The Sting Of Memory
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.”