obvious reason in an unfamiliar country where on her first night she visits an Irish speakeasy where she meets up with a drunken stranger and in a matter of hours is having sex with him in a back-alley in the dead of night.
But is this explanation a little too ‘perfect’?
Further doubt is cast on McCourt’s theory on the sequence of events in an alleged letter from Philomena to Angela’s mother in Limerick when she writes:- ‘She’s married four years, five children and another on the way.’ Six children in 4 years (including one set of twins) is possible but perhaps more than just a little improbable.
The alternative story is that Angela was deeply involved in a romantic relationship with a married man back in Limerick. The relationship culminated in Angela becoming pregnant and her family immediately dispatched her to America through pure catholic shame.
It would have been totally unacceptable for a young catholic Irish girl to walk the streets of Limerick pregnant and with no sign of a husband.
When Angela’s family got wind of the forbidden relationship and the pregnancy they decided that the solution would be to send her out of the country as quickly as possible.
One rumor fuel’s the other and there are people in Limerick who suggest that it not beyond the realms of possibility that the ‘other man’ may very well have been kept in the dark about the pregnancy.
There are people who believe that when Malachy Snr. discovered this for the first time he deserted his wife and family and moved to England and that was the real reason for his sudden departure from the lanes of Limerick.
Living members of the McCourt family admit that there was some ‘deep dark secret’ in Limerick in those days and that these may very well have been the ultimate cause for the breakdown of Malachy’s and Angela’s marriage. It is fair to say that these stories are almost impossible to prove or disprove but then, on the other hand, so are many of Franks.
Closer investigation of the text reveals further odd facts.
On arrival from New York at the Grandpa McCourt’s house Malachy tells his family that they have to use the back entrance. A custom kept in the most well to do homes of that era. The back entrance was for commoners while the front door was for special visitors and dignitaries.
Were Malachy’s family people of financial substance?
Grandpa’s first greeting to his son Malachy on entering the house is ‘Och you’re here’ and this seems to indicate that they were expected. Meanwhile Grandma McCourt has no words of greeting for her son, wife and grandchildren. She merely turns her back and continues to cook. Expected but perhaps not wanted.
Why would a mother not want to see her own son after a long time on far distant shores?
During their first meal together there are no familial excited conversations but instead a deadly silence with only words of warning from Grandma to Malachy to the effect that it would be best for him to get out of Toome as quickly as possible.
Malachy responds by outlining his intention to stay in Toome, get a small house and find work on local farms. Not exactly the words of a man who uprooted his family with a great master plan.
The feeble scheme is quickly abandoned and the next morning the family are sent away on a bus to Dublin to seek out money from an IRA man in Dublin.
The man in question is one Charles Heggarty with an address in Terenure (a predominantly Protestant area of Dublin, in that era, and an unlikely place for an IRA official to set up headquarters from his home.)
During his meeting with Heggarty the first real clue to Malachy’s background is given when he alleges to the man that he fought with a flying column. It is clear when the facts about Malachy is presented that he was as far from being a republican ‘hero’ as is possible to get.
For the benefit of the story Malachy is seen by his son as a war hero who ‘done his bit’ for Ireland but can this claim be justified?
It is a well-known fact that the IRA are always unfailing in their loyalty to those who support the cause and they never refuse help to the people who were known to help them.
Why then was Malachy refused?
Could it be that Heggarty knew full well who Malachy really was and also knew that this man was not deserving in any way whatsoever of IRA financial support?
The McCourt family falls into the hands of a generous policeman who offers them overnight shelter, food and ultimately, with the help of his colleagues, the train fares to Limerick.
A telegram is sent to Grandma and she arrives to meet the family off the train at Limerick railway station. There is no acknowledgement of her kindness for paying the expensive boat tickets back from New York and instead she is described as having white hair, sour eyes, black shawl and no smile for any member of the newly arrived family.
They return to Grandma’s humble dwellings on the poverty stricken lanes of Limerick and the house is described in a fashion that indicates that it is not the home of a person of financial substance with money to throw away on expensive family tickets from New York to Ireland.
After an overnight stay the family move to Windmill Street and it is from this point on that the story starts to become more malicious to the people of Limerick.
Up to this, as can be seen from the points elaborated on, a lot of questions remain unanswered. The answers to many of these questions can be found by closer scrutiny of an ‘alternative theory’ on the true circumstances surrounding the family’s hasty departure from New York.
The family home on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn was located in the heartland of the New York Irish Mafia of the 1920’s/30’s and by ordinary standards would not have been an ideal setting to raise a family if crime was not the main breadwinner.
However, it was the perfect setting for any person involved in crime but needed the protection and fellowship of fellow criminals.
Why did Malachy choose to raise his family in such an environment?
There is a more significant clue to ruthlessness of the man following the death of his daughter ‘Margaret’ a drunken Malachy is accused by Angela’s cousins of selling the body for medical research.
Ireland of the pre-war era, like other European countries, was at its most unattractive with poverty, depression and economic dereliction rampant. Why did Malachy decide that this is a good time to go home?
What forced his hand and, perhaps more importantly, why depart so suddenly, literally in the dead of night, with little pre-planning and clearly in an urgent and hasty manner.
Interestingly, in those days it was the tradition in the New York Irish community to conduct a ‘wake’ for any person who emigrated. It was accepted as fact that any person who left the shores of America would never come back and the emigration was seen as a ‘little death.’
There was no ‘wake’ for the McCourt family, which begs the question why not?
Frank McCourt’s ‘miserable Irish Catholic childhood’ really began on that fatal voyage and it is clear from his writings that he has found it difficult to forgive those who surrounded him and inflicted it upon him.
Was Malachy, a born storyteller, really as shiftless and loquacious as his son alleges? How bad was the alleged ‘drinking problem’ that made Malachy abscond initially from New York and eventually, having offloaded his wife and family in the slums of Limerick, run into hiding in England and Canada?
Why was it necessary for Malachy to hide in the first place?
Such are the unanswered questions still being asked in Limerick.
In the absence of hard cold evidence the talented and experienced storytellers of Limerick begin to speculate, add fact to fiction and use all the clues that are given to them to construct an alternative theory about the entire affair.
It is from here the stories find their roots and with each and every retelling a new clue is added until such time as the theory, like a jigsaw, is complete and then it moves from story to possibility, possibility to probability and onto the final step of probability to undeniable fact.
Frank’s venomous writing gave license to the Limerick storytellers because what is good enough for him is good enough for them.
The battle-lines were drawn and the storytellers showed up in droves for the fight and this was one they wanted to win.
They distorted the facts, twisted the realities, bent the truth and were as liberal with the actualities as much as McCourt did.
On one side you had the McCourt leading the media to defend his definition of ‘truth’ while on the other there were the storytellers of Limerick.
It was a fair match and only the best storytellers could win. As the war heated up the stories appeared more fast and furious.
Frank’s most prominent memories of the city of Limerick include coughs, bronchitis, asthma, consumption, running noses, catarrh, odors of piss and alcoholic vomit and, of course, endless rain.
When the people of his era were not sneezing and coughing they busied themselves being pious at Mass, Benediction and Novena’s.
Is this a true and accurate reflection of the thousands of people who lived on the lanes of Limerick and, if so, have we any more than Frank’s word on it?
How and why did Malachy McCourt find himself in New York?
Did he have any gainful employment during his New York days?
The only references made to Malachy’s ability to earn money is when he finds ‘jobs’ in unspecified locations from time to time.
Were the ‘jobs’ he found legitimate or were they more acts of a criminal fashion that are best-left secret because of their violent and anti-social nature.
It is an established fact from the narrative that Malachy was indeed a criminal of some shape, size or description. In a passing early reference Frank glosses over some very significant questions when he describes his father as being wild, in trouble and for ‘some desperate act ending up a fugitive with a price on his head.’
What desperate act?
Fugitive on the run from who?
Why did he have to be ‘spirited from Ireland via cargo ship’ from Galway to New York and who organised the fast exit?
The fact of the matter is that Malachy wasn’t spirited out of Ireland on a Cargo ship at all but openly departed from Liverpool and arrived in New York on July 16th 1922 having sailed on the passenger ship ‘Adriatic.’
If McCourts allegations about his father were true a very different picture of the man as ‘Irish hero’ emerges because only clandestine bodies in cases of extreme emergency orchestrated these ‘fast exits’. Such escapes were the reserve of the ‘elite’ members of illegal organisations in the event of a serious life-threatening situation that could not be handled on home turf.
But the American’s would love such a hero and that was perhaps Frank’s only motive for depicting his father in such a fashion.
New York Times book critic Denis Donoghue rightly had his doubts about the validity of the claim and expressed them in 1996.
‘Mr. McCourt’s mother was woebegone for good reason as if on principle. His father, Malachy McCourt was an idler, a drunkard, a layabout, a singer of patriotic ballads, a praiser of gone times, a sentimentalist, a slob, a sot addicted to the company of sots. So the miseries of Frank McCourt’s childhood are attributable to his father. A more generous welfare system would have helped, but DeValera’s Ireland was in the throes of the ‘economic war’ with England, and life was hard. Nonetheless, neither Ireland not Catholicism was to blame; Malachy McCourt was the sole miscreant.’
‘ He would have done the same damage to wife and children if he had given up the Faith and stayed in Brooklyn. Fair is fair. To start at the beginning: Malachy McCourt was born and reared on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. We are asked to believe that he joined the old IRA and committed such gory deeds that a price was put on his head. It may be true, but I doubt it. Maybe he took up arms in the Rising of Easter Week 1916 or in the Troubles of the years leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922-23 and thought it was wise to clear off to America in 1923 or later. Frank McCourt gives no evidence, any detail. His father’s name does not appear in the list of those that fought in 1916 and was later given pensions for their services. I suspect that the whole story of escaping from Ireland is a fabrication on his father’s part, a tale of derring-do recited and repeated with an air of drama to impress the children.’
Back in New York we further learn that Malachy and a friend named John McErlaine had spent time in jail for hijacking a truck full of buttons. Is it more than coincidence that ‘buttons’ was a code word for ‘bourbon’ amongst the Irish Mafia during the prohibition era?
The act of hijacking clearly indicates that Malachy was open to acts of crime and obviously moving in criminal circles but with whom? What is the real story of this ‘hijack’ and what does it tell us about the man himself?
It is also relevant to ask that when Malachy told his children stories of the Irish mythological character Cuchulain were they euphemistic stories for the real life adventures of his close friend and New York contemporary Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll (pronounced by a childish Frank as ‘Coo-hoo-lin’).
Malachy told many stories to his drinking pals in the pubs of Limerick but they were dismissed as the silly fabrications of a romantically inclined alcoholic.
The storytellers of Limerick will tell you that on one occasion Malachy, back in the bars of Limerick, outrageously claimed to have had ‘inside knowledge’ of the whereabouts of the Lindbergh baby and also told tall tales about his exploits on the streets of New York with the Irish Mafia.
Frank makes many references in the text of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ to ‘the hound of Ulster’ which, ironically, was Coll’s nickname given to him by his fellow New York Irishmen prior to the ‘Mad Dog’ tag.
The narrative clearly suggests by insinuation that there may have been strong close links between McCourt and Coll’s gang.
What were these connections and how deep were they?
The answers to these questions are highly relevant to the story of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ because they shed a completely new light on the entire saga.
As the opening chapters progress we are told that Angela pays her first visit to Saint Vincent De Paul and her family have to stand in a queue of women wearing black shawls. She is told about a gentleman official named Mr. Quinlivan who is described as a ‘grinny ‘ol bastard’ and he continues to talk to and treat the women in a fashion that would render him highly unsuitable as a charity worker.
But is there more to Saint Vincent De Paul and Mr. Quinlivan than the vindictive descriptions suggest? What does Quinlivan’s family have to say about the depiction? Is his family and still living members of St. Vincent De Paul worthy of a closer hearing?
We next meet a woman shopkeeper from Parnell Street named McGrath whom, Angela is told to; ‘keep on eye on the oul’ bitch for she’ll cheat you on the weight.’
The unflattering description continues that the woman is a thief who is ‘forever on her knees abroad in Saint Joseph’s chapel clackin’ her rosary beads an’ breathing like a virgin martyr, the oul’ bitch.’
So how does Mrs. McGrath’s still living relatives respond to this unchristian depiction of a much-loved member of their family?
Angela McCourt is warned by her ‘begging women’ acquaintances at the offices of ‘St. Vincent De Paul’ that when she goes to McGrath’s Shop on Parnell Street the ‘oul’ bitch’ behind the counter will cheat.
The warning is clear, precise and most emphatic.
Angela is told that the oul’ bitch will put stuff on a paper on the scale with the paper hanging down on her side behind the counter where she thinks you can’t see it. The object of the exercise is to fraud the impoverished customer and get them to pay for something they are not getting.
Cecilia’s daughter Mary Gormley is still living in Limerick and is convinced that it was, in fact, a direct reference to her mother. Sure enough when Angela arrives at the shop Mrs. McGrath tries to con the woman by tampering with the weighing scales.
When Angela’s friend patronisingly assures Mrs. McGrath that there has been an error the woman steps back and admits that the scales is giving trouble and that her conscience is clear before God. The implication is that Mrs.
McGrath is clearly a dishonest woman who is willing to rob and cheat her customers in spite of the fact that she is also depicted as a religious lady with a catholic conscience. (The Mrs. McGrath in question has been clearly identified in Limerick as Mrs. Cecilia ‘Cecil’ McGrath who was the only businesswoman of that surname operating a premises in Parnell Street in that era.
In fact it was not a shop at all but a pub.
There were no weighing scales, no groceries, no St. Vincent De Paul callers and no obvious connection between the woman herself and the McCourt family other than the fact that her pub may very well have been one of Malachy’s occasional locals ‘My mother was a very religious woman and she was a daily visitor to Saint Joseph’s Church and she did have a premises on Parnell Street. ‘When I first read the book I was deeply hurt and offended because that was not the mother I remember at all.’
According to Mary’s account her mother was very well known and liked by all her customers and her honesty was never questioned, ‘I have clear recollections of coming and going as a child to and from my mother’s pub and there were never groceries for sale from that premises. There was a grocery shop up the road from us but it wasn’t McGrath’s and it was a man behind the counter and not a woman.’
She agrees that it may be possible that Malachy would have paid the occasional visit to the bar because the customers all came from the very lanes of Limerick where the McCourt’s lived.
‘I think it was very unfair to attack my mother’s honesty, uprightness and religious faith the way he did and I am at a loss to figure out why he would do such a thing to a person who has done nothing wrong against him.’
We are then introduced to Angela’s older sister Aggie (Sheehan) Keating and it is clear that this woman has no love for her sister and family, ‘Ye are the most ignorant bunch of Yanks I ever seen,’ she tells the children. Aggie, as seen through the eyes of her nephew, is a begrudging and barren aggressive woman who has little or no time for her husband and family.
She seizes every opportunity to insult and offend all those she comes in contact with and shows no common Christian mercy for Angela. Is this the real Aggie Keating and does this depiction sit comfortably with those who knew her well?
Frank and Malachy enroll at Leamy’s National School and we are introduced to an assortment of strict and cruel teachers who carry leather straps, canes, ash plants and blackthorn sticks with ‘knobs’ for beating pupils for every possible crime and misdemeanor.
The most vicious of these teachers is Mr. O’Dea who hates England and frequently demonstrates his cruelty to young boys by ‘pinching your sideburns’ until tears are shed.
We also meet the more cruel and vicious pupils who seem to develop a very quick contempt for the McCourt brothers. The stories told by these pupils about life at Leamy’s National School are much different than McCourt’s recollections. Their testimonies speak in volumes about the real Mr. O’Dea who emerges as one of the kindest and most compassionate teachers at the school.
After the death of Eugene the family move from their second Limerick home on Hartstonge Street to a, six-shillings a week rent ‘two-up two-down’ house, one of six, on Roden Lane located half way up the steep Barrack Hill.
The house is at the end of the lane and, we are told, is attached to a common lavatory used by the residents, eleven families, (in six houses?) of the lane. In winter the downstairs of the house is saturated in water and the family are forced to live upstairs in ‘little Italy.’
Son of the immediate former tenants of the house Paddy Malone has a completely different recollection of it’s condition.
‘We lived at number six Roden Lane for two years and in my time there I never saw one drop of water enter the house. McCourt claims that the downstairs was permanently saturated and that is not the case at all.’
Paddy says when his family left the house the McCourt family moved in that very evening. ‘People only moved late at night because they may have been ashamed about the few little possessions they had.’
Paddy also disputes McCourt’s description of the communal toilets at the end of the lane and says that people were very discrete about using these facilities.
‘It was a communal toilet that was shared by the residents of Roden Lane and they would come there after dark to empty their buckets but we rarely, if ever, knew that they were there or had been and gone. People were very hygienic and the families living on the lanes would never make a public issue about cleaning out their buckets.’
Also living on the lane with the McCourt’s were the Hannon’s, Downes, Chris and Connie Purtell and an old lady named Bridgie Godfrey.
Paddy says that these were all ‘highly respectable families’ and it is inconceivable to him that they would ‘smell up the lanes’ the way McCourt describes.
Paddy’s words are merely an example of some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Angela’s Ashes by the people who lived on the lanes and know exactly what they are talking about. They were there and have first hand experience. They ‘walked the walk’ and are worthy of a fair hearing because they feel that what they have to say is not only honest and valid but necessary because they wish to defend themselves against the writings of what they perceive as being a bitter attacker with a malicious intent to destroy the good names and reputations of innocent people who are no longer around to defend themselves.
They offer detailed insights into the characters of Angela’s Ashes and when their evidence and testimonies are taken into consideration a different picture starts to emerge.
A picture totally without comparison to that as painted by Frank McCourt and his book which those who know no better have embraced as non-fiction. With closer scrutiny of each of the main characters of Angela’s Ashes, the circumstances of their lives, the manner in which they behaved in private and in public, how they lived their lives, spoke their words and talked their talk reveals that McCourt’s depictions are certainly not beyond question.
County Antrim forms the north-east corner of Ireland, and a channel only 13 miles (21 km) wide separates Torr Head from the Scottish coast. Lough Neagh (the largest lake in Ireland or Britain) and the fertile valley of the Bann occupy the western part of the country, but the greater part of it is an irregular plateau of hills and uplands, dropping sharply to the sea on the north and east. Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland and a great port and industrial centre, is built where the River Lagan enters Belfast Lough, near the southern end of the county. On the east a magnificent coast runs north from Larne, curving round the base of steep headlands, between which the beautiful nine glens of Antrim open to the sea. Today, almost every bay along the coast is a link in a chain of fine holiday resorts. On the northern coast the Giant’s causeway is a celebrated natural wonder.
Malachy McCourt Snr. was the son of a rich farmer in Antrim who traveled to and from New York during the early 1900’s for reasons that were best kept secret and remain largely unknown by his descendents. There were, of course, strong rumors within the family that the Grandfather (Malachy’s dad) was, in fact, an IRA fundraiser who had to spend months at a time raising funds in America.
The money was then used to buy guns and ammunition to keep the ‘struggle’ to end British rule in Ireland going. Family sources are clear that he had strong connections during the Prohibition era with a small and badly organised Irish mob group in New York known as the ‘Westies’. They were the most powerful of the Hell’s Kitchen gangs and were mostly made up of Irish tough guys from the West Side. There weren’t too many money spinning rackets open to the ‘Westies’ but they specialised in burglary, pool halls and raiding the docks and the Hudson River Railroad.
There were five hundred or more men actively involved with the gang who also made a little money lending their services as ‘heavies’ to some political candidates but most of their time was spent fighting other gangs at the behest of the unofficial leaders Monk Eastman, Happy Jack Mullraney and a particularly aggressive character known as One Lung Curran. It was through such unsavory characters that Malachy McCourt’s father made most of his big connections in New York and over a thirty year period he became closely connected with a vicious Irish criminal known as Owney ‘The Killer’ Madden.
He was a sophisticated dresser and was highly respected in New York’s high society through his connections in bootleg liquor, nightclubs, taxicabs, laundries and cloak and cigarette concessions. He also controlled interest in the popular Cotten Club in Harlem where he held many of his meetings with McCourt. It was during one of these meetings that Malachy’s destiny was arranged.
Joey McRory (Frank McCourt’s first cousin now living in Derry) puts it best when he states:
‘It seems that Frank’s Grandfather was damn good at his job but as he got older he wanted to educate one of his sons to follow in his footsteps. For reasons best known to him it was decided that Malachy was to be the one to take up the work’
‘It is well known in our family that as a young man Malachy had developed a passion for alcohol that caused a lot of concern within his family. The move to the ‘big apple’ would have a lot of advantages. He could be slowly but surely alienated from his rightful inheritance should his love for booze take over his life and the feeling was that if they could ship him off to New York they would not have to watch his demise and the embarrassment he created in the hometown would be brought to an abrupt end from the moment of his departure.’
The move to New York, in spite of early signs, didn’t prove to be that successful. It seems the original plan was to have Malachy escort boxing champion Primo Carnera with the sole purpose of protecting Madden’s interest. The only real threat to Madden’s power in Hell’s Kitchen was Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll who tried to organise gangs to take over Madden’s territory. Coll was shot to death in February 1932.
Coll wasn’t originally from Hell’s Kitchen but was brought there at an early age to be raised by his sister. He started working for Dutch Schultz early on. His mean temper and killer instinct made him an important enforcer in the Schultz gang.
When he was 19 he killed a harmless bartender for not buying Schultz’s beer. He was acquitted and it was not long before he started getting on Schultz’s bad side. He started robbing places without permission and when Schultz told him to lay low for a while he demanded that he and Schultz became equal partners. Schultz refused and Coll started up his own gang. He started to raid Schultz’s bootlegging empire and did the same to Owney Madden. His downfall began in Summer 1931 when Schultz’s top man in Harlem ‘Joey Rao’ was standing outside the Helmar Social Club along with his two bodyguards and a crowd of kids. A speeding car came by firing shots everywhere. One kid was killed and four others wounded while Joey and his bodyguards were uninjured.
It was common knowledge that Coll was behind the shooting and he started to be nicknamed ‘the baby killer’. In early spring 1932 Coll was talking on the phone when a man walked in with a Thompson sub-machine gun and executed him.
Coll died in a pool of his own blood and the word hit the streets that Owney Madden had set up the killing.
Some months later Madden was sentenced to twelve months in prison and that put an end to the plan for Malachy who was left to fend for himself on the streets of a city he knew nothing about.
The story goes that during these idle months he started to frequent the Irish bars more and more and before too long he was best known for his big mouth, boisterous behavior and ability to create havoc by irritating those he encountered with his aggressive conduct.
For a small man he was well able to make a lot of noise and his drinking buddies soon tagged him ‘Weasel.’
It was only a question of time before Malachy made contact with Edward J. ‘Eddie’ McGrath who came up the ranks of the Irish mob as a bootlegger under Madden. The two men were not strangers to each other and McGrath took pity on ‘Weasel’ and decided to give him a helping hand in the form of occasional work.
McGrath was best known by the Irish as a decent man who ‘looked after’ any ‘Paddy’ who showed loyalty to him. Malachy knew how to cash in on the man’s weakness for the Irish and became a close companion and associate of the feared criminal.
McGrath also had some very influential political connections and was very involved with the union. He had been appointed an ILA ‘organiser at large’ by the Unions president and his right hand men were his brother-in-law John ‘Cockeye’ Dunn and Andrew ‘Squint’ Sheridan.
He controlled the numbers game throughout the port of New York and it is believed that Malachy got a job as a ‘money runner’ because of his ability to move quickly like a weasel in the night.
‘Weasel’ was making a lot of money then and very quickly earned himself a lot of respect from the Irish community because of his involvement with McGrath.
He was wearing the best clothes, went to the best restaurants and ate the best food. As the months rolled on McGrath took an even deeper liking to ‘Weasel’ and decided to give him important odd jobs ranging from running errands, delivering goods, armed delivery passenger and, from time to time, delivering whores to McGrath’s pre-arranged hotel rooms. It was in the course of one of these jobs that Malachy’s New York criminal career came to an abrupt end. Can Malachy’s own stories of why he absconded from New York be believed. There are still people in Limerick who recall Malachy’s endless yarn-spinning in the pubs of Limerick and what was once believed to be no more than a drunken brag looks now to have some semblance of the truth.
There are many people in Limerick who will testify that Malachy and his family, on their arrival to Ireland, were far from poor. Many of McCourt’s contemporaries have already publicly stated that the McCourt family were the best dressed children on the street. There seemed to be no real shortage of money for the first year or two of their Limerick days and that the real reason for Malachy’s pride was financial independence. The family didn’t need to beg, borrow or steal because there was no real shortage of money.
Malachy was, in fact, considered a very generous man who was well known throughout the lanes of Limerick for spending his money on long and expensive drinking sessions with many companions.
It is further believed that he was, in fact, the person who paid for the family to travel back to Ireland because he needed to get out of New York as quickly as possible.
In fact, he bragged about his wealth on many occasions when he had more than enough drink taken. He would claim that the only reason why he ever came to Limerick was because he had to get away from the gangsters in New York.
From the moment when Angela’s compulsive gambler and bigoted sister Aggie appears in the narrative she is depicted as a ‘fat cow’, uncouth and a hard hearted acrimonious brutal woman with little or no time for her sister and family, ‘they say she’s always angry because she has red hair or she has red hair because she’s always angry.’ ‘I don’t know why she is always angry. Her flat is warm and dry. She has electric light in the house and her own lavatory in the back yard.’
Aggie’s campaign of hatred against her sister and family commences with her initial appearance in the book. Her first action is to refuse her just arrived and exhausted sister, whom she describes as ‘so useless she couldn’t even scrub a floor’, the comfort of sharing her bed and from that point on the reader is led to believe that both Angela and Aggie were certainly not friends.
‘Mam doesn’t talk to her sister, Aunt Aggie’.
The contempt that Aggie shows for her own sister pales into insignificance by comparison to the disdainful manner with which she treats Malachy and her nephews whom she refers to as ‘Angela’s mistakes.’
When she is asked for help, ‘she’ll only bite your head off.’
On her next appearance she shows pure contempt for the newly arrived Americans when she is called on for help because her sister is losing a baby.
‘Ye are nothing but trouble since ye came from America,’ she responds when she is told that her sister is unwell. It is as if each time she enters the story she is guilty of new acts of unpleasantness and each one is worse than the last. She refuses to feed the hungry children porridge when requested to do so by her mother, jealously frowns on her sister’s ability to have children, venomously contradicts her sister at every available opportunity including unsympathetically when the grieving Angela was burying her son Eugene.
It seems as if the woman is on a lifelong crusade to inflict as much mental and physical pain, agony and suffering on her sister and family and is willing to stop at nothing to destroy Angela’s happiness.
She is nowhere to be seen when Angela buries her first son Oliver and her heartless behavior continues as she refuses to place the body of the deceased second child Eugene into the coffin, ‘that’s the job for the mother.’
She offers no words of comfort nor pays a visit to the profoundly ill young Frank when it is believed he is dying in hospital of typhoid fever, refuses to offer any help, support or compassion to the depressed Angela and brutalises her sister’s children when she is in hospital with pneumonia.
When the children are forced to stay with Aggie for a short while she seizes the opportunity to dish out horrifically ruthless abuse including namecalling, openly defecating before them, thumping and hitting them, stripping them naked and sending them out into the wintry cold – ‘I want to tell her it’s the middle of February, it’s freezing outside, we could all die, but I know if I open my mouth I might die right here on the kitchen floor.’
She forces the children out to her backyard where they have to scrub each other’s icy naked bodies until she orders them to stop and then makes them stand, still naked, in the shed to dry off.
When Pa Keating tries to defend the children he is told that it is none of his business, ‘they are not yours,’ before sending them out into the cold February night as she sits on front of her warm fire.
Her hatred for young Frank is obvious from the outset when she clatters, wallops and abuses him at every available opportunity. Even when he makes simple mistakes she is on top of him like a ton of bricks. When he has a minor mishap while attempting to start a fire she physically and verbally abuses the fearful child and compares him to his useless old man, ‘you have a puss on you like your father from the North.’
McCourt claims that Aggie tormented him all the time and called him ugly and hurtful names like ‘scabby eyes’ and the confused child tries to make himself unwell by standing out in the cold in an attempt to catch pneumonia just to get away from her mental and physical torture.
She continues in her campaign of hatred by telling the hungry children she can’t stand them and sends them out each morning into the cold day for hours on end with strict instructions not to come home until nighttime.
When the children ask for food they are beaten and slapped until they cry but, in the presence of an adult she experiences an incredible transformation.
When Malachy Snr returns he is given tea, eggs and sausages and a bottle of stout and when he leaves the house with his children she waves them off with an invitation to come back for tea anytime because they are good boys. It isn’t until her penultimate appearance in the book that we learn that there is another more human side to Aggie Keating. Her one and only act of kindness is when she takes a surprised teenage Frank, who is about to start work as a telegram boy, to Roches Stores to buy him a shirt, gansey, two pairs of shoes and stockings and a short pants, ‘fat and lazy, no son of her own, and still she buys me the clothes for my new job.’
Are we being given a fair, truthful and accurate narration of the woman described by her contemporaries as strict but honest, occasionally cantankerous but upright, religious but human and perhaps most of all, helpful, kind and considerate?
Is this one of the few occasions in ‘Angela’s Ashes’ when the author describes a character without distorting the reality?
Was ‘Aggie’ as cruel and brutal as the author claims?
Are the people who testify to Aggie’s good character simply unaware of her brutal side that only the McCourt boys themselves witnessed and experienced?
So which is the real ‘Aggie Keating’?
Was she a cold, hard, ruthless and brutal ol’ bitch or just simply a disagreeable but likable ordinary working class woman weighed down by her own personal little problems but willing to help and support her family, friends and neighbours if and when the need arose.
In fact, that need arose in the case of her first cousin Gerald ‘Laman’ Griffin when he died at Limerick City Home of ‘Myocarditis Gastric Carcinoma’ in 1961, a poverty-stricken man, the receipts at Thompson’s Funeral Parlour on Thomas Street clearly indicate that she paid in cash for the funeral.
More than this, Frank fails to mention in his book that at the alleged time he and his family were staying with Aggie there was in fact another person living in the house.
That person was Aggie’s niece Peggy Sheehan who came to live with her ‘Auntie Aggie’ and Pa after her parents had died.
Pat ‘Ab’ Sheehan was perhaps one of the best known of the ‘Limerick newsboys’ who were a highly respected group of local lads that dedicated their lives to going from door to door selling local and national newspapers.
Former ‘newsboy’, the late Frank Renihan remembered ‘Ab’ very clearly in 1980 when he wrote for The Olde Limerick Journal. ‘Another legendary seller was Ab Sheehan, who was renowned as a Young Munster fan and who sported a black and amber scarf the length of himself.’
According to Frank, ‘All the old Limerick newsboys who faithfully served the people of Limerick down through the years are now forgotten by the present generation. And there were some outstanding characters and personalities among these men. Their names, their doings and the stories told about them are never far from my mind.’
He continues, ‘When I entered the business selling newspapers meant physically fighting for your corner and punches were often exchanged. But in spite of the efforts of a rough, tough element, most of the newsboys survived.
‘The newsboys used to compete with one another to sell their papers to the sailors at the docks. The quay was often lined with ships and the boys would go aboard to provide a service that has long since ended. Other spots we used to concentrate on were the late cinemas, dance halls and forty-five drives. The people living in the housing estates got a special service of their own and they used to wait up until all hours – no matter how late the paperboy was on his rounds.’
‘For the newsboys it was a tough life. There was no guaranteed weekly wage and ‘wet time’ payments were unheard of. Late arrivals and unsold papers were occupational hazards. There were no handouts from the state, no medical cards, no holiday pay and no pension schemes. There was no economic security, many of them died penniless and are buried in paupers graves.’
Irish journalist Mary Kenny is angry at the manner in which Ireland, it’s people and institutions and more specifically Saint Vincent De Paul are depicted in Angela’s Ashes.
‘There is scarcely anyone in the whole story with an ounce of humanity. The McCourt family are all vile: the father is an aimless drunk, and the mother is a weak slut: the grandmother is a bigoted old bitch and the aunt is an embittered, scolding battle-ax. The Uncle is selfish and ignorant. The cousin is a loathsome brute. They are, as a clan, entirely devoid of family feeling or kindness for one another, at least when the children are young. Indeed, everyone in the Limerick of Angela’s Ashes is especially beastly to children. If the family is awful, the neighbours are ugly and mean-spirited, the representatives of the state are cruel and hard-hearted, and teachers, with one exception, are sadistic, twisted tyrants who deliberately mock poor children for their poverty. It goes without saying that the Church is sneering, cruel, rejecting, and exploitative, and the Saint Vincent De Paul are represented by most particularly odious characters who taunt poor women before they patronise them. You cannot libel a group of more than eight people, but if you could, the Vincent De Paul certainly would have a legal redress, they should do something to contradict their good name being attacked and undermined as it is in this book.’
We are told that the ruthless officials at Saint Vincent De Paul refer to the poor who seek help as ‘beggars’
‘Well I remember the war years. As a matter of fact, I was seven years of age when the second World War broke out. I have vivid memories of scarcities. Poverty in Limerick was common amongst the working people. Most of the men had gone to England, that ever open safety valve. Most households had money coming home from Britain. A familiar, and indeed a welcome sight was the wire-boy with the money-orders from the cities of London, Liverpool and Birmingham. A phrase well known then was ‘Any sign of the wire-boy?’
The telegram boy would race into our area ever conscious of his mission. He would distribute his post and would get the odd ‘tanner’ (sixpence) here and there. The telegram would be opened gingerly. It would be signed by the head of the house and cashed at the local huxter shop. Then the big vase would come down from the mantelpiece overflowing with pawnshop tickets.’
Stephen Carey, another of McCourt’s victims can be best described as a social apostle.
He dedicated his life to the catholic church and was famous throughout the length and breadth of the region for his devotion to the poor people of the lanes of Limerick.
Stephen was noted as a very decent and caring man who gave his life to the church and the community for which he was awarded the Papal Benemeranti Medal.
His living relatives have publicly testified to their abhorrence at the way in which their beloved family member was treated in Angela’s Ashes.
In the book Stephen is accused of slamming the door in the face of the young McCourt when he wanted to become an altar boy.
McCourt tells of how he and his father walk to Saint Joseph’s Church to see the sacristan, Stephen Carey, about young Frank becoming an altar boy. When they knock on the door, Stephen answers and McCourt tells in his book: ‘Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, we don’t have room for him, and closes the door. Dad is still holding my hand and squeezes till it hurts and I want to cry out.’
But the Carey family are deeply hurt at the insulting manner in which Stephen was portrayed as a heartless man. ‘We thought it was unjust and hurtful what Mr. McCourt said about my father,’ said Marie Siegel, daughter of Stephen, (now living in Friedrichdorf, Germany) to Limerick Leader journalist Iain Dempsey in March 2000.
‘We want the people of Limerick to look on my father with kindness and not with malice. He spent his life in the church and was of great benefit to his native Limerick and it’s people.’
Diana Peckham (Granddaughter of Stephen) says, ‘My grandfather is portrayed in the book as a cold and heartless person who slams the door in the face of a poor little boy who wants to be an acolyte and with these few words from McCourt a very decent and caring man has been damned in the eyes of many readers around the world. My Grandfather was a great parish clerk, dedicating his life to the church and to the community.’
‘My family also suffered the loss of two infants who would have undoubtedly have lived had they been born into more modern times. Stephen did not blame fate or others for the things that went wrong in his life but gathered strength and carried on. Times were hard for everyone and he had an enormous faith and lived his life in accordance with Christian principles.’
‘My grandfather was always a gentleman and he viewed the world with compassion and he is part of Limerick history and represents all that is commendable in the Irish spirit.’
She further stated that she is ‘stung’ by the injustice that the book was published and embraced as a work of non-fiction when the author himself had often admitted that he has embellished imperfect memory.
Marie grew up on Saint Joseph’s Street just yards from McCourt’s home on Barrack Hill and was the eldest of nine children. Her father died in 1981.
She was not the only one to stand up in defense of her father.
Dr. Tom Ryan, honored by the Catholic Church by being made a Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre and one of Ireland’s most respected oil painters, also deemed it necessary to publicly comment.
Over the past 40 years Dr Tom Ryan has become one of Ireland’s most distinguished oil painters. His portraits and landscapes have ascended every art gallery of significance in the country.
They can be viewed in the State Rooms at Dublin Castle and in prestigious private collections.
‘His portraits capture a Who’s Who of Irish society’ says Limerick journalist Jimmy Woulfe. In fact, most people can get a glimpse of Tom’s work by simply reaching into a pocket or purse. He was commissioned by the Central Bank to draw the deer for the Irish £1 coin.
Tom, who has an honorary doctorate from UL, was born at 30, St Joseph’s Street, in a cul de sac leading to the People’s Park.
His memories of the neighborhood are far brighter than those set out by Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, a book which Tom is highly critical of.
‘Don’t mention that McCourt name to me again,’ he told Mr. Woulfe of the Limerick Leader in January 2000. When Woulfe asked him to elaborate, he continued: ‘He mentioned people whom I knew and respected. I was an altar boy in St Joseph’s where Stephen Carey was the parish clerk. Stephen was a very special man, a small man with black curly hair. He kept the church beautifully and attended to his duties in a very correct way. People liked and respected him. One of the things he taught me was the Morse code.
‘I think McCourt was malicious in the way be portrayed Stephen. The only way to sustain that deliberate antagonism was malice, and if he had written it about some town in the middle of the Ukraine it might have been easy for us to read it.
‘The book had a remarkable success and people are a bit intimidated by that. Certainly, some of the people who applauded it already had chips on their shoulder about Limerick. So this book was proof positive for them.
‘Take the Redemptorists. Apart from the rigidity which was fashionable in religious circles at that time, they were very generous as well. They looked after the poor; they looked after the necessitous. They set up a credit union. A totally admirable body of men and this bloody blackguard attacks them.’
Can this really be the same Stephen Carey who ruthlessly slammed the door on the face of an impoverished child seeking to befriend God by being his servant on the altar of Saint Joseph’s Church?
If not then the question must be asked as to why McCourt felt it necessary to discredit a ‘shining light’ of the Catholic Church.
One can do more than merely speculate as to his thinking.
In an interview with Jim Saah of ‘Uno Mas’ he admits to his loathing for the Catholic Church.
‘So now I just have nothing but contempt for the institution of the church. And the priests who should have known better, who were of no… not just of no use to us, they just ignored us. Except to threaten us. Come to pay our dues… although we didn’t have it. They were always looking for money. And they lived well. They were nice and fat, glowing. They had cars, they had crates of whiskey and wine delivered to their houses, and they preached poverty but as far as the institution of the church is concerned, I think it is despicable.’
Hardly the words of an unbiased man.
Clearly then it is not Carey the man that is under attack here at all but what he represented. Stephen was the archetype of all that is good about the Catholic Church. By discrediting him McCourt may well have known in his heart that only the people of Limerick would truly understand the level of bitterness of the attack.
To the rest of the world Stephen is no more than just another minor character in a book but to the people of Limerick he was an angel of the streets.
In the eyes of the people who knew Stephen the allegation is as outrageous as accusing Mother Treasa of being a thief.
By swiping at him McCourt was, in fact, swiping at the deeply held religious beliefs of his contemporaries. It was, in fact, a shocking allegation that Stephen could be so unkind.
In fact, the reality is, that many believe that this is no more than a made up story designed to serve McCourt’s selfish purpose to ‘have a go’ at Limerick and all it hold’s dear.
After all, we only have McCourt’s word on it and is that good enough to render the story true and not open to question?
Are we expected to believe that McCourt is telling the truth and Stephen’s family and highly distinguished acquaintances are liars?
Gerard ‘Laman’ Griffin appears in the latter pages of Angela’s Ashes and is very quickly defined as a chauvinistic crude and vulgar contemptuous, whiskey soaked, aggressive, willingly bedridden, figure who abuses, physically and verbally, Angela and her family.
The McCourt’s are forced to move into Laman’s small cottage on Rosbrien Road after the rent man on Roden Lane discovers the damage done to the house and evicts them.
The author is mystified as to why Angela’s first cousin Gerard is nicknamed Laman.
He earned the nickname as a child when his mother ran a small shop from the house and was noted for selling toffee apples. These were known in that time as ‘Laman apples’ and thus Gerard was known as Laman Griffin the man who sold Laman apples.
As Griffin snores, snorts, spits, belches, farts, blows his nose and spews out mucus for page after page the message is clear that this man is obviously an obnoxious and repulsive figure of a human being.
He spends his time pissing and excreting into a chamber pot and leaving the mess for Frankie and his mother to clean up.
But Frank is not alone in his hatred for Griffin.
Malachy, in his book ‘A Monk Swimming’ describes Laman as a drunken sot, ‘a cousin of my mother’s, and it wasn’t long before she was sharing his bed despite his cruelty to her and us. Part of the deal, I suppose, for giving us shelter.’
We also learn in a ‘by the way’ fashion that Laman was educated at Rockwell College, was an officer in the Royal Navy from which he was dishonorably discharged for drinking, member of the National Front and highly respected rugby player with the distinguished Young Munsters team in Limerick.
Frank tells us that Laman played when Young Munsters won the Bateman Cup in 1929 but, in fact, he did not play in that particular match because of a leg injury. But this misinformation may have just been through unawareness.
Perhaps the most controversial issue in the entire book for the people of Limerick is the manner in which McCourt makes sexual allegations against his mother.
However, it must be noted that McCourt never states for a clear fact that his mother and Laman were involved in a sexual relationship.
He merely alludes to it.
But that was more than enough to do the damage.
The first reference to the affair is made when young Frank is lying awake in bed and listening to ‘talking, grunting and moaning’ coming from the attic bedroom where Laman is with Angela.
‘I ‘m thirteen and I think they’re at the excitement up there.’
In fairness, the possibility that the alleged relationship may be no more than the product of a sexually fertile teenage imagination is not ruled out.
What would motivate a son to write such unprovable allegations about his own mother?
One can only speculate as to the answer.
By writing this he is clearly accusing his mother of breaking the sixth commandment. This is interesting because throughout the narrative this is the only commandment he repeatedly quotes ‘Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery’. He needs to reinforce the importance of this commandment for the reader because it is one that he obviously hold’s very very dear.
In short, break this one and you are really trash and fitting of any abuse that any person cares to hurl at you. He considers masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality forms of adultery.
His distorted interpretation of the word makes him a vile and repulsive sinner in his own eyes and if he can justifiably accuse his own mother of equal sin then it makes the load on his catholic conscience a little less burdensome.
The revelation that he believes his mother has broken this commandment makes her, in his estimation, a fitting target for his judgmental accusations.
Interestingly the fact that he is equally as judgmental to his mother prior to her ‘big sin’ with Griffin is further proof, if needed, of his maternal contempt.
Sex is foremost on his mind at the time of the alleged incident between Angela and Griffin and it is therefor fair to conclude that it is possible that they were totally innocent of the charge.
The reality may be that Gerald ‘Laman’ Griffin was an innocent party to the allegations leveled against him by Frank. It is possible that ‘Laman’ became a euphemism or name substitute for another man.
But because ‘Laman’ is long dead and has no known living relatives at the time of publication his name was used to protect the identity of the true perpetrator of the so called crime.
The facts about ‘Laman’ are in total contradiction to Frank’s revelations.
Laman was never a student at Rockwell College and was never in the British navy as Frank claimed. A detailed search of the records at the library at Rockwell College in Clonmel, County Tipperary in March 2000 produced no former records whatsoever of a Gerard, Gerald, Jerome or Jeremiah Griffin ever being in attendance at the school. However, there was a man by the name of Michael Griffin (surname merely a coincidence and no relation of Frank’s or Laman’s) who lived on Barrack Hill, just a stones throw from Frank’s home on Barrack Lane, who was a student at Rockwell and also spent some time in the British Merchant Marines.
Could he have been the ‘real’ Laman Griffin?
If so why would Frank intentionally conceal his identity while, at the same time, destroy the reputation of an innocent man?
Although he is totally ignored throughout the text of Angela’s Ashes Jackie Brosnan was a major player in the life of Frank McCourt. If he were to appear in McCourt’s narrative he would be a total contradiction to the illusion of ‘poverty and hardship’ that the author was creating.
Limerick businessman and former St. Joseph’s Scoutmaster Jackie had a tremendous influence on Frank McCourt’s teenage life in Limerick.
Not only was he the man who introduced McCourt to Saint Joseph’s Boyscouts, who were considered to be the ‘elite’ boyscout movement of that era, but he also employed McCourt for five years (1944 to 1949).
Jackie’s recollection’s of the young Frank, whom he describes as a ‘Walter Mitty’ type character, are nothing but pleasant and up to his death in Summer 1999 when he granted me an interview on his deathbed he defended the authenticity of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ at every available opportunity.
Jackie states in the interview that McCourt was a pleasant, outgoing, jovial and talented young man. He further reveals that Frank was an amazing drummer.
‘He was one of the best drummers I have ever seen in my life.’
This was an astonishing revelation in that McCourt fails to make any reference whatsoever in Angela’s Ashes to the fact that he was trained, at some expense to his family, to become a noted Bass drummer.
However, Jackie was a man who was not without unanswered questions as to the veracity of McCourt’s book which he says he loved in spite of it’s obvious mistakes.
In Brosnan’s words there was definitely a feeling of absolute loyalty shadowed by a sense of fear as he spoke about his recollections of the writer.
It seems that Frank without explanation made a conscious decision to protect the identity of Jackie Brosnan and seemed to have substituted his name and identity with that of an alleged ‘Irishtown’ community resident moneylender named Mrs. Brigid Finucane.
‘Finucane is a repellent moneylender who exploits the poor of Limerick, though Mr. McCourt has noticeably very carefully not written her as Jewish. It is a simple point of objective history that – for quite understandable historical reasons – moneylenders in Limerick were Jewish, but there are regulations now that you are only allowed to be critical of Catholics, so the moneylender in the story has to be made into a spiteful Catholic vixen, complete with statues of the Blessed Virgin scattered around her extortionate book-keeping.’
None of the people I interviewed had any recollection whatsoever of this lady and we can therefore fairly conclude that no such person existed.
Just another of Frank’s ‘made up’ characters.
As a post-office worker McCourt delivers a telegram to Finucane who offers him a commissioned job writing threatening letters to her customers. Frank, without hesitation, seizes the opportunity because he was desperate to go to America and saw this as a way of financing his trip.
He responds to Finucane’s demands to ‘threaten ’em, boy. Frighten the life out of them’ by composing letters to his laneway neighbours ‘ my own people’ and family friends and then proceeding to pilfer the money as a drunken Finucane slips into sleep while counting the profits.
McCourt arrives at Finucane’s home one evening to find her dead and help’s himself to a substantial amount of her money ‘enough to go to America’ and her accounts book which he later throws into the river Shannon. In the period Frank claims he was in the employ of Mrs. Finucane he was actually employed by Jackie Brosnan.
Jackie was the owner of a very busy ‘Radio and Bicycle Shop’ also offering a range of nursery items on Upper William Street in Limerick before, during and after the McCourt era. It was a matter of procedure that his customers would call to the shop and buy goods on what was commonly known as the ‘never never.’ This simply meant that the customer would take the goods away from the shop and return each week and pay the bill by installment. Jackie, being the soft hearted gentleman that he was would, more often than not, be taken advantage of by some of the less scrupled people who failed to pay up for the goods, ‘Many is the time I was left unpaid for goods,’ he openly admits in the interview.
Could it be that he perceived McCourt’s ability as a writer as the solution to his problem?
He first met Frank McCourt when the boy enlisted as a member of Saint Joseph’s Boyscout movement of which Brosnan was the scoutmaster at the time.
The two became very friendly after Frank learned that Brosnan was well known for owning a large business and had no shortage of money. It was only a question of weeks before the opportunistic teenage McCourt was in the employ of Brosnan where he worked as a ‘sales assistant’ and accounts keeper.
‘He was a great worker and willing to do any kind of work for me whether it was mending bicycles, selling radios, collecting accounts or sweeping the floor.’
Brosnan never thought of McCourt as being short of cash.
‘He was the only member of the Boyscout movement, that I can recall, who paid for everything in cash. He often went on daytrips with us all over Ireland and would always pay up front while the rest of the boys would have to pay a few pennies a week prior to the excursions. He even paid for his uniform in cash and that surprised me because it was totally unheard of at the time.’
Brosnan remained undoubting of McCourt’s honesty and was ‘surprised’ to read Frank’s confession of theft from Finucane.
(Interestingly the only Finucane that Brosnan remembered was his own lifetime friend and fellow businessman Vincent Finucane who still owns a TV and Radio Shop in Limerick.)
Even Jackie’s friends and acquaintances are mystified as to why his name was excluded from the writer’s memoirs. Limerick politician and former City Councilor Seamus Houlihan (66) who describes himself as a true Labour Party man and staunch Trade Unionist shared his teenage years in the same troop with McCourt in St. Joseph’s Boyscouts. ‘Young boys came from all walks of life to Saint Josephs but I suppose they were the ‘luckiest’ of the families from the lanes of Limerick. My mother insisted that I go to the boyscouts with my pal Dan Doyle from Dominic Street and little did I know then that these were to be some of the happiest years of my life.’
Seamus was born into a family of nine and says that in those post war years there was a shortage of food and clothing but that did not mean that the people were miserable.
‘We had great neighbours and a very good upbringing and there was a tremendous sense of community spirit rampant on the lanes of Limerick. I can’t understand why the McCourt family did not share in that experience. It is a complete mystery to me. People helped each other out all the time, it was the done thing in those days.
Neighborliness was very important amongst these tight-knit communities and it wasn’t possible to survive without the help of the people living next door or up the street. Everybody pulled together and that is how they got through the hardship of those times.’
Seamus has a vivid recollection of McCourt and describes him as a ‘very aloof young man.’ He was the type of guy that stayed in the background and it was as if he saw himself as being better than the rest of us.’
But there was one exception to this ‘aloofness’ and that was when Frank McCourt was banging his big Bass drum.
‘He was also an excellent Bass drummer and was one of the best I have ever seen. He played with the 10th Limerick Saint Joseph’s Boyscout Band and he knew how to draw attention to himself when he paraded the streets.’
Those days in Saint Josephs were days of contentment, fun and joy, for every member including McCourt.
‘We had to pay a penny a week for various activities and Frank took part in almost everything that went on. He attended lessons in Geography, History, went on the day trips, the outings and it was guaranteed that when something was going on Frank McCourt would be involved in some way or another.’
‘We took many daytrips by train to Youghal or Kilkee or Ballybunion and McCourt was on every one of them. I don’t remember an occasion when McCourt was not there, fag in the mouth and looking completely happy and contented.’ ‘Jackie Brosnan was a complete gentleman and a highly active member of the movement and he also seemed to have a close friendship with McCourt. They got on very well together and you rarely saw one without the other. It is a mystery to me why Frank didn’t write about his days with Jackie because the poor old man deserved to be acknowledged for his many kindnesses to the author.’
Peter and Anne McCourt lived in a place known as ‘White’s Lane’, a stone’s throw from Barrack Hill, up to 1935 when Anne died (Age 22) of consumption. The fact that there was another ‘McCourt’ family resident on the lanes just a few streets away from Frank’s home on Barrack Lane is, on the face of it, no more than a coincidence. However, is it also a coincidence that the McCourt family arrived in Limerick within a week or so of Anne’s death?
In a full and forthright EXCLUSIVE interview with Limerick.com controversial author, journalist and broadcaster Gerard Hannan talks about his Limerick childhood, his brush with the international media, his popularity as a tamed Irish shock-jock and his globally famous row with Pulitzer prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt.
Interview conducted by Jan Rice for Limerick.com
Dateline: June 8th. 2002
LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
HANNAN: You’re very welcome. Why should I turn down such an opportunity to communicate my thoughts and feelings?
LIMERICK.COM: You are best known internationally for your row with Frank McCourt and we will talk in detail about that in a little while but firstly will you tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from?
HANNAN: Well, I was born in 1959 and raised in a place called Garryowen, which is a working class suburb of Limerick. I am the fifth son in a family of eight. My mother would say that my head was so big when I was born that she couldn’t walk for six months after having me. My mother had five sons in a row and then three girls.I was in the middle, I think they really wanted a girl so the next baby after me was Mary. Our family was split in two groups of 4 and I got stuck in with the girls. But I have always had a better relationship with my sisters than with my brothers. I love them all but, I have to say, the girls are like my three guardian angels. I am lucky because they are so honest. They will tell me that I am either an idiot or a hero with everything I get involved with. They are the only people that can really influence me. I think women are far more intelligent than men; they have a keener sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Men just throw their eyes up to God and hope that whatever the problem is; it will soon go away. Women will tackle the problem head on. So my sisters are important to me.that sounds a bit clinical.what they have to say is significant to me.
LIMERICK.COM: Did you have a happy childhood?
HANNAN: Absolutely. I really have no outstanding memories that would haunt me in any way whatsoever. Yes there were ups and downs like everybody else but as I get older I realise that what seemed important to me in my twenties has paled into insignificance in my early forties. What seemed like defining moments in my childhood was only important because I deemed them so. But as I get older I think more about what happened yesterday than what happened last year. Even bitter memories from my childhood have become somewhat sweet because I now realise that those moments have made me what I am and if I don’t accept what those moments tell me about myself then I don’t accept myself and nothing would be further from the truth. I totally accept myself so it follows that those moments are of no real consequence. I even feel awkward talking about them because it is giving them more importance than they actually deserve.
LIMERICK.COM: Can you give us an example?
HANNAN: Well I write about a defining moment from my childhood in TIS IN ME ASS when I was about six or seven years of age and my mother caught me playing with the girls. That, for one reason or another, was totally unacceptable to her so she put a dress on me and sent me out onto the street and at first I was mortified because my best friends were out there playing football while I was indoors playing ‘house’. That was a very bitter memory for me as a teenager and in my early twenties but nowadays it think the episode was very funny. When I wrote about it I was writing with my tongue firmly in my cheek and was milking it a bit for laughs. I figure if I had wrote about it in my twenties I would have been milking it for sympathy.
LIMERICK.COM: So what you are saying is.?
HANNAN: I am saying that we are all better off leaving our luggage behind us and if we can’t do that then we should look for something funny about the memory and that will help us to leave it behind. That’s what I believe, it may sound like a ‘cock and bull’ story to others but that’s what I believe God help me!
LIMERICK.COM: As I mentioned earlier you are best known internationally as Frank McCourt’s protagonist but in Limerick you have a completely different image because of the popularity of your nightly radio talk show. Tell us a bit about that.
HANNAN: I keep hearing about this so-called ‘international image’ but I honestly don’t think in my mind that there are any more than a handful of Limerick’s ex-pats and a couple of student’s of Irish literature who give any more than a flying damn about Gerry Hannan and his point of view on McCourt or any other subject for that matter..
LIMERICK.COM: You could be wrong.
HANNAN: Maybe.but I doubt it.
LIMERICK.COM: A random search of the internet came up with results where you were quoted in newspapers such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Sunday Times, C.N.N., ’60 Minutes with Ed Bradley’, BBC Radio and Television, The South Bank Show, German, French Japanese and Australian newspapers, magazines, radio and television so how then can you say that there is nobody out there who gives a damn?
HANNAN: Well that was then and this is now. That was an incredible period of my life and I learned a lot about how the media works. Journalists hunt in packs and they go through you for a short cut but then the whole thing dies and you become yesterdays news thanks be to God!
LIMERICK.COM: You are grateful for that?
HANNAN: Jesus yes. That was fun while it lasted but as this media attention went on and on I got really bored with it and eventually I stopped taking calls because everything I had to say was somehow twisted to suit the angle the journalist was coming from. The American journalists were always pro-McCourt and to them I was a two-headed monster from Limerick. The European media, with the exception of the Irish hacks, were very fair and balanced. Irish journalists saw me as an opportunist jumping on McCourt’s success. The Europeans grasped the concept of two sides to every story.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your radio show for a moment.
HANNAN: Well I started broadcasting on local radio about twenty-five years ago, back in the pirate days; I immediately fell in love with the whole concept of radio. Back then I just went on and played music but as I got older I became more interested in talk radio. I loved what Howard Stern was doing in New York and I also knew there was some guy doing more or less the same thing in Dublin and it was proving extremely popular. Then, of course, there was Gerry Ryan on 2FM so I knew my day was coming. When I approached the local radio station in Limerick with the idea of a late night talk show they offered me a late night slot, the graveyard shift, on Sundays and I grabbed it. In a matter of months the show was running from Monday to Friday for three solid hours each night and it took off from there.
LIMERICK.COM: Why do you think your show is so popular?
HANNAN: I am still wondering about that. It is a complete mystery to me but I could hazard a guess at the answer. The popularity of the show has very little to do with me. The fact that so many people can have freedom of expression on the public airwaves is a very attractive proposition regardless of the presenter. The show furnishes ordinary people with a great opportunity for young and old alike to sing their songs, tell their stories, play their instruments, talk their talk, express their point of view, good, bad or indifferent, on any subject under the sun. It is radio with no rules. A sort of pot-pourri, if you like, of views, thoughts, talents, feelings and beliefs and I think you just can’t miss with that kind of a formula. Nobody knows, including myself, what is going to happen next and that keeps the whole thing interesting.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you a firm believer in freedom of expression?
HANNAN: Absolutely. But I only discovered that about myself when I started doing this show. People have every right to say exactly what is going on in their minds with regard to any issue and they also have a right to be heard. Of course there are certain rules and the greatest of these is you don’t get personal, hurt any individual or be disrespectful toward what they think or feel. After that, it is a sort of free for all. That’s democracy at it’s best and for as long as that freedom thrives in any society then that society can never be accused of being anything other than democratic.
LIMERICK.COM: Are there no exceptions to that rule?
HANNAN: None that I can think of off hand but I am open to contradiction. I don’t suggest for a moment that I am always right that would be undemocratic wouldn’t it?
LIMERICK.COM: You seem to have a great affinity for aged people; the national media once described you as ‘a defender of the elderly’ where does that come from?
HANNAN: I have no idea. I love to listen to elderly people talking to me on the radio show. They are always very interesting. The wisdom of years. They don’t take life as seriously as, let’s say, my generation would. They have seen it all and if you listen to what they have to say you can learn a lot. But, as for ‘defender of the elderly’, that’s a load of nonsense. If anything they defend me!
LIMERICK.COM: You frequently become involved in charity work in Limerick and were a founder member of ALJEFF (An organisation set up with the purpose of building a treatment centre for young addicts), you raised substantial funds for a local youth band to buy new instruments and uniforms for it’s thirty or more members, you also raised funds to pay for twenty or so mentally and physically handicapped young adults to travel to Lourdes and raised money to pay for an electronic wheelchair for a disabled young girl from the working-class suburb of Moyross – why?
HANNAN: The one great thing about the radio show is that it has an enormous audience and I think people are essentially good. When they hear of something worthwhile they respond immediately. I am fortunate to be in the position where I have their attention. It is these people that are the real unselfish ones here not me. I accept no praise, nor deserve any, for this work.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you religious?
HANNAN: I have no doubt God exists. I am very conscious of his presence in my life and would always aim to do my best to live my life to his satisfaction. I don’t believe that I am achieving that but I intend to keep trying to the best of my ability. If that makes me religious then I am.
LIMERICK.COM: Why have you remained single?
HANNAN: No comment.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes and the famous international debate.
HANNAN: I wondered when you would get round to that!
LIMERICK.COM: When did you first hear of Angela’s Ashes?
HANNAN: I met McCourt briefly one morning in autumn 1997 when he approached me at the radio station to interview him about his new book Angela’s Ashes. I liked him at first and arranged to interview him later that same week but he never showed up. I didn’t actually get round to reading the book for some weeks but my immediate response was lack of interest and by the time I got half way through the book it became a bit of a drag for me to finish but I soon did.
LIMERICK.COM: You didn’t like it?
HANNAN: I didn’t dislike it. Nobody can deny that the book was brilliantly written. McCourt got the childhood voice absolutely perfect. There was a certain innocence about the whole thing that was impressive. I was touched by specific parts of the book but not enough to warrant any great praise. That may sound vindictive coming from me but that is how I felt and I must be honest. I reread the book some months later because I figured that I was biased first time round and the same held true so maybe it deserves another chance. I have heard the book being described as a work of genius but I am hard pressed to find why.
LIMERICK.COM: At what point in time did you decide to publicly challenge the authenticity of Angela’s Ashes?
HANNAN: There was no particular point in time. I started to discuss the book on the radio show and I was overwhelmed with the amount of calls I received complaining about the inaccuracies of Angela’s Ashes. These calls were coming from Limerick’s senior citizens who came from the lanes of Limerick in the McCourt era. People who walked the walk and knew more about the reality of life in that time than I ever could.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you not far too young at 40 to know or remember anything at all about life on the lanes of Limerick?
HANNAN: This is often said to me but I am a journalist and a student of social research with some education in Sociology. I deem myself an acceptable researcher and reporter of facts. I have often said you don’t need to have spent time in Nazi Germany to write about it. There are plenty of witnesses willing to discuss their experiences and they can paint a pretty accurate picture of what life would have been like there and then.
LIMERICK.COM: Your first book ASHES was published within weeks of ANGELA’S ASHES. How did this come about?
HANNAN: ASHES was not my first book. I wrote a book called ‘FROM CAMPFIRE TO CARNEGIE HALL’ in 1994; that was a good seller in Limerick too. It was about Limerick’s comedy duo TOM & PASCAL whom I loved as a child. I had been working on a book called ‘Penance’ which was set in Limerick and was about two childhood friends who grew up on the lanes. It was pretty much completed and I decided to change the name because I wanted it to be linked with ANGELA’S ASHES. The idea was to present another side to the story. There are always two sides to every story and this book was about people who came from the lanes but emerged from the experience with little or no bitterness.
LIMERICK.COM: Wasn’t it a bit opportunistic to call the book ASHES?
HANNAN: A journalist once told me that if I were in any other business, other than writing, I would have been given an enterprise award for the idea. Others have said it was opportunistic; it depends on how you look at it. For me it meant instant recognition for my book. There are lots of books published in Limerick every year and calling my book ASHES gave it an edge that it otherwise would not have had.
LIMERICK.COM: Did it sell well?
HANNAN: I think we sold about 20,000 copies all over Ireland. It is out of print now and it had three print runs. I am very satisfied with the sales.
LIMERICK.COM: How did McCourt respond to the book?
HANNAN: I have no idea. He never publicly criticised it other than on one occasion he told the Sunday Times that he had no doubt that it would be a runaway best seller to the borders of Limerick. Being that that was all I was aiming for in the first place I was impressed by his intended insult. Maybe I’m small minded and a little too insular in my thinking but I never believed for a moment than anyone other than a Limerick person would have any interest whatsoever in my books.
LIMERICK.COM: Were you surprised by the amount of international media attention you received after the publication of ASHES?
HANNAN: Surprised and amused. But of course I became suspicious when the American journalists started to ring me and I asked a researcher for ’60 Minutes’ how she got my number and she told me that it was given to her by Frank McCourt. Here was the man calling me an opportunist and he was dishing my number out to anyone who cared to write a few paragraphs. I suppose I made good press for him so we both gained from the so-called ‘war of words’.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you regret calling your book ASHES?
HANNAN: No. Why should I?
LIMERICK.COM: Well it’s now branded the ‘anti-McCourt’ book.
HANNAN: Only by those who haven’t read it and therefore know no better.
LIMERICK.COM: You once told the media that you could pinpoint 117 inaccuracies in ANGELA’S ASHES what were the main ones?
HANNAN: Well the top three would be the story about Willie Harold masturbating at the sight of his own sisters undressing. Harold had no sisters. The story about Frank’s mother having sexual relations as rent payment with her first cousin Laman Griffin. She never actually lived with him. The story about Treasa Carmody having oral sex with Frank on her deathbed; she died a long time before Frank says she did. There are others, I don’t believe Malachy Snr was actually Frank’s father, the McCourt’s were not as poor as Frank claimed, the list goes on and on. The book was vindictive towards Limerick and it’s people. There were plenty of scurrilous lies about innocent people and a lot of facts about the McCourt family were conveniently omitted. It’s a fairy tale disguised as fact.
LIMERICK.COM: Why did it vex you so much?
HANNAN: It just did. I am not a psychologist so I can’t explain why. All I can tell you is that I felt very strongly about it. I am a passionate person by nature and I stand up for what I believe in. That’s all.
LIMERICK.COM: Your controversial appearance on the Ireland’s most popular talk show THE LATE LATE SHOW is still well remembered for its ferociousness. Do you regret the strength of your attack on Frank McCourt?
HANNAN: (Laughs).Not at all. Perhaps I would act differently nowadays. I don’t feel quite as passionate about the subject these days. That was what I felt there and then and I acted accordingly. But I do feel that was really a one-to-one conversation with McCourt. He knew exactly where I was coming from, no one else did. He got the message loud and clear so my mission was accomplished. I am told he told a friend of his in New York that my actions reminded him of his own mother’s behaviour in a New York theatre when she jumped up from the audience and called him a liar. The whole thing took him aback but I believe he knew exactly what I was saying. Other people’s opinions on the matter really are of no consequence to me.
LIMERICK.COM: Were you really as angry as you appeared?
HANNAN: I suppose there was an element of ‘acting’ there too. But I wanted to get my point across and the best form of defence is attack they say. I wanted the moment to be memorable for McCourt and it was. McCourt was in Galway recently and he met a friend of mine from Limerick and told him that he had no ill will toward me because he felt the producers of the ‘Late Late’ were ambushing him. But I have to say there was no such prior discussion between the producers and myself. It may have been their agenda but it wasn’t mine. I was finally given a chance to confront McCourt and I took it and that was my only motive. The producers assured me that McCourt knew full well that I was going to be in the audience and I don’t see why they would lie about that.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you dislike McCourt as a person?
HANNAN: I don’t know him well enough to have any kind of an informed opinion. But I do believe from people who do know him that he is not a likable fellow at all. I believe he is a most sarcastic and bitter man. But that’s just going on second hand information.
LIMERICK.COM: Did you ever meet McCourt after the initial meeting in the radio station?
HANNAN: Just once in the Green Room after the ‘Late Late’ but it was only for a fleeting moment. He gave me a rather friendly smile while his wife was calling me a ‘scum ball’ from Limerick. He told her to hush-up and shook his head as he walked by. That was it.
LIMERICK.COM: And there has been no further contact?
HANNAN: People that I know to be personal friends of his have often made contact with me on different matters but there has been no direct contact nor do I expect there will ever be. I am sure I am no more than a very minor player in the life of Frank McCourt.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your second book TIS IN ME ASS.
HANNAN: Now, that for me was where the real fun began.
LIMERICK.COM: Why do you say that?
HANNAN: Well my three books, ASHES, TIS IN ME ASS and FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS are all part of one trilogy but they were all part of a sort of work-in-progress until the final part was complete. I first called the trilogy ‘The Penance Trilogy’, then changed it to ‘The Singland Trilogy’ – writers prerogative, then it finally became what it is now, ‘The Limerick Trilogy’. But TIS IN ME ASS was the most fun for me to write. I got great help from my brother Dominic who has a sort of photographic memory. I wrote about our childhood in Garryowen in the 1960’s and 70’s and I think it is a book that will be best appreciated in fifty years time when people wonder what life was like back then. I wanted it to be funny and I hope I achieved that.
LIMERICK.COM: So TIS IN ME ASS was a labour of love?
HANNAN: I love that cliché.
LIMERICK.COM: FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS attempts to look at the history of Limerick storytelling right up to the writings of Frank McCourt. His presence is strong in your three books do you not fear being tagged ‘obsessed’ by Frank McCourt?
HANNAN: I’ve been called worse on a short walk.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you intend writing more books about McCourt?
HANNAN: (Laughs) I’m afraid the obsession has passed for the moment.
LIMERICK.COM: What are you working on now?
HANNAN: I have two books in draft form at the moment. I have been working for some time on a romantic novel called WHEN ANGELS WEEP and a children’s book called SHAWN OISIN. Look out Maeve Binchy and J.K. Rowlings I’m coming to get you!
LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
HANNAN: You’re welcome.
This paper begins by assessing Roland Barthes theory of ‘Mythologies’ and its primary elements and uses these tools to analyse recent Irish media texts successfully advocating the consumption of Irish foods. However, while the ‘Buy Irish’ campaign has been successful in creating demand the Irish economy has failed in delivering Irish product to demanding consumers by ignoring the confusion as to ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ Irish product. Using the examples of ‘Siucra’ Irish sugar and ‘Lyons Tea’, both publicly perceived as Irish but, in fact, imported goods and how each of these are marketed and promoted Barthes theory of Mythologies can demonstrate how myth can be exploited for commercial gain.
Roland Barthes classic ‘Mythologies’ (1984) while not explicitly focused on media has contributed a way of looking at language, images, signs and symbols that have helped media analysts to consider the ways in which our responses to media texts are framed by our reading of a symbolic language that is entirely cultural and based on oppositions and relations between significations. In other words, it is the difference between things, not the properties of individual things, that constructs meaning and Barthes’ ‘myth’ can be used to decode a single sign. (McDougall, 2012)
According to Roland Barthes his notion of Mythologies stems from his feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. Thus, he argues, nature and history are confused by ideological abuse. The notion of myth, he contends, seems to explain examples of the falsely obvious.
Myth, for Barthes, was a mode of representation characterised above all by its self evident truth, its naturalness. The origin of Mythologies lay in Barthes’ rejection of the way in which newspapers, magazines, films and exhibitions represented social constructions – the outcome of historical and political struggles – is simply natural or common sense. (Masterman, 1984) For Barthes’s, the production of myths is conditional upon two, linked repressions of history and of politics. The transformation of history into nature was, for Barthes, “the very principle of myth” (Masterman, 1984).
Language is a corpus of prescriptions and habits pervading the signifier’s expression without endowing it with form or content: “language is an abstract circle of truths” (Barthes, 1953) Barthes further states that ‘mythology’ is a language surrounding social phenomena in contemporary society. (Barthes, 1991) Myth, then, is a type of speech, a system of communication, a message. It is a mode of signification. Everything can be defined as a myth because there is no law forbidding discourse on any subject or matter. “A tree is a tree” but it is no longer a tree when it becomes the subject of the Romantic poets. It is a tree which is decorated, adapted for consumption and laden with literary self-indulgence. Some, but not all, objects created in mythical language become permanently mythological. Myth is a type of speech chosen by history and cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.
The media has served as a support to this mythical language. The images we are exposed to are given for specific purposes of signification. (Barthes, 1991) Pictures and words are predetermined texts distorted by mythology and decipherable by semiology. Such texts are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance. Semiology studies signification and is not a science that is necessary but sufficient in the deconstruction of these texts. Semiology postulates a relationship between signifier and signified but takes little account of the sign itself. There are functional implications to this distinction which are of capital importance for the study of myth as semiological schema.
Semiology is restricted because it knows only one operation: reading, or deciphering. (Barthes, 1991) This concept is best understood by looking at any text used for the purpose of public consumption. For example, the image of Mickey Mouse standing outside Disneyland in a wizards outfit waving a wand with magical stars flying all around him is an image constructed to signify that a holiday in Disney World will be magical. However, to each individual the signification is a mythological interpretation influenced by nature and history. The meaning of the myth has its own value; it belongs to a history which postulates a kind of knowledge, past, a memory, and a comparative order of facts, ideas, and decisions. It is this confusion between meaning and form which defines myth. The signifier, personified by Mickey Mouse, is the accomplice of the artificial concept. In relation to the signified, now motivated by a seemingly unambiguous text, is caused to unconditionally accept and utter the perpetrated myth. A whole new history is implanted into the myth and the signified becomes the signifier and this repetition of the concept through different forms is precious to the mythologist determined to decipher the myth. Myths are organic in that they grow, change and alter as history progresses and thus the deciphering of myths requires neologism to identify concepts that are not arbitrary. The association of signifier and signified and the relationship between the two can be defined as the signification. This signification is the myth itself and it too has characteristic modes of correlation of the mythical concept and the mythical form. The function of myth is to distort and deform but not obliterate or abolish the meaning. The mythical signifier is formless and based on historicity and as such is flexible.
Deciphering a myth is not a challenging process. “Disneyworld is magical” is a signified myth produced by the symbol of Mickey Mouse. The myth is perpetuated by the Media seeking a form for it. The creation of such form distorts the meaning and an ambiguous signification is transmitted. Myth transforms history into nature but to understand clearly how this process works a more appropriate and Irish example is needed.
One of Ireland’s most pervasive consumer myths in relation to food is ‘if it looks Irish, it is Irish’ and by patriotically consuming these products local and national economies will prosper, jobs will be created and ultimately an autonomous society can better endure the assault of globalisation. This successful myth, created by Media texts, propounds the virtues of Irish foods, shopping local and buying Irish. Consumers responded and market research suggests the demand for Irish products is escalating. However, the global economy has, perhaps deliberately, retaliated by filling market shelves with counterfeit Irish foodstuffs that are near impossible to differentiate from national produce.
A cursory search of any Irish newspaper reveals editorial, advertorials, advertising and reports on success stories of the Irish food industries luminary manufacturers reaping rewards of national and international recognition. “The strength of Ireland’s food industry is evident in the latest directory of the Top 100 food and drink manufacturers in Britain and Ireland” (ISSUU, 2011) According to the publication; “There are three Irish companies in the top 10”. (Irish Times, 2012). Such glowing accolades for the industry have perpetrated a myth to Irish consumers regarding the alleged superior quality of Irish food, endorsed by superior forces, which consequently enrich the demand for Irish home-produced foods. The campaign is successful in that the demand has increased.
Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores highlight their Irishness with the epitaph “The difference is we are Irish” while International Supermarket chains such as Tesco, Lidl, and Aldi are going to strains to create a mythological Irishness to consumers. The media is saturated in News articles reporting the latest of the innumerable ‘Irish’ food awards being presented to these international chains and their ‘local’ suppliers. Blatant headlines such as; “Aldi’s Suppliers Success At National Irish Food Awards” (Nenagh Guardian, 2012), and “Great Times For Irish Cheese Makers” (Digby, 2012), are highlighting awards for Irish food companies such as Knockdrinna Gold, Killeen, Burren Gold and Dingle Peninsula Cheese. Such reports maintain an impression that Irish food is freely and readily available but this impression is not entirely accurate.
In an Irish Times report Manchan Magan challenged himself to “eating only Irish food” to determine is it possible to survive on Irish-made produce alone. “I turned to the supermarkets for Irish food and realised how complicated this was going to be.” (Magan, 2012) In his article he reveals that Boyne Valley Honey is not Irish, Donegal Catch fish is Chilean, Siucra Irish Sugar is British, Guinness’ main ingredients are Australian and Chips, as in Supermacs, an Irish fast-food chain which claims in their logo to be “100% Irish”, actually import Belgian potatoes. Magan concludes “If Irish goods were not so difficult to find, I’d never buy an imported product again.”
An estimated 45% of branded grocery food products sold in 2011/2012 was imported according to research which found that Ireland’s total grocery market was worth €7.1 billion with branded products making up 47% of that. However, 45%, of the branded products sold in Ireland in 2011/2012 were actually imported (Kantar Worldpanel, 2012). Irish research has also uncovered “considerable confusion” (Love Irish Food, 2012) about well-known Irish brands. 80% of those surveyed believed imported ‘Siucra’ was produced in Ireland. Some 77% believed Lyons Tea was produced in Ireland and 71% thought the HB ice-cream brand was Irish. (Healy, 2012)
These results prove confusion over the origin of Irish foods. Imported brands with Irish-sounding names are confusing people. These foodstuffs might best be referred to as ‘mythical Irish’. There is also confusion about brands that might have been manufactured in Ireland previously but have moved their manufacturing facilities abroad. “These results give indication as to the confusion which exists” (Love Irish Food, 2012). The market for mythical-Irish foods is vibrant due to the demand for genuine Irish food. Research by Bord Bia found 85% of shoppers were loyal towards Irish brands. (Bord Bia, 2011) However, this research found half of branded products purchased as Irish were, in fact, imported. International manufacturers are clearly aware of the demand for genuine Irish food and have responded with branding foreign products with an artificial Irish identity.
This difficulty in finding Irish produce on supermarket shelves was highlighted by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild at its 18th Annual Awards. Myrtle Allen, “one of the pioneers of the movement to promote locally produced Irish food” (Irish Foodwriters Guild, 2010) claimed Irish farmers and growers produced some of the highest quality food in the world and yet it was often a challenge to find something as simple as an Irish apple in Irish shops. (Healy, 2012)
From this example we can understand clearly how the myth reader is led to rationalise the signified by means of the signifier; namely Irish consumers seeking Irish goods (the signified) and believing that they are buying genuine Irish goods presented to them by international companies, endorsed by Media texts (signifiers). Large print Newspaper headlines such as “Retaining Loyalty to Irish Brands” and “Irish consumers spending an estimated €1.5bn on imported food brands” imply that there is urgency for government, always presented by the press as the essence of efficacy, to legislate to protect the Irish economy. The signification of the myth follows clearly from this: genuine Irish foodstuffs are suffering because the government is allowing fake Irish foodstuffs to be readily available to consumers. The myth is imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not make it better and worse. (Barthes, 1991) Also, because the signifier and the signified have a natural relationship, the consumer takes the signification as factual. The availability of fake Irish foodstuffs is either due to the demand for cheaper home produced food or governments alleged choice not to protect the Irish food industry. In either case the government is accountable.
In any everyday situation we are likely to be confronted by thousands of signifying systems and instances of signifying output. We call these signs. These signifying systems include the language we use to communicate with, the signs that direct us to destinations, to the myriad of media texts that are presented to us or merge into the background of our everyday lives. (Long & Wall, 2009) We are relentlessly exposed throughout a normal day to these signs that plaster our environment and compete for our attention.
The Siucra and Lyons Tea advertisements are two such media text that might appear on a billboard or perhaps in a glossy magazine we might buy intentionally or browse to pass the time while waiting at the doctor’s surgery or hairdressing salon. We might pay them some close attention in a magazine or newspaper or glimpse them as we drive by or opt to ignore them if they appear as a pop-up as we surf the web. In all cases we rarely have to stop to pick up meaning and so all of the factors in these text works together in their impact.
Any analysis must begin with the text and what we make of it. The logic here is that for textual meaning to work we already know what it means; the object is to understand how it means what it does and how meaning is marshalled, organised and anchored in order to make each text effective. The meaning of the Siucra branding is clear, obvious and incontrovertible; by virtue of its name alone this product is Irish. Lyons Tea, previously manufactured in Ireland but capitalising on its historicity, in its ongoing campaign focuses on the idea that ‘talk’ is the secret ingredient in its tea; “It’s no secret that Irish people are both big talkers and big tea drinkers. The secret is we, at Lyons, have been adding talk to the tea” (Hurley, 2010). The encoded message is in the ‘we’ as one of ‘us’ Irish. Ireland’s king of talk radio Joe Duffy spearheads the campaign to reinforce the message. In both cases the images and words shown in the text is a combination of complex signs that are designed to sell more product but he subtext is ‘we are Irish’. Neither advertisement spells out anything directly or plainly for a reader but both remain loaded with significance. The ads have been constructed to have a certain affect. They both elevate brand recognition and urge us to buy the ‘Irish’ product. Closer examination of these subjectively constructed adverts demonstrates allegiance to the convention that the logo is clearly obvious thus suggesting Irish pride. Here then, at the level of mythology, nature is invoked in excess, but clearly not spoken about in an obvious way (‘Siucra is a natural Irish product and Lyons Tea enhances one’s communication abilities because ‘good Irish talkers’ drink ‘good Irish Lyons’ tea). The products are presented not as manufactured, artificial goods but as ‘natural’ and more desirable. The ‘Irish’ images become pawns of economic exchange. The products are not only desirable but also are accessible for all who can afford them. For the consumers who are the intended audience for these adverts, they are asked to recognise the images as natural Irish and therefore more desirable. Furthermore, we should not forget the alibi here that the denotative meanings confer upon the connotative aspects of the signs. These are, after all, just adverts and images, without hidden meanings, asking us to buy these products that will naturally enhance our lives but, in both cases, not only can we achieve these enhancements but also demonstrate patriotism and loyalty to our national identity.
In Roland Barthes essay on his concept of mythology ‘Myth Today’ (Barthes, 1991) he considers media images in his reading and his aim is to make a point about the nature of texts and the ideas they present, how they are all around us in everyday life and he saw media messages as never-ending rather than reducible to any one instance. At the level of connotation we can appreciate that such images, as demonstrated by Siucra and Lyons, present us with an association of patriotism by supporting Irish brands and, by such, there is already a symbolic aspect to the signs. However, if we consider the nature of myth the literalness of the images offers what Barthes calls an ‘alibi’ for any further interpretation or accusation that these are something more than innocent adverts; “it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the characters of the signification…myth is a type of speech defined by its intention…much more than by its literal sense…and in spite of this, its intension is somehow frozen, purified, eternalised, made absent by this literal sense. This constituent ambiguity of mythical speech has two consequences for the signification, which henceforth appears both like a notification and like a statement of fact” (Barthes, 1991).
Such mythological moments are part of a chain of signification in a culture (in this case Ireland of the 2000’s) and not an isolated case but part of a whole social context in which such meanings have value. It is an example of what Barthes calls a ‘type of speech’ in which ‘culture’ is turned into nature.
Barthes, R., 1953. Writing Degree Zero. 3rd ed. London: Cape Editions.
Barthes, R., 1991. Mythologies. 25th ed. Paris: Noonday Press & Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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