A City Descending Into ‘Ashes’
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.’