Category Archives: Limerick History
Boru House in Limerick is a late Victorian house that served as a family home and as headquarters of a thriving 19th-century horse trading enterprise owned and run by one of Limericks merchant princes. It is located on Mulgrave Street, “the street of bad, mad and dead” and was once occupied by Limericks controversial feminist writer, “a pioneer in Irish fiction” Kate O’Brien. This article explores the influence of Boru House on the writer’s sense of place and religious beliefs. O’Brien’s tumultuous bourgeois childhood, Irish catholic middle class experience and early teenage years at Boru House obeying the rigorous rules of middle class convention led to her being a social, political and spiritual outcast and recluse. She was, by many accounts, an ‘outsider’ born and raised in a house unbefitting its time and location and as such it too was an ‘outsider’ and she became the personification of its character. However, O’Brien’s continued local, national and international success and veneration as a writer testifies to the significance of land and belief in the formation years of an artist and individual.
One of Limerick’s most famous structures is the Victorian Boru House on Mulgrave Street. It is an elaborate late Victorian house built by the grandfather of controversial Limerick writer Kate O’Brien (1897-1974). One of ten children born of Tom O’Brien (1853-1916) and Katty Thornhill (1864-1903), her grandfather Thomas O’Brien Snr moved to Limerick in 1852 after eviction from his Bruree home. Kate wrote about him, “This Tom O’Brien was by Kilfinane standards, indeed by any, a man of the world. He was in fact a child of the post-famine evictions, for his father had been turned out of his small- holding near-by, in Bruree county – about 1850, and had made his way with wife, young daughter and two sons, and with a few household remnants on an ass-cart, as far as Limerick.” Thomas was a horse dealer, breeder and supplier to “the imperial economy”.
Thomas was also very much aware of the fact that the nearby Fairgreen, “where thousands of horses are to be seen” was the home of one of Ireland’s largest frequent Horse Fair’s and in 1880 he built Boru House a mere fifty yards or so away from the fairgrounds. It was a solid red brick dwelling. While its name and the arm and sword that perch on top of it conjure up shades of Brian Boru, the carriage wheel design on the stable gates are symbols of her father’s trade for, like his father before him, he was a horse breeder and dealer. In fact on so large a scale was the business that one of Kate’s uncles lived permanently abroad where they mounted cavalry officers in many countries, sold hunters to all the great masters of Foxhounds, and matched carriage horses for the nobility. 
Limerick was rapidly becoming the horse capital of western Ireland and there were ongoing efforts to arrange the revival of the Limerick Horse Show and every effort would be made to “request the citizens of Limerick to subscribe and nothing be left undone to ensure the success of the show.” Horses provided much of the locomotion and power of the age, and the O’Brien’s’ provided the horses for the merchants, the clergy and the garrison. Such was the wealth of Tom O’Brien that he could afford to buy some historic O’Brien diamonds from the Earls of Clare and have them set in a ring for his wife.
Mulgrave Street had expanded during the 19th century due to rural migrants reflecting a rising local urban modernity. Mulgrave Street housed new institutions including the Artillery Barracks (1807), County Infirmary (1811), County Gaol (1821), District Lunatic Asylum and Mount Saint Lawrence Cemetery (1849)The modern institutionalisation of space in O’Brien’s early life milieu imbued her with an awareness of the centrality of place as a means to anchor essential themes.
Limerick born broadcaster and journalist David Hanly in 1980 had vivid memories of his childhood on Mulgrave Street, “It was a place of curiosity, in my childhood it had not yet suffered the shock of burgeoning suburbia. It was a quiet place; the clock at the mental hospital dominated the street. On one side of the street was a prison, an asylum and a graveyard, a street inhabited by the bad, mad and the dead. On the other side were social climbers, shop keepers and the fairly well off.” A former neighbour of the O’Brien’s, Mickey Hanrohan also had fond memories of the O’Brien family when he wrote to the Sunday Press as to how he had lived next door to Boru House, stating, ‘I kept a few Pigeons next door and could be seen from O’Brien’s Nursery. Master Jack, Miss May, Tom and Kate and Mrs O’ Mara brought me Pigeons from Shannon View their Uncle Michael’s Home & Stables.’
Born in 1897 into a, “comfortable, relatively privileged Limerick of the merchant princes,” She arrived at a time when the family business was enjoying exceptional success because of the recent re-arrival of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment to Limerick to their newly refurbished Barracks and in need of horses. Furthermore, her Grandfather was campaigning on behalf of the cash-strapped farmers of Ireland who were being forced to pay exceptionally high sire fees which was resulting in a nationwide crisis in the horse breeding industry. He told a special hearing in Dublin, “The farmers of Ireland cannot afford to pay the fees demanded by sire owners owing to the bad times, and farmers should be helped by the Government to get good thoroughbred sires cheap.”
Kate was a girl in the revolutionary period, but her provincial bourgeois family had no place, or obvious interest, in the political ferments of the time. This aspect of “Irishness” hardly makes an appearance in her work. However, her father was an ardent supporter of Parnell and greatly believed in the importance of Limerick in the early days of the Home Rule campaign.
Although Kate only spent the first 18 years of her life in Limerick, the city had a powerful and lasting influence on her life and on her writings. Her daring literary perspective dissected and critiqued the social and political milieu of the Catholic petite bourgeoisie which supported the adoption of the 1937 constitution that imposed a quasi-religious and patriarchal structure of political architecture upon the fledgling post-independent nation.
Fianna Fail’s social legislation of the 1930s was increasingly vetted by a staunch right-wing Catholic hierarchy. In tandem with cultural nationalism the State and Church had determinedly ‘anathematized everything from jazz to modern fiction. Subsequently, writers such as O’Brien would face the reviled Censorship Board in 1929.’ She was one of the first Irish writers to focus on the crisis of being a woman in a man’s world.
Limerick impacted on O’Brien, “It was there that I began to view the world and to develop the necessary passion by which to judge it. It was there indeed that I learnt the world and I know that wherever I am it is still from Limerick that I look out and make my surmises. It is really all you know about yourself – that life began, that you became involved, that you asked all your leading questions there in Limerick.” The O’Brien siblings mixed socially with the sons and daughters of other middle class families such as the Egans, O’Maras, Ebrills, Gaffneys and Bourkes, and went pony-riding and to parties with them, especially during holiday times.
Life was not all work for the merchants and the professional classes. Drinking, dancing, race-going, hunting, card-playing, dinner-partying, womanising, discussing politics and religion filled much of their leisure hours. In this world the role of women was rigidly defined and regulated. Housekeeping, breeding, child-rearing and serving as decorative appendages of their husbands was their socially ordained functions. But for single women the social pressures and tensions were inescapable. Without a husband, a woman was automatically relegated to an inferior status. The iron laws of convention decreed that young women should marry in their first flush of youth. To remain “on the shelf” was to be stigmatised as an ‘old maid.’
Jim Kemmy (1936-1997) said, “It is over simplifying Kate O’Brien’s attitude to say she had a love hate relationship with Limerick.” She had ambivalence and uneasiness because she found it restrictive, claustrophobic and oppressive. She knew little about Limerick’s proletariat and this was obvious in 1949 when she told Harvey Brett of the New York Times, “Poverty and backwardness doesn’t seem to me the kinds of soil out of which great novels come.” Kemmy further elaborates on this, “She captured for all time the ethos of the middle class commercial Limerick as it was at the turn of the century; the lifestyle and mores of the Catholic merchant princes of the city.” She didn’t understand the Limerick of the working people but she loved the city and its history and almost all her writing is redolent of this affection.”
In her writings she explored the unnatural sterility and cruel idleness of mind and body of middle class women. Dr Lorna Reynolds of UCD suggests the ‘holier than thou’ attitude was anathema to her, “Catholicism seemed not to know that ignorance is not innocence, and without freedom to choose there is no virtue.” Describing herself as a ‘Catholic Agnostic’ O’Brien wrote with some sense of remembered pleasure about religion, religion as hindrance, religion as refuge, religion as the moral reliquary, religion as motivating force; force rather than passion.
Her novel The Ante Room is arguably the quintessential example of how Limerick impacted on her, “for all its melodrama it is extremely important in the context of O’Brien’s understanding of Irish society, particularly that of the Irish Catholic middle class and its self imposed vulnerabilities.”  The novel is sharp, multifaceted and portrays a narrow society, highlighting the small mindedness which sustains and oppresses it. Class fears undercut much of O’Brien’s work. Social exposure is viewed as the greatest shame in a world in which sexual or romantic deviation is so damning their deeper implications are unacknowledged.
O’Brien has been described as an “outsider”, “O’Brien remains a literary outsider; an independently minded maverick”, her wealthy merchant bourgeoisie class, boarding school years, sexuality, relationship with Catholicism and significantly her Anglophile ideology was not part of the founding myth of the new Ireland. She admired the values and manners of her own early 20th Century bourgeoisie class in popular political culture and class consciousness. These idiosyncrasies were not unique but symbolic of a class attacked by a new era of nationalistic and religious influences.
It was O’Brien who first and most comprehensively chronicled the rise of the Irish Catholic middle class experience. O’Brien’s lasting contribution to Irish literature is her exploration of a specific way of life and the many repressions which helped shape it. She was a formidable woman; a rebel, a loner, a traveller, a believer in education’s saving power for women, an astute political and cultural prophet, and a woman both of her time and beyond it, a European. Above all, perhaps, she is both storyteller and social historian.
Kate’s bittersweet romance with her own indelibly linked land and belief manifests itself in later writings, “My life began in Limerick, my memories start there and to weave and wind from that first focus.” She sees her land as “grave but surprising and corrective of literary fancies.” Its first manner is sceptical, quiet and deprecatory. And of her religious beliefs, “Limerick’s churches are the very life and expression of the place, for comedy and anger, conviction and pride, music and formality, for ceremony – and always for prayer.”
The structure of Boru House remains unchanged. It is a detached six-bay, two-storey polychrome red brick building with a single-bay two-storey gabled entrance and a three-sided canted bay window to the west. The use of polychrome brickwork in conjunction with stonework and the coursing of the eaves brickwork are all typical of the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The house has some non-domestic characteristics because it also functioned as the head quarters of the then prosperous family business.
The national and local social and political climates of 1880 were at odds with the affluence of the O’Brien family. Many Limerick citizens were feeling the impact of poverty, famine, rural agitation and political unrest. County Limerick ratepayers had to pay more than most other counties for additional Royal Irish Constabulary because of Land League agitation. There were demands of emigrants to financially intervene to rescue the country from the abyss of British suppression, aggression and enslavement. The founding of the Irish National Land League in the USA was the response and aimed to abolish landlordism and enable poor tenant farmers to possess their own land.
Amidst this social milieu Kate’s grandfather built a substantial business and his rise from evicted tenant farmer to prosperous dealer in bloodstock was rapid and attest to his fortitude. He was an assertive, pompous and determined man and went about building the substantial Boru House beside his paddock and stables. He insisted that the house had the O’Brien coat of arms emblazoned onto the roof ridge. His granddaughter was proud of her birthplace, her origins and her class. They provide the settings for many of her novels.
Kate’s formative years at Boru House influenced her writing. After her mother’s death of cancer in 1903 Kate studied at Laurel Hill Convent before progression to UCD, a fellow student writing as Quidnunc in the Irish Times in 1936 recalls, “When I remember her as a student at the National University she was a very pretty girl.” Irish Broadcaster Ciaran Mac Mathuna (1925-2009) was born and grew up in a house on Mulgrave Street about 50 yards from the O’Brien family home. “It was a strange looking house; they were a strange family,” he remarks.
If strange is a good word to use to describe her family then it is equally as good to describe her writings. Her play ‘Distinguished Villa’ (1928) launched her career. Her novel, chronicling middle class Irish life, ‘Without My Cloak’ (1931) demonstrated her main themes, Irish women’s struggle for freedom against family, society and Catholicism. The heroine of ‘The Ante Room’ (1934) is torn between love and Catholicism, so is ‘Mary Lavelle’ (1936), it was banned under censorship laws, as was ‘The Land of Spices’ on May 5th, 1941: “A prohibition order is placed on Kate O’Brien’s ‘The Land of Spices’ by the Censor, due to a sentence hinting at a homosexual act”, O’Brien later stated of the Irish censorship Board, “It’s five old gentlemen. I don’t know who they are. Just five old gentlemen who, when they get a complaint, read the book, and decide on whether to take action or not. Censorship is a disgrace, it’s too silly, and puts Ireland in a ridiculous position.” O’Brien’s most successful novel was ‘That Lady’ (1946).
Constructing an elaborate dwelling in impoverished Limerick was extravagant. Local people experienced food shortages that Britain doubted, “this famine fever is an outbreak of typhus.’ A view challenged in Ireland, “Epidemic fever follows famine.” But ‘An Gorta Beag’caused hunger not death. It was due to new food production techniques, different structures of land-holding and the disappearance of the sub-division of land and cottiers. A combination of Irish emigrant’s donations and British political promptness controlled the starvation.
To Kate such issues were of little concern. She talks in autobiographical writings of a happier childhood, “scenes of early childhood are those which shine clearest. We discover our childhood at the end of life as if it were something sculpted when much of the rest of us is by every good right dead or dead-alive”.
According to her cousin Don Thornhill in 2008 Kate’s happy childhood came from money which became a theme in her Limerick (romantically fictionalised as Mellick) novels, “Her characters are at ease with money.” John Broderick wrote of her in 1963, “Since most novelists are preoccupied throughout their lives by the world of their childhood and youth, it is not surprising that Miss O’Brien’s imagination is apt to linger on those years immediately before the First World War: the last days of the great 19th century peace. Her milieu is that of the rich Catholic merchants of Limerick before the lights went out all over Europe.” It was a comfortable, leisurely world; casually accepting values which it imagined at the time to be immortal; and imbued with those subtle, generous and slightly diffident manners. It is out of this rich background with its solid Victorian conventions and its age-old Catholicism that Miss O’Brien’s heroines emerge.
There are other themes influenced by Boru House. Her Anglophile tendency is easily traced, “English regiments flirted and courted among Limerick women with traditional allure, my memory tells me, they must have been an answer to life, those enemy troops, if not literally an answer to prayer” She was embittered by the growing influence of Irish nationalism leading to the 1918 collapse of her family’s fortune and loss of Boru House thus rendering her homeless.
O’Brien draws from this experience when she reminisces on her childhood amid British military surroundings, “Yes, it was a gay town, within memory, when the troops were in; up to 1914. It was a garrison town, and did not deny itself this glitter and spangle. The married women of Limerick around the time I am remembering were often gay and gentle with the fair-haired lieutenants and trim captains from ‘across’. Troops are no longer gay, in any part of the world; the decorative thin notion died around 1914.”
June 1916 marked a turning point in the family’s financial affairs because of her father’s death. The Limerick Chronicle newspaper reported on the funeral, “The cortege was of large proportions and testified to the esteem in which the deceased was held in the city and the sympathy felt for his family in their great affliction” Following from Kate’s father’s death her uncle Mick O’Brien took over the family business, “always a poor judge of horse-flesh and was not equipped to run the business on his own.”  Family debts soon accumulated, forcing Mick to sell his mansion, Shannon View, and to move with his wife to St. John’s Villas, a short distance from Boru House. Kate O’Brien’s brothers and sisters began to scatter, and Boru House was sold to the Lloyd family. Apart from occasional visits, Kate O’Brien was never again to live permanently in her native city.
But in ‘My Ireland’ she fondly retraced her childhood steps. Writing of a striking feature of her birthplace under the shadow of St. John’s Church, “still pointing its holy finger to a recognisable sky” she states, “St. John’s is located in a shabby north-east corner between Garryowen and the slums of Irishtown, it has taken its place since the 1860’s in a tired and history tattered town, as if it was itself a part of the long uneasy record. The church epitomised the town and once ‘a greyish blue on the blue and green and out of it raising a spire they will know that they have arrived at Limerick.” She later says of her city, “Limerick is full of monumental and ‘forward’ ideas. Our urbs antiqua (ancient city) has been taking a great shake up, and yet she still manages to look quite an old beauty, when you catch her in a good light”  In her final years her love for her native city was obvious, “I will be home soon in the very heart of that self confident town which, Limerick woman though I am, I cannot but admit is very easy on the eye.”
O’Brien died in 1974. Her literary legacy is realism of immense psychological intensity, subtle insights and a deceptively physical quality. Her characters for all their repression, touch each other, reach out, and are tactile and emotional. In ‘Pray for the Wanderer’ (1938) she wrote about her life as a writer returning home and perhaps comes closer to explaining her life and work than any critic can. Outsider to the end, she was not above asking for the understanding she never fully received as either artist or individual. Her tombstone bears that title as inscription. Though she was born on Mulgrave Street and spent her formative years there, she did not retain happy memories of the place. She never liked the “ugly” house, as she called it, and was slightly embarrassed at her father’s extravagant heraldic device at the top of the building. Boru House is situated directly across the road from St. Joseph’s Mental Hospital and Kate O’Brien always had unpleasant childhood memories of poor, demented patients entering and leaving the asylum grounds. The circumstances leading to the sale of the house had also hurt her.
Critics draw a picture of Kate O’Brien’s life in terms of her childhood, where she lived, her family context, social environment and the Catholic middleclass milieu which dominated her. One of Ireland’s foremost poets Eavan Boland accurately captures the spirit of Kate O’Brien’s childhood Limerick which was struggling upwards. The horrors of the famine lay far behind her. It was a city of style and refinement and a class with a thirst for upward mobility; “Good horse flesh, solid silver and dresses made in Dublin were beginning to prevail.”
The city was starting to attract international attention with a growing demand for Limerick Lace. There is reference to the reviving nationwide Lace making industry with Limerick’s designs being of special interest. But there was also urban unrest, for example, in 1897 The Bishop of Limerick had to intervene in negotiations to bring an amicable solution to striking Irish bacon trade workers in Limerick. Angry producers refused to sell to pig buyers until profiteering middlemen agents or so called ‘blockers’, men who purchased at fairs and resold thus reducing the price to producers, were dispensed with. In the midst of this were a class who were Catholic Ireland but never Nationalist Ireland, “A constellation of perhaps blinkered, smug lives, political blindness, the mainstays of a society but only at the cost of ignoring many more urgent and more powerful realities.”
Kate O’Brien was a pioneering writer and her contribution to Irish literature and to an understanding of the psychology and sexuality of women has not yet been fully recognised. She was a warm-hearted and fallible human being who believed in the primacy of the feelings of the heart. Her writings are a record of her life and passions. It comes as no surprise to learn that her favourite quotation was George Santayana’s “The holiness of the heart’s affections”. Kate O’Brien was an intellectual and a profound writer. A full assessment of her work is long overdue, but it can be said with certainty that she assured Limerick and its people of an enduring place in Irish literature.
Many of O’Brien’s books deal with issues of female agency and sexuality in ways that were new and radical at the time. Throughout her life, O’Brien felt a particular affinity with Limerick. O’Brien was committed to progressive politics. A feminist, her novels promoted gender equality and were mostly protagonised by young women yearning for independence. Boru House clearly influenced the writer Kate O’Brien’s sense of place and religious beliefs. Her chaotic childhood, Irish catholic experience and teenage years obeying the meticulous rules of middle class life led to her being an ‘outsider’ but her writings continue to command the respect and adoration of her peers. O’Brien was an ‘outsider’ born and raised in a house incongruous to its time and place and consequently an ‘outsider’ too. O’Brien personified the character of Boru House. But her continued local, national and international success and veneration as a writer testifies to the significance of land and belief in the formative years of an artist and individual.
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Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
Roger Chatterton Newman
Roger Chatterton Newman’s book ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland (Mercier Press, Cork, 1983), according to the author, sets out to elaborate on the High Kings achievements and contribution to Irish society but his reputation is, for the most part, based on fiction, “what the annalists would have us believe is romantic fiction”; and the book presents itself as the first ever full length biography of Brian Boru. Newman wants to remove all this fiction and myth to reveal the ‘real’ Brian Boru. The book leaves no doubt that Brian Boru was the right man, in the right place at the right time, “Brian lived in the heyday of the Viking age, when Ireland was part of a scattered empire that stretched across northern Europe” He is shown in the Western Europe of his day, largely divided but struggling towards a unified monarchical system. The Vikings were plundering and pillaging and Ireland needed a united front to drive back the foreigners. Other national leaders such as the Ui Neill’s were not, it seems, overly concerned with the Viking occupation or demonstrated any real desire to end outside domination so the task was left to Boru. Such unification, new contends, was by no means a new idea, the 10th century is marked with numerous attempts by the Ui Neill, amongst others, making deliberate attempts to ensure the King of Tara ruled all Ireland. Brian’s successful attempt to bring Ireland under his control had local and European patterns.
According to Newman the heroic Boru, not unlike the later Napoleon Bonaparte, “a product of middle-class pretentiousness”  was a man who knew how to fight his way to the top and he was determined to have his own way, impose his own rules, have his own will respected and was willing to enforce his demands by diplomacy or by force whenever the need necessitated, “Brian’s policies and reforms, unusual when compared with the average politics of his age, were based on a genuine desire to bring peace and prosperity to his realm.” But, although Boru was very much aware that there were advantages to having the Vikings resident on Irish soil, Newman contends that the Vikings are undeserving of fashionable applause by todays historians, “they should not be credited with greater contributions to Irish history than is their due…they did much for Ireland in trade and commerce but their legacy should be compared at all times with what has been left by native craftsmen, scribes and builders of the same time.” They advanced agriculture, knew how to build comfortable residences and were efficient traders in communication with many fellow traders in foreign lands. These benefits meant Boru was not determined to wipe them out but merely to tame them. Their immense economic and social benefit to Ireland would have enormous advantages for Brian’s kingdom.
Brian’s greatness came from the fact that he was equally skilled as warrior and politician and he was determined to break foreign rule. In Brian Boru’s Ireland foreigners were welcome as traders and visitors or peaceful residents but those seeking power on the island were dealt with using brute force, violence and bloodshed. Newman makes the point that the decline of Ireland’s naval power rendered the country vulnerable to foreign invaders. Because Ireland was a small island by comparison to other European countries the country was easy pickings for the Vikings. Ireland’s neighbours across the English Channel were equally as vulnerable but learned the lesson and developed itself as a powerful naval force. Ireland failed to do so and thus paid the price.
Newman contends that Boru was a most temperamental power monger who was a product of his own environment, “Boru was subject to sudden outbursts of temper, in the end, to cost him his own life and end his dynastic aspirations. It makes him more human.”He was the youngest son of a petty king with little prospect of inheriting greatness but a combination of fortune and fortitude intervened and Brian built his own reputation through guerrilla warfare. His courage and determination convinced the Dal Cais that he was a true leader and from this moment on his campaign to secure the High Kingship of Ireland had become unrelenting. Although his relationships were not in keeping with the Catholic philosophy he was embraced by the Catholic Church because of his kindness and adherence to every other aspect of the religion. The church was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to his marital fiascos in exchange for his support both monetary and moral. Newman finds Brian’s family life, although chaotic, most unusual in familial loyalty. Such loyalty, he argues, is evidence of Boru’s charisma.
The book pays too much attention to the ups and downs of warfare, divisions and rivalries; who won, who lost and what were the consequences and it can make the narrative somewhat confusing for those with only a passing interest. But the author attempts to resolve this issue by inserting comprehensive notes at the back for those eager for such information. The author cites the annalists as his primary sources but never loses sight of the fact that such sources are lacking in credibility.
Regardless of the fact that the book is academically written and is a scholarly study, supported by extensive research it remains a most readable work about a most mesmerising man. Newman’s more human ‘Brian Boru’ is clearly a great reformer and warrior and a very skilled administrator, but, perhaps most obvious of all a devout flag-waving nationalist, “that over-used word patriot is undoubtedly justified.”
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 376
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 9
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 110
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 17
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 389
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 335
 Roger Chatterton Newman, ‘Brian Boru: King of Ireland’, (Cork, 1983) E-Edition, p 300
Conventional interpretations judge Brian Boru as a martyr hero who led his people to victory but more recent interpretations have favoured the view that the battle was little more than the culmination of a rebellion against Boru by the insubordinate king of Leinster and his Dublin associates. Dr Seán Duffy, claims, “Brian Boru the man and the myth are right at the core of the Irish imagination. It is time that the real Brian, his real achievements and legacy are properly understood and interpreted for a modern audience.” Duffy’s statement suggests that, thus far, representations of Boru are in some way inaccurate and in need of revision. One primary reason for 20th Century representations of Boru being at the core of the Irish imagination is the manner in which he was depicted in Ireland’s local and national popular press throughout the period. By tracing the course of these articles there emerges a 19th Century warlord Boru, distinct in many ways from a 21st Century statesmanlike Boru.
Then glance the page of history down to valiant Brian Boru,
O’Rourke, O’Connor, O’Neill, O’Donnell, those clansmen tried and true;
We honour Robert Emmet, too; Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone,
While O’Connell’s name upon our hearts we ever shall enthrone.
Laurence McGowan 
Traditional interpretations judge Brian Boru as a martyr hero who led his people to victory but more recent interpretations have favoured the view that the battle was little more than the culmination of a rebellion against Brian, the king of Munster, by the insubordinate king of Leinster and his Dublin associates. Dr Seán Duffy, Associate Professor of Medieval History in Trinity, claims, “Brian Boru the man and the myth are right at the core of the Irish imagination. It is time that the real Brian, his real achievements and legacy are properly understood and interpreted for a modern audience.” 
Duffy’s statement suggests that, thus far, representations of Boru are in some way inaccurate and in need of revision. The reality is that Boru’s persona is permanently in a state of revision. One primary reason for 20th Century representations of Boru being at the core of the Irish imagination is the manner in which he was depicted in Ireland’s local and national popular press throughout the period.
By tracing the course of these articles there emerges a 19th Century warlord Boru, distinct in many ways from a 21st Century statesmanlike Boru. If anyone doubted whether the strategy worked or not then history could offer further proof of Boru’s far reaching greatness as a statesman into the late 20th century with claims that one of his descendants “a mirror reflection of Boru” was running America, “A firm link has been established between Brian Boru and Ronald Reagan.” The high point of Reagan’s presidential visit to Ireland in 1984 was the presentation to him of a scroll attesting to his descent from Brian Boru. One present reporter later stated, “I was not allowed a close sight of the document, but I wonder if it is possible to trace definitively Reagan’s ancestry back for 1,000 years or thereabouts.” But the ‘Boru’ distinction occurs not because history, as it is perceived by contemporary historians; “a word to do with digging and delving, a word which takes the glamour from the shoulders of Brian Boru”; has changed in any way but interpretations of history have changed dramatically.
It is best to begin with what we think we know. One of Ireland’s oldest names is O’Brian, “With reference to the origin of the surnames in Ireland it may be mentioned that, in the eleventh century, the Irish Monarch Brian Boroimhe (Boru) made an ordinance that every Irish family and clan should assume a particular surname (or sire-name); the more correctly to preserve the history and genealogy of the different Irish tribes.” The pedigree of this family is taken in John O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees as from one Cormac Cas, who was the second son of Olioll Olum, King of Munster, whose mother was a daughter of Conn Cétchathach; Connof the Hundred Battles. This Cormac had a son whose birth is recorded as 167 A.D., which gives a good idea of the long ties the O’Brien’s have in the history of Ireland. Mac Lysaght’s Irish Families says the Dalcasian clan, known as Ui Toirdealbhaigh, took the surname O’Brien from Brian Boru.”
Historians in the mid-19th century perceived Brian Boru as, “a delicately organised, thoroughbred Milesian, a maiden loving, harp-taught, council-swaying King of Erin.” Furthermore, Boru was a brave, ambitious and generous prince; “he made presents of gold to the church of Armagh”, the friend and patron of religion and learning, “His value to Ireland may be best estimated from the independence, prosperity and glory of Ireland under his sway.” Not everyone totally agreed with this estimation of the High King, “And yet, if we reflect upon it, this man the grandest figure in our history, was still a usurper of the National crown.”
By 1879 the “tragedy” of Brian Boru is brought to the Dublin stage and its London writer, J.T.B., favourably compares his work, “a dramatization of historical reality” to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. He is condemned by Irish theatre critics for manipulating history, “No art, no ingenuity, no dramatic or moral purpose, can justify the violence done to our great historical figure.” The public affection for Boru clearly ran deep.
Boru’s heroic status had continued unquestioned in newspapers as far back as the 18th Century. For example, February 19th 1879 as the steamship Countess of Dublin left the North Wall with a detachment of the 77th Regiment, consisting of 148 rank and file members, sergeants and corporals, all Londoners, destined for the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa; as the steamer moved away from her moorings the band triumphantly played Brian Boru’s March. The minor event, in the great scheme of history, gives us a little insight into the deep affection for the fearless warrior Boru has had in Irish History. He is the personification of Irish militaristic force, courage and heroic valour.
Over a decade later widely commended Irish poet M.C. Hime claimed Boru as an accurate representation of Irish patriotism with a “daintily conceived poem celebrating the achievements of Brian the Brave. The versification is full of national spirit.” Many Irish newspapers quickly adopted the notion and proclaimed, “Brian was one of those men in whom the patriotic impulse superseded all others.” Thus, the poet M.C. Hime was never alone in such thinking and many historians fully agreed, “All Irishmen should honour the name of this great Irish General, and in the march of modern civilisation steps should be taken that spots such as that on which he stood, hallowed by historic events, should be perfectly preserved.” On the eve of the 20th century Limerick celebrated it’s sept-centenary as natives recollected of their homeland “the granary of Ireland” being harassed by hordes of adventurers, not just Danes, “Limerick was stained with the crimson blood of rapine until Boru settled the order of things.”
Some early 20th Century romantic Irish historians claim that Brian Boru was so famous that even William Shakespeare made reference to him in Hamlet when he wrote, “to take up arms against a sea of troubles” which contains a mixture of metaphors from which one might infer that some of Hamlet’s ancestors were among the unwelcome Danes which, “Brian Boru showed the door”; and the still more famous saying, “It is a custom more honour’d in the breach than in the observance” goes far to support the same theory.”
In the very early 20th Century it was generally believed that the Danes came to Ireland as a plundering race at the close of the eighth century, and for 165 years they were nothing but brigands, settled in batches in seaport towns, which they fortified and ruled. The history of their ultimate defeat dated from the historic moment in 968 CE, when Mahon, King of Munster, and Brian Boru called the people together in County Clare, and discussed the question of war or peace with the Danes. The decision was war, and war followed by an immediate attack on the Danes and the capture of Limerick. From that date until the close of the tenth century there were continuous efforts to free the country of the Danes but mostly including Clontarf in 1014.
Whatever his accomplishments in Clontarf and whether or not he ever really held the throne of High King of Ireland, he most certainly, through his mythical or otherwise valiant deeds, conquered the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland who fondly embraced his memory if and when a true Irish hero was needed. His scope was nationwide from far south to far north, east and west across the length and breadth of Ireland and was as widespread as the nationalists who were quoting his noble cause in their speeches, “Patrick showed us the way to Heaven and Brian Boru to glory.”
It seemed as if whenever a true ‘nationalist’ hero needed to be trotted out then Boru was called upon. As was the case in 1905 in the midst of a political debate into the nationalisation of school life in Ireland, “My teacher never taught me much about Irish history. A few scant words about Brian Boru and St. Patrick and that was it. But that teacher could trace his descent to Oilioll Olum.” But, Boru had taught the Irish a lesson in Unity, “the man who will do most for Irish unity must know how to play the game as Brian Boru played it.”
By 1910 rural Nationalists applauded the Rev. Canon Flannery, “a good old soggarth” when he declared, “although Boru is dead the nationalist movement will continue to infuse the Irish spirit into their movement and show the country that the spirit of Brian Boru is not dead.” In 1912 the Nationalists contemplating a successful Third Home Rule Bill wondered whether the new Irish flag should be red because, “Brian Boru’s flag at Clontarf in 1014 was a red one.” Furthermore, “when we raise the flag we better have Brian Boru’s March in tramping order. We’ll want it.”
In Westminster the name Boru was raising howls of laughter on for Unionists on the eve of the 900th anniversary of Clontarf when nationalist John Redmond’s brand of ‘new patriotism’ was compared to Boru’s more traditional approach, “It is extraordinary that 900 years after the great man’s death another great man in the person of Mr John Redmond should have arisen; Boru had never allied himself inseparably with the fortunes of England and never accepted £2,000 a year to lead the forces of his country.” When the anniversary arrived in 1914 nationalists were reminded, “Brian Boru came of fighting stock, “Men whose lives were used up in defence of their home and country. They were devoutly attached to Christ and the Vikings objective was to plunder and destroy the Christian spirit of Christ.”
Boru’s reach went much further than his own homeland. In 1920, Irish Nationalists in Chicago were implored to support the Irish cause and by so doing they too were equally as important to the course of Irish history as Boru’s loyal and patriotic troops. As the attendees celebrated Boru’s victory at the battle of Clontarf they were informed that on the eve of the 1014 battle Boru addressed his troops and told them, “We are here today to defend the faith and the all-powerful hand of our Saviour will be with us in the fight. There will be courage from God in the heart of every man who faces the enemy.”
Boru’s courage and victories were also in no doubt back in South Cork where patriots are reminded, “Ireland can boast of many heroes who fought and bled for their native sire land, but, alas, with most of them their sacrifices were in vain. They failed to accomplish what they fought for and they left to posterity a legacy of disappointed ambitions and hopes deferred. But there was one notable exception to the list of failures, it is Brian Boru.”
Over in North Tipperary the residents who claimed, “you cannot throw a stone in Tipperary without hitting a Ryan” were reminded that this was so only because the ancestors of this clan were first brought to this side of the country from Wexford by the mighty Brian Boru, who had quarrelled with the original chieftains of Tiobrid Arainn, disposed them in his own high handed way, and planted the sept Mulryan, who were his Leinster allies, in their place.”
In 1921 nationalist residents of South Armagh were quite proud of the fact that, “Boru was buried here, he was the King of all Ireland and this is good enough reason that Armagh should be selected as the site for a Parliament proposed to be set up for the six counties.” A further protest, “declaring ourselves committed to resist the partition of Ireland,” later the same year were reminded, “We hold the ashes of Brian Boru who struggled for Irish Independence.” A sentiment still not forgotten in 1933, “Brian Boru’s bones, dust by now, lie here, borne here from Clontarf by a mourning army.”
But further south something of a Brian Boru re-evaluation was beginning to occur and it began with his name. Some historians debated the contentious issue of how best to spell Boru’s name after a Judge in Galway declares, “I see no reason why the hero of Clontarf should have his name spelled ‘Brian Bóroimhe’instead of ‘Brian Boru’. It would be pleasing to the old warrior to know that the rising generation would be better able to grapple with his name.”
By the mid 1920’s the relevance and wisdom of teaching Boru in schools was being questioned, “There is a good deal of talk about the teaching of Irish history, boys are being taught more about Brian Boru than about the days of their own fathers.” But Boru supporters were having none of it and suggested that, not only should it be taught in schools but, their idol was suitable for canonisation, “Our own Brian Boru was mooted as a possible candidate for canonisation; an honour which the most enthusiastic of his contemporaries would hardly accord him.”“It was further noted that a t Liverpool Cathedral there is a chapel dedicated to St. Patrick and the saints of Ireland. A stained glass window contains an appropriate image of the national apostle, and in subordinate places appears St. Columba and St. Bride and one of the panels is filled with the image of Brian Boru.”
Weeks later in the town of Ennis where the centenary of Daniel O’Connell’s election to the Imperial Parliament was being celebrated nationalist visitors were reminded that they walked on the hallowed ground of significant historical events, “to the east Brian Boru built a castle and from this stronghold marched his Dalcassians to the conquest of not only Munster, but of the sovereignty of all Ireland.” Such was the affection for Boru in Clare that in 1929 there was public outrage at the impending sale of three hundred acres of timber being sold from nearby Cratloe Woods, “These splendid Oaks have ancient associations with the historic Brian Boru. For it was here, in this forest, Boru and his guerrillas often retired after sallies against the Danes of Limerick.” While closer to Boru’s home turf, in Clare, there was a controversy raging about the sacred and hallowed ground that was ‘Brian Boru’s Fort’, so precious a place that there was a question as to whether tourists should be allowed anywhere near it.
Hence, Irish patriotism long cherished the theory that Brian’s victory at Clontarf saved Western Europe from Norse domination, “The century after his death, despite dynastic quarrels, saw remarkable progress in letters, learning and the peaceful arts and crafts, and scholars are tracing the fruit of his toil in the records of ancient homes of learning throughout the basin of the Shannon.”
A young Eamon De Valera who had, “attempted to destroy the Labour Party” was being alluded to by his political enemies as, “a second Brian Boru”, a title seized upon by Unionists who accused him of, “wanting one more Battle of Clontarf as Brian Boru had before to sweep the enemy into the sea.” Some years later Journalists criticised the view and attributed it to a dying Unionist population, “His critics are just old men who discuss De Valera in the language of Brian Boru.” But De Valera himself was not unimpressed with the appellation and, in 1933, on the site of Brian Boru’s Killaloe fort referred to the fourteenth anniversary of the Declaration of Irish Independence, and, “expressed the hope that in the not far distant future we shall see the freedom and unity Brian Boru achieved in his generation.” In Toomevara, years later, they continued to agree that, “Mr De Valera was the greatest leader of the Irish people since Boru had placed in the forefront the independence of his country.”
But, back in 1930 something of a Boru renaissance was in full swing. Discrepancies between accounts about Clontarf in the Irish annals and ‘non-Irish’ encyclopaedias and reference books began to emerge. While Irish Annals accounts were quite voluminous the records were ‘scanty’ in non-Irish publications, “these latter narratives popularise history as part of the education of Irish youth.”  For example, the widely read Century Encyclopaedia condenses the “greatest battle ever fought in Western Europe” and merely states, “Clontarf, a village in Ireland, north of Dublin, and scene of a famous battle in which Brian Boru, king of Ireland, and 20,000 men defeated King Sitric with 21,000 Danes. King Brian and his son and 7000 Irish fell; the Danes loss numbered 13,000.” Irish historians and their books such as Cusack’s History of Ireland gave greater accounts, went into better detail and the descriptions are sourced from chronicles preserved and survived through the centuries in Irish repositories, “King Brian possessed a powerful mind and a strong will, with the vision of a statesman and the character of a law giver. The mighty Boru stands only second in its stature to the gigantic proportions of St. Patrick, he increased the prestige of the Irish race in every Irish centre throughout the world.”
The transformation of Brian Boru had begun. He was being reinterpreted not just as a warrior warlord but, as his political role was being better understood, he was now being more aptly described as, “Our last great Soldier-Statesman,” and even the tune he is most associated with ‘Brian Boru’s March’ was worthy of reconsideration, “the tune supposed to have some connection to Brian Boru was a well-known Hornpipe the ‘Return from Fingal’ borrowed by Boru’s Irish pipers as the March played as the Munster troops returned from Clontarf.” But Boru’s redefined statesman persona had stuck and, furthermore, he was also now being depicted as the man who brought literature to Ireland, “It has been suggested that the hereditary custody of literature was designed by Brian Boru, who was a constructive statesman as well as a warrior.” Under Brian Boru, who was now being seen as a type of cultural monarch like Alfred the Great and Charlemagne, there was great activity in all departments of literature. The wondering bards were greatly honoured, and became attached to the hereditary literary families, “Henceforth scribes, poets, chroniclers, and lawyers were very active in the literary life of the country.” But, literary advocate and statesman or not Boru’s only failure was to, “succeed, by diplomacy or force, in overcoming the individualism and parochialism which have been the eternal bane of Ireland in politics.”
Historical revisionists also questioned the veracity of the suggestion that Donagh O’Brien, son of Brian Boru, on the occasion of his visit to Rome, made a present of Ireland to the Holy See;
“Donough O’Brien o’er the foam
Bore Ireland’s Crown away to Rome;
To that deed we trace our woe,
From it all our ills did grow.
“There is no trustworthy evidence that Donough purported to make such a grant. In point of fact, he was scarcely able to maintain his own position as King of Munster, and it would have been sheer impertinence on his part to make a gift of what did not belong to him.” There are other allusions to that event, vague and sad, but it is not narrated what Donough did with the royal relic, “No one knows now, I suppose, where the Crown was laid, or what fate befell it.”
Relics aside, some historians began to argue that, “If Brian Boru and his whole family had not been slain at Clontarf; Irish history might have been different;” With his death came about the demise of the first man in Irish history who could have united Ireland in a single monarchy and, “saved us much woe.”
In Kerry, historians were by now asserting, “We now know that Brian Boru and his brother Malachi were not of the ferocious kind far too common, not only in the period of which they lived, but long afterwards.” Quoting P.W. Joyce’s book as a definitive source the article emphatically states, “The forgotten Malachi was the most distinguished king who had reigned for many generations in Ireland, and was second only to his great contemporary, King Brian Boru.” Malachi had come to the attention of the general public but was portrayed as second-class to Boru, “He died in 1022 leaving behind him a noble record of self-denial, public spirit and kingly dignity.”
Historians were also floating some theories that the true cause of Boru’s demise was, “a slighting remark made by Murragh, son of Brian, to Maelmoradh, while playing a game of chess.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and another theory stated in fact one woman; she was Boru’s jilted lover Gormflath, wife of Cormac MacCullanan, King of Munster, about 900AD was responsible for bringing in the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf. She was married two times before becoming the wife of Brian Boru, “It was because she was repudiated by Brian that she plotted to bring in the Norsemen in 1014. Her hand was offered to Earl Sigurd with the Kingdom of Ireland. The battle of Clontarf was fatal to her plans, and ended in the death of Brian. She thus ruined ‘Ireland’s cause’ when it had produced its greatest man. In all that she could control she was the most evil of women.” She had aligned herself to the O’Brien’s, because of their station, they even had a place of inauguration when the times came for such ceremony. This place was at Magh Adair, in County Clare, “It is worthy of mention that Tara was the chief residence of the head of the O’Brien’s, King Brian Boru. His palace was called Cean Cora, which was, according to all accounts, a place of splendour and magnificence;” A befitting home and base of power for a learned and art loving individual attractive to any self-respecting power hungry female. Later, historians simplified their argument, “I’m inclined to side with those who look on the battle of Clontarf as one of the biggest in-law rows in Irish history.”
Dr Brian O’Cuiv, University College, Dublin endorses Boru’s cultural impact on Irish nationalism when he writes, “The 11th century was a time of renaissance in Ireland, following Brian Boru’s reign and his decisive victory over the Norse at Clontarf. The literary activity which took place was the prelude to the evolution of ‘Classical Modern Irish,’ the literary standard which was to be the medium of the professional poets for the following four hundred years.” All of which comes as no surprise when it is recalled that Boru’s family were descended directly from the line of Heber, a minor character in the Book of Genesis, and as such had plenty of time to develop their literary and political skills. That influence continued for many more years to come. According to Myles na Gopaleen, in an open letter to John F. Kennedy in 1963, “Brian was the son of Cenneide; a wild Munster Chieftain who lived about the middle of 900 AD. His son had a bit of an obsession about taxes and his name was Brian Boru; ‘Boru’ is an Irish word meaning tax.”
But, by the end of the 1930’s ‘old myths’ about Boru were starting to be exposed. Ringleader of the critics was Rev. John Ryan, published by the Royal Society of Antiquaries, who was offering a ‘new history’ of the Battle of Clontarf, “In the story of this famous battle a lot of romantic and sentimental nonsense has been superimposed upon the sober facts. It is time to reveal the truth.” Ryan claimed to have delved into original Irish, Welsh and Norse sources, twelve in all, and now concluded that it was not the Norsemen, but the men of Leinster, who played the predominant part in the series of events which culminated in the momentous battle.
Of the fundamental errors commonly accepted as fact which he now laid bare, the most remarkable is that concerning the real issue and significance of the conflict; the age old determination of the Leinstermen to maintain their independence against the High King, “In the first place it was not simply a battle between the Irish and the Norse. Brian’s army was not a national army but an army of Munster men, increased by the troops from two small south Connacht states. The opposing force was not an army of Norse, but an army composed of Leinstermen and Norse troops, in which the former were certainly the predominant element and constituted two-thirds of the whole.”
He also demolishes the theory that it was a battle between paganism and Christianity because the majority of the troops opposed to Boru were Irish Catholics like himself. Furthermore, within a generation after Clontarf Dublin was a Christian state. At Clontarf itself some of the visiting Norsemen were Christians. Ryan examines closely the long disputed question of the actual site of the struggle and reaches what he terms the revolutionary conclusion that the Battle of Clontarf was fought at Clontarf.
But the traditional historians were infuriated and were quick to point out that the powerful Eoghanacht of Loch Lein and their heroic followers accompanied Boru to the Battle. They asked had it not some significance that Brian was educated at Innisfallen, advanced to that fight against the pagans of Western Europe on Good Friday, holding the Crucifix aloft, and that after the battle the remains of himself and his son and grandson were reverently borne to Armagh, and there buried in the primatial cemetery which is now under Orange rule?, “And now who will say that our struggle then, as ever since, was not truly a fight for Faith and Fatherland?”
But some diehard Boru supporters had to concede that there may be more to the Clontarf story than had been originally believed. At a Fianna Fail Convention held in Mullingar in May 1940, the Minister for the Co-Ordination of Defence Measures, Frank Aiken told delegates, “When Brian Boru secured unified control of the national forces the Danes were driven out; although it now seems certain Irish factions fought against him at Clontarf.”
It seemed as if almost every aspect of Boru’s life, personality, history, beliefs and reputation was under close scrutiny so it was perhaps inevitable that the famous Fort at Killaloe would fall foul of the revisionist historians, “It now seems that the Royal Palace which stood where the fort is situated was never there at all. The real name of the fort is Beal Borumha, a relic of the Glacial Ages in existence centuries before Brian Boru.” At best, it now seemed, Boru merely happened to pass the site, liked its location and set up some soldiers to stand guard there and prevent enemies passing over the Shannon River. However, down in Thurles they had something, a little more tangible than mere here say, in a piece of broken metal found in 1935 “among the sweepings of an 8th Century church” near Thurles which had taken ten years to be identified as having been inscribed for Brian Boru. The inscription reads “C Cenedic Do Rig E” which Dr Sean Raftery, of the National Museum, said meant, “For Brian, the son of Kennedy; for the King of Ireland.” The find was made not far from Cashel, or Kincora, which were both used as royal residences by Boru. Furthermore, it seemed likely that Boru liked to roof these palaces with Killaloe Slate, “The palace on Royal Kincora was roofed with slate dug up from the bowels of a 350 foot deep yawning chasm on the Arra Mountains.”
In 1947 another new revelation comes to light when Dr Reidar Christiansen, a noted Norwegian archivist discussing the relations between Norsemen and Irishmen. He believed the early Norsemen settled in Northern Ireland and learned the Irish language and so, by the time of the Battle of Clontarf, there were some Vikings on Brian’s side. To prove that they were bilinguists he said that early places conquered by the Norse, for instance the Shetland Islands, bore Norse place names, while placers conquered later, the Hebrides bore Irish place names. It was not the desire to plunder that brought the Norse to Ireland but the scarcity of land at home. So then, some of the Vikings who lost their lives at Clontarf were, in fact, fighting for Boru.
But that fight had even deeper impact across the European continent than previously thought according to an Irish politician, Michael J. Keyes, laying a wreath on the tomb of Boru’s son Donnchadh O’Brien in Rome, “By the victory of Brian Boru over the heathen Norsemen the power of heathenism in Western Europe was broken.” Keyes was leading a ‘religious pilgrimage’ from Ireland in the company of the Bishop of Limerick, Dr O’Neill and Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Rodgers. Boru was firmly established as a religious icon, “Near here a road meanders away silently leftwards. It is Via S. Stefano, which takes its name from the church so dear to Irishmen because Boru’s son is buried in this sacred place.”
But revisionist historians disagreed that Clontarf was ever such a great victory, religious or otherwise, after all. Nor was Boru such a person of renown. Boru started out to avenge his brother’s death with the assistance of 1,400 Lochlannaigh and defeated Maolmhuaidh at Bealach Leachta. He later on defeated the Sochlannaigh of Leinster in 26 battles, “It is clear however, that his objective was to secure the Ardriship rather than to defeat the Danes. He sent envoys to Malachi telling him that it was not right for him to hold the Sovereignty unless he devoted his time to banishing foreigners and as Malachi was given to luxury and comfort and ease and Brian undergoing the labour of banishing them it was only right that Brian should have the sovereignty.
With the Lochlannaigh and Gaels of Leath Mogha he marched on Tara and demanded the submission of Malachi to him as King of Ireland. He was put off for a year, but at the end of that time he proceeded to Athlone leading all the Lochlannaigh of Athcliath, Portlairge Soch Garman, Corca, Suigheach and Ui Cinnsealaigh as well as the forces of Leaih Mogha. Malachi naturally submitted to him and thus did he obtain the Kingdom of Ireland. He probably never would have got it were it not for the assistance of the Danes, whom he ostensibly set out to defeat. And if at Clontarf he drove the Danes out of Ireland, then so much the poorer was Ireland as a result. We know that one of the great benefits conferred on Ireland by the Danes was that they taught the Irish the art of trade and commerce. Once they were overthrown the country was neglected to an inferior place in the matter of trade for it then fell back into the hands of a class who had no experience in the matter beyond trading in dogs. Ireland’s downfall was on the horizon. The position of Malachi was analogous to that of Alfred of England and might have been handled just as astutely were it not for Brian’s ambitions. Alfred was obliged to skulk about in disguise for fear of the Danes. For twelve months he laid concealed having abandoned every mark of royalty. Oddune, the Earl of Devon, redeemed the situation. He armed his vassals and fell suddenly on the Danes and routed them. Alfred took courage on seeing this; he sallied forth and eventually overcame the Danes. He neither lost his crown, Oddune did not claim it, nor did he drive out the Danes. He gave them the option of remaining as Christians with a chief exercising authority under him. The revelation should come as no surprise to those who had been reliably informed that, “Brian Boru and Queen Elizabeth of England are blood relations. Therefore, we of Ireland are the true British people.”
He may have been a blood relative but some argue that Boru certainly lacked her class and was, by all accounts, “most brash.” A historian calling himself Mac Alla states, “On the evening of the Battle of Clontarf a lady who made an allusion to the Danes as ‘running home like cows to be milked,’ and got her front teeth broken by her husband, who happened to be the Dane, Sitric, King of Dublin, and the lady the daughter of Brian Boru that had been pressed on Sitric by Brian with a big dowry of Cows, though it turned out the day after the wedding the Cows were whipped from Carlow.” Mac Alla also alleges that this, and many other facts, had escaped the attention of historians. For example, how did the men of Leinster end up on the side of the Danes, was did Malachi stand idly by as the battle progressed, why did the men of Ossory turn on Boru’s son on the road home, and, why was Boru’s daughter married to Sitric? All of this proves that there was a certain ‘uppishness’ about Boru and this overbearing side of his personality should not be allowed to continue to encourage impertinence in those who study him, “Boru has not been an exhaustible source of inspiration to the people of Ireland but the provocativeness that went with his character has also been taken as a ‘sine qua non’ of true patriotism.”
But something even more provocative was to come when historian J.J. Brady reported his findings, “Many facts have been suppressed by historians and the reality is that Brian Boru did not drive the Danes out of Ireland, and he was a usurper.” Not just Boru but the authenticity of the old conceptions of a high-kingship of Ireland in ancient times was now being questioned by researchers as ‘ancient origin tales’ were being investigated. Some of these tales had never been translated from the very early Irish in which they were written shortly after a script was developed. Such tales represent traditions on Irish pre-history which conflict with the Latin monastic traditions of the ‘Book of Invasions,’ written centuries after the introduction of Christianity. This was elaborated upon by Prof. Myles Dillon who wrote, “There was an Ard Ri of Connaught and one at Tara but there was not an acknowledged ‘High King’ of all Ireland until after the era of Brian Boru, “The Ari Ri of Cashel never acknowledged the lordship of Tara.” Furthermore, claimed Dr R. Dudley Edwards, Professor of History at U.C.D., “A uniformity of Culture that had evolved throughout Ireland by the time of the Norse Invasions helped to develop the conception that a High-Kingship had existed from an earlier time.”
Prof. Edwards contended that, “The unity of Ireland goes back to the ninth century, when, in the face of the Scandinavian invasion, the historians set out to stress the unity of the cultural tradition but political unity was not really achieved until the high-kingship of Brian Boru after the Battle of Clontarf. Edwards was not alone in this thinking and his perspective remained in the late 1950’s, “In Ireland the example of Brian Boru had shown that the old order was dying. It was a natural evolution that there should be a High King who would not only rank first in dignity but would form a strong central government, cutting out the powers of lesser kings. The various struggles between ruling armies were, therefore, an effort towards real unity.” Historian H.J.McManus stated, “I don’t agree with this Brian Boruism; it isn’t desirable to emphasise it unduly. To me it was the common people who made the Irish nation.”
By 1970 new ideas started to emerge from the ruins of two 8th century churches which evidence suggested enjoyed the benefaction of Brian Boru. Historian Liam de Paor wrote, “Like Killaloe and Toomgraney, it was patronised by Brian Boru and his successors who built stone churches and other monuments.” Tradition has it that the ancient Church at Killaloe was built by Brian Boru, but scholars are inclined to date it some two centuries later than Brian’s time.” But Boru’s religious influence and heroic efforts were being questioned by even more perplexed historians now changing their view on the pre 20th century ‘Boru’ compared to the ‘new’ one; the transformation was nearing completion.
Further ‘historical inaccuracies’ are brought to light when it was revealed that the validity of the famous Saltair of Cashel, “begun in the fifth century and completed by Brian Boru” as a source on Brian Boru, is now being questioned. It emerged that one of the most eminent authorities, Eugene O’Curry, Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland in 1886 had claimed that the Saltair of Cashel was compiled by Cormac Mac Cullinan, King of Munster and Archbishop of Cashel who was killed in 903 AD and makes no reference to Brian Boru, “Therefore it is impossible for this manuscript to have had its origin in the fifth century, as previously believed, but must have been posterior to that period by at least 300 years, and also must have been completed a considerable time anterior to the monarchy of King Brian Boru.” In one swoop a primary source to date on Boru was wiped off the map.
Romantic and long held theories about Boru and Clontarf were being openly criticised. Sean Dowling of the Old Dublin Society claimed that Gormlaith, the discarded wife of Boru, had got a raw deal from historians and did not cause the battle because, “elderly statesmen do not go to war to please the most glamorous of grandmothers, and Gormlaith was at least 45, and possibly 65, in 1014. Dowling believed that the Kingship of Ireland was at stake in the battle. Sitric probably hoped to supplant Brian, his father-in-law, and may have offered his own kingdom of Dublin to Sigurd, the Earl of the Orkneys, in return for his help. The battle was not the outstanding success historians to date had claimed. According to the Irish account, Sitric did not take part in it. he undoubtedly did, and escaped across the Liffey. Dowling also rejected the theory that the weir of Clontarf, where the Vikings were drowned, was in the Tolka. It was in the Liffey. Dubhgall’s Bridge, the weir of Clontarf and the Ford of the Hurdles, were all one and the same structure. The battle was fought in the territory now lying between Parliament Street Bridge and Ballybough.
The warriors, too, were not all we were led to believe they were. Turlough, son of Brian’s eldest son, Murrcha, according to the Irish account, was only 15 years old, but one of the greatest warriors of Clontarf. After the battle his drowned body was found impaled on a stake of the weir at Clontarf with a dead Norseman in each hand and another beneath him. This fairy tale has been given as historical fact. If Turlough existed, why was his body not taken, with those of his father and grandfather, for burial in Armagh? The head of Conaing, perhaps all that could be recovered, was taken to Armagh and Conaing was only Brian’s nephew.
In 1966 Professor Francis J. Byrne outlined the progress of the ancient Kings and stated that the downfall of the ancient Ulster Fifth of Eamhain Macha and the rise of the Ui Neill in the fifth century disrupted the old system of the ‘Five Fifths’ and the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages became the most important kings in Ireland. Byrne believed this claim of importance was not admitted by Ulaidh or the kings of Munster but successful levying of the borumha cattle-tribute from Laighin over-ruled the theory that the King of Leinster had no overlord. By the beginning of the ninth century Ui Neill, King of Tara was interfering in the dynastic affairs of Leinster. Kings of Cashel challenged the Ui Neill claims, but in the middle of the ninth century Mael Seachlainn 1st made the High Kingship a reality by obtaining the submission of Ulaidh and of Mumhain. From the time of St. Colum Cille, the church wished to strengthen the royal authority, which was limited in Irish law. The See of Armagh was anxious to promote the concept of a central High Kingship to support politically its own position as Primatial See. It acknowledged both Brian Boru and his great grandson, Muirchertagh O’Briain, rather than the weaker Ui Neill claimants.
Historian Dr W.L. Warren was also demanding, “a new look at Irish history” at a conference at Queen’s University. In his public lecture on interpretation of twelfth century Irish History Warren threw out so many ‘illusions’ in history that, “it would lead to a considerable modification of the view generally held of the history of the century, of the events leading up to the Norman invasion of Ireland, and of its immediate results.” Warren admitted that there had been a movement towards giving a new concept to the kingship of Ireland before the conquest but he did not see Brian Boru as the leader of the movement but rather Muircheartach O’Briain, who seemed to be aware of European developments at the time. It would appear that the bishops who were striving for ecclesiastical reform were anxious that the high-kingship should become a high-kingship more than in name.
Some noted historians were getting peeved with the seemingly relentless conjecture and ‘true Irish patriot’ and noted Fenian Dr Micheal William O’Reilly was determined to remind people of the reality of Boru, “I am not given to hero worship but if there is any hero I worship, it is Michael Collins. Ireland produced two outstandingly great men in the last 1500 years, Brian Boru and Collins. I cannot pay higher tribute than that.” He further wrote, “For if Brian Boru rid Ireland of the Danes, it was largely Collins who rid it of the English.”
A 1969 flurry of interest in Boru was initiated by ‘an act of vandalism’ when the famous Brian Boru Harp, “the most elaborately carved harp in existence” is stolen from the library of Trinity College, Dublin, “The harp was on display near the Book of Kells which is normally locked away for the night but he harp, because of its delicacy is handled as little as possible.” Some historians contend that the affair is ‘much ado about nothing’ because, “the harp is only 600 to 700 years old and therefore could not be Brian Boru’s. Bur other reports state, “When the great Harp was x-rayed, dismantled, treated, cleaned, polished and restored there was much rejoicing among those who value antiquarian relics and its origins can be traced back 1400 years.” The culprits were soon captured after, “they demanded money with menaces from Trinity College Dublin.”
Such articles led some journalist to reminisce about such school days and the subject of Brian Boru, “I remember my own schooldays and the masters telling us we got our kicks at Clontarf. The official version was that Boru was done-in by a Dane. There was a bit of sex thrown in when his red-headed wife went to the Danes on the morning of the battle and told them to give Brian hell.” He continues, “Seems now Brian screwed the Danes and then copped it. Never mind the fanciful story that a Dane slew him as he knelt in prayer. More likely under the Danish horned helmet was a mean little Leinster bastard who knew if Brian survived after beating the Danes he’d be too powerful.”
Irish historian Donnchadh Ó Corráin was having none of this propaganda. He argued that contrary to popular belief Boru was not a national monarch and neither was he the first Irish nationalist. Nor was he an outstanding patron of the church and the arts. In fact, he was the first of a long line of hard-headed power politicians. The career of Brian had been too much interpreted through the sagas, stories, and later poems, which grew up about him, and the Battle of Clontarf, and which were extremely popular as long as the Irish manuscript tradition survived. These were very much O’Brien dynastic propaganda produced in the 12th century by what must have been the most effective school of propaganda ever to exist in medieval Ireland.
Brian’s achievements were substantial and had; no doubt, battle axed his way to the Kingship of Ireland. But was he really as powerful as historians would have us believe? He did not create a national monarchy or the institutions associated with a national kingship, but he contributed greatly to advancing the idea of kingship of the whole island. He shattered the Ui Neill primacy in Ireland and opened up the struggle to create a national kingship and helped shape the course of Irish history in the 11th and 12th centuries.
O’Corrain declared that Brian’s struggles with the Norse were greatly exaggerated. Long before Clontarf they had become a minor political force in Irish affairs. In fact, Clontarf was part of the internal struggle for sovereignty and was essentially the revolt of the Leinster men against the dominance of Brian. Its most important result was the blow it dealt to the powers of the Munster kings.
However, in subsequent tradition, both Irish and Norse, Clontarf became a heroic battle of saga and song. The ranks of the combatants were swelled by numerous additions because everyone wished his ancestors had participated in it, “The Viking contingents from the isles and from Man, themselves not the major part of the forces which opposed Brian, became the forces of the entire Viking world and Brian became in story what he never was in fact – the sovereign of Ireland who led the forces of the nation to victory over the foreigners.”
These revelations implied that Boru was a nationalist monarch and military man with deeply held religious beliefs. Littleton Bog in Co. Tipperary had been revealing minor historical treasures and thus began new thinking on Brian Boru. The bog was located on the path of one of the most ancient roads of Ireland which crossed from Leinster into Munster. Myles na Gopaleen writes, “This had been the main road to Tara made by the Kings of Ireland. It was the main road to the north and Brian Boru fixed it up.”
In 1972 Liam de Paor questioned the idea that Boru had ever really conquered Ireland at all. It is a forced contention that Ireland was politically unified under native rule between AD 1002 and AD 1014, when the usurping Boru exercised a somewhat precarious suzerainty all over Ireland. Long before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans Irish dynasts struggled to achieve national monarchy. None succeeded and ‘high-kingship’ remained a political concept which eluded them.
The island was divided, as it had always been, and after the invasion there was a new concept of political unity, that of the lordship of Ireland, and this too was never achieved. The island was partitioned between the land of English law and the land of Irish law, racially, culturally as well as politically. It took until Henry VIII before the country was finally conquered; the triumph of English culture over Irish culture. Such conjectures began to strip away at Boru’s credibility as a warlord but garnished some support for the notion that he may have been more of a politician.
In May 1972 the publication of James F. Lydon’s ‘The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages’ led to further debate. Although Lydon stated his aim was to be interpretive he makes some sensitive observations on medieval Ireland leading to critical castigation, “His interpretation is surmise and it is not enough for an author of what explicitly purports to be an interpretive work to relate facts that appear to be inconsistent, without an attempt at greater explanation.” Critics say interpretation is inevitable subjective to some degree but Lydon’s treatment of Irish history is blatantly inadequate and inaccurate. Lydon claimed that Henry II came to Ireland to finalise the church reform and to settle the problem of the power vacuum caused by the death of Brian Boru (more than one 150 years earlier) and, say critics, this is historical nonsense on all counts.
As early as 1938 Rev. Professor Ryan criticised the notion that Brian created a greater political authority as his predecessors and there was overwhelming evidence that later kings like Muirchertach O’Brien and Rory O’Connor exercised greater authority than Brian. With regard to Henry’s attitude to Ireland it had been argued that the papal Bull Laudabiliter granting Ireland to Henry was acquired through the influence of Canterbury, that it was ignored by him, and that he came to Ireland only to prevent the first invaders from establishing a powerful independent kingdom.
By 1977 a new interpretation of Boru had fully emerged. Historians now contend of all the Irish Kings, Brian Boru is probably the only one who can be considered equal to great monarchs of European history. Supreme in the national territory to which he laid claim, he was accomplished in the arts of war and peace. Nor in his own time was he known only in Ireland; his lifelong contest with the Norsemen made his reputation to be sung almost in his own lifetime wherever Norse influence was felt. He was a remarkable man and within his lifetime he managed to supersede the O’Neill’s who had a proud lineage extending backs into the mists of pagan times.
If his military skills made him High King, Brian showed remarkable qualities of statesmanship in his exercise of the office. He did little to interfere with the traditional rights of petty kings and was more or less content with their recognition of him as their superior. In accepting the religious primacy of Armagh and all that went with it, he made the point that a High King from Munster could be as good a friend of the Church as any Northerner could be. The Northern clergy, it is assumed, responded by throwing the weight of their influence behind his kingship. The bond must have been a strong one, since before his death on April 23 1014, Brian made a will expressing the desire to be buried at Armagh, the seat of Patrick, and that the community there should be given lavish gifts. And there, after his last triumph at Clontarf, his body as brought to rest forever among the men of the North whose pride he had once so offended by his claim to authority over them.” With such reports the 20th Century transformation of Brian Boru from Warlord to Statesman was complete.
By now historians were comparing Boru to England’s Alfred the Great, “There is a striking parallel between the lives of England’s Alfred the Great and that of Brian Boru. Both were younger brothers who began at an early age a lifelong struggle with the Danes, both succeeded to leadership at a time of great crisis, both, while never shirking war used well the blessings of peace. And both were far ahead of their contemporaries as soldiers and as statesmen.”
But Boru’s escapades, if unworthy of the attention of either an American President, a British Monarch or the Bard of Avon, was most certainly well worthy of scribes from Ireland’s ancient annals right up to 21st century media. Boru is the only political leader of his time who remains well known yet, despite his firm place in folk-memory, as a figure he remained curiously vague. Historians, throughout the 20th Century and on into the present day, continue to attempt to correct this and sometimes trip each other up with their revelations, findings, conjectures and opinions. Some even wondered if Boru was more myth than fact; an invention of his loving kinfolk desirous of scaring their enemies into submission.
By 1977 O’Corrain was claiming that the County Clare Dalcassian clan, that “produced” Boru, was, in fact, a tribe called the Deisi who crossed the Shannon from Limerick in 600 AD and later faked the genealogy, “they produced Brian Boru and the two succeeding O’Brien kings, who were the most powerful rulers that Gaelic Ireland knew.” He argued the Deisi became powerful in Clare and faked a genealogy by which they claimed to be of the Eoganacht, who were over the premier Munster dynastic families, having originated in Kerry.
The argument was given some credence when Professor John Byrne argued that the official life story of Brian Boru was compiled by his great-grandson, Muircheartach O’Briain who was King of Munster from 1086 until 1119, “he was the most powerful King in Ireland and claimed to be High King of Ireland. During his reign the story of Brian Boru emerged and reflects Muircheartach’s own ambitions.” Two years later, in 1979, Liam de Paor endorses this view. He wrote it was not until the end of the eleventh century that the Dal Cais dynasty had sufficiently recovered from the pyrrhic victory at Clontarf to produce another virtual high king of all Ireland, “Brian Boru by then had been enhanced in reputation and his time was being looked back to as a golden age. In due course pseudo historical tracts were produced glorifying and exaggerating the achievements of the Dal Cais in the days when the founders of its greatness were expanding their power. Brian became the ‘mirror for Princes’ and a great Christian and Irish hero fighting against the heathen and the foreigner.”
The year 1980 was declared ‘Viking Year’ and their reputation also got a major clean-up and, some historians would argue that life with the Vikings may not have been quite as bad as we had been led to believe, “Fading into the past is our notion of Vikings as merely marauders. We now realise that the Irish were equally as good at creating chaos. The Scandinavians made a much more positive contribution to the life and culture of medieval Ireland by founding towns and cities.”
Numerous books are published celebrating the Vikings, most notable of these being, James Graham Campbell’s ‘The Viking World’ which explored their rich culture, their art, script and literature as well as their mode of daily life and the towns and states which they founded. In his book he argues, “It is misleading to describe the Vikings as raiders or pirates for, by no means, all Scandinavians were.” The publication of Morgan Llewellyn best-selling ‘Lion Of Ireland – The Legend of Brian Boru’ brought the mythological hero firmly into popular culture, “Through its pages she puts flesh on the bones of Brian Boru, the man she describes as being larger than life; rough yet elegant.” Her illusion was so fantastic that even Hollywood’s Warner Brothers Film Studios was tipped to pay out $15m to make the movie with Clint Eastwood to play Boru. Even President Ronald Reagan had something to say, “I think the story is worthy and would make a wonderful action film.” Movie Director Herb Wright tells the Irish media, “I believe Brian has not got his proper international recognition and he deserves the same treatment as Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia.” This particular production was later postponed. But it wasn’t the end of Boru’s Hollywood career, thirty years later, in 2013 it is announced that ‘Boru’ an $80m big-budget biopic of the hero is set for filming in Ireland, “Epic battle scenes will be filmed and it is hoped Boru will match the success of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’; the Boru biopic is a story about, “bravery and human spirit”.
But by the mid mid-1980’s historians continued to defend their beliefs, “As a general Brian Boru was a man apart. He left nothing to chance and unlike his contemporaries; he never fought an engagement unless he was sure of success. He was a brilliant strategist.” But, “he was the hero on whom lesser men tried vainly to model themselves, forgetting that his military skills had been supplemented by many of the qualities of the true statesman.”
The publication of Roger Chatterton-Newman’s book ‘Brian Boru; King of Ireland” in 1983 is hailed by historians as a turning point in the historical research into Boru, “Biographers have neglected, to the point of ignoring Boru who was regarded as Emperor of the Irish. Sources are scarce and obscure because of the ravages of time and warfare; and unreliable since ancient annalists suffered as much from bias as do modern historians.” Chatterton is praised as having carved away the myth and presenting the ‘real’ Brian Boru, “Boru’s rise to power did not follow established ‘rights’. He imposed his rule by his own will through diplomacy as well as by sword. His justification was success.”
Apart from some minor references to Boru in the last decade of the millennium which he occupied he all but vanished from the media. In the early 1990’s historian Fergal Keane was claiming that the relationship between the Irish and the Danes was still not fully restored, “We have an unrequited love for the Danes. With a distrust level of 10% among the Irish, Denmark is our second most trusted nation after Luxembourg. But more than 17% of Danes feel they could not trust us, Brian Boru included, no doubt.” Boru’s campaign against the Danes was continuing to have impact a full millennium after the events at Clontarf. Whatever about the Danes there was good reason for the British to mend their attitude to Ireland; Prof. Noel Mulcahy of the University of Limerick claims that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is really Irish. She is descended directly from Brian Boru. Believing In alliances, as he did, Brian married one of his daughters off to Malcolm II of Scotland, “Now that may seem to be a fairly innocuous statement, but when one considers the implications it gives one food for thought, because the marriage of Malcolm and Brian’s daughter, gave rise to a line of Scottish monarchs that led eventually to the line of British monarchs right down to Queen Elizabeth of today. So we have this fantastic irony that the monarch of the United Kingdom is descended directly from Brian Buru; so the British queen is really Irish,” according to Mulcahy.
But such revisionist historians are becoming the targets of serious doubt, “Revisionism is a good thing, in the sense that all good historians are revisionists. The problem is that not all revisionists are good historians. And while there is much to be said for this effort to look again at the legacy of Clontarf, the danger of casting doubt on the significance of Clontarf, however laudable the intention, is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Irish academics have traditionally presented themselves as detached observers detailing a value-free, impartial account of history. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to be non-judgemental when contemplating some of their conjectures. Their tales, of course, are often exaggerated, sometimes even fictional. Because such stories are conducive to an exaggerated nationalist interpretation, scholarly accounts of Brian Boru have tended to be detached, even clinical. One may wonder why anyone should seek to cheapen and demean the Irish past in such a way. Revisionist historians would argue that they are not doing this. They would point out that history has to be continually revised in order to separate fact from fiction. This is irrefutable. But revisionism Irish-style has been driven not by a desire to uncover new facts but by a craving to debunk the nationalist version of history. This was provoked by the revitalisation of the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Southern nationalist mythology, they believed, had contributed to the renewal of the radical militant nationalism of the I.R.A. The I.R.A. claimed that they were acting in the name of the Irish people and continuing the fight for freedom initiated by Pearse and Connolly with the 1916 rising. The revisionist historians, foolishly, essentially accepted this theory and have ever since kept themselves busy by ‘demythologising’ and patronising almost every Irish figure of note, most notably Brian Boru.
By the dawn of the new millennium Brian Boru’s transformation from Warlord to Statesman was not only complete but as the 1000th Anniversary of Clontarf was approaching there seemed to be a final push to copper fasten his Statesman persona, “The millennium just past, proved history has been a pretty tragic business and while we had a bit of a lift at the start with Brian Boru and the Danes, it was mostly all downhill afterwards.” Boru, by all accounts was a devoted Christian who had done a lot for Ireland. He set about the restoration of libraries and the rebuilding of monasteries, “He had established peace and helped convert the Vikings, who eventually lived with the Irish in harmony. He believed a united country was far stronger than a divided one.” In June 2002 the 1,000th anniversary of the crowning of Brian Boru as High King of Tara is celebrated and he is hailed as the only High King who ever had control over the entire island and he was responsible for beginning reform in the churches, schools and monasteries. He is remembered as an extraordinary leader and as a brilliant military tactician.
In Northern Ireland some historians are calling for a rethink on Unionist teachings on the importance of Brian Boru to British history, “Boru and the Battle of Clontarf is significant because it was one of the largest battles in Europe of its era, and had major implications for the influence of the Vikings, yet is barely known by many school children in Northern Ireland today. Such odd gaps in our understanding of history are not merely explicable by the different slants than unionists or nationalists put on the past.”
By 2014 Boru is being described as, “a man who brimmed with extraordinary fortitude of character, political innovation, military and diplomatic genius.” He was an immensely significant figure even before his victory at Clontarf because he led a 25-year diplomatic and military struggle to subvert the ruling dynasty. Therefore, Brian Boru’s greatest achievement is in fundamentally altering the parameters of Irish politics. This explains, in part, why the efforts of revisionists to re-examine the justification for the Rising have been mirrored by an attempt to contest the ‘myth’ of Brian’s expulsion of the Vikings. This process has been under way for the last three-quarters of a century, so that it is regularly stated nowadays that far from being about the defence of Ireland from the Scandinavians, Clontarf was merely the culmination of a rebellion against Brian, the king of Munster, by Máelmórda, the defiant king of Leinster, and his Dublin underlings.
Boru memorabilia remained important as Conor O’Brien, Lord Inchiquin; a direct descendant of Boru reveals that he is on the trail of the original crown entrusted to the Vatican nearly 1,000 years ago. He believes that the crown originally worn by his 32nd generation ancestor may still lie in the Vatican vaults. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles John Brown, admitted that this was the first he had heard that “we might have it”, but said: “If anyone can find it, Pope Francis can.” More significantly the famous 9th Century Book of Armagh is now officially declared as the only surviving item from antiquity known to have been in Brian Boru’s presence. The ancient text clearly defines Boru, not as a warrior but as an Emperor. Dr Denis Casey states, “In it Boru is memorably styled Imperator Scotorum, or Emperor of the Irish.” The transformation of Brian Boru from warlord,a military commander and aggressive regional chief with individual autonomy, to the highly elevated status of sovereign ruler of an empire and statesman of equal calibre to his descendants Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II, amongst others, was finally complete.
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- 1. Compensation Water
At the dawn of the 19th century the fishermen of Limerick had a serious problem. Something big was about to happen in their native city and they were ready, willing and hopefully able to do all in their power to stop the march of progress. The Limerick Fishery Conservators, presided over by Lord Massy, held a meeting and all of the members unanimously resolved to oppose the scheme of the so-Called Shannon Water and Electric Power Company who were seeking Parliamentary authority in England to utilise the waters of the Shannon near Loch Derg to provide the city with electricity. The general feeling at the meeting was that the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill was no more than a bill for the abolition of the navigation and fisheries of the River Shannon and the water supply of the city of Limerick for the benefit, if any, of a few company promoters. Furthermore, there was reliable world it was felt that the Parliament will never sanction such a bill, and the Bill would face firm opposition but the endeavour to secure “killing the bill” would be a costly exercise for those in opposition.
“The Limerick harbour commissioners have again engaged Mr Fottrell, solicitor, Dublin, to attend to the details of the opposition to the renewed Railway Amalgamation Scheme. The commissioners have also instructed Mr Fottrell to retain Mr Ackworth, QC and their behalf”
At the meeting letters were read from local luminaries who had a lot to say on the subject and were determined to ensure that this project would be abandoned and terminated forthwith; “as one who uses Loch Derg both for business and pleasure, I should most strongly oppose any lowering of its level, nearly all the quays on the lake, and there are many, and their approaches have cost this county a great deal of money, and will be utterly useless if the level is lowered. This county has also guaranteed a large yearly sum, £250, for which we get very little return even now, and should, if the lake was lowered, get none. There is a project now on foot to make a railway to Dromineer from Nenagh to connect with the Grand Canal Company. This would also fall through if the canal were interfered with. These are a few of the objections which can be urged. Then, from the point of view of pleasure, as the lake is very shallow in many places the navigation would be seriously interfered with. The fishing rights, of course, are very valuable, and would be seriously affected.”
Another member wrote, “I have 30 years experience on Lough Derg, and can inform you should they lower the present summer level by inches instead of feet, I and every other trader will be deprived of our living, as there would not be even one harbour on Lough Derg that steamer could call at, and if they propose making all those harbours fit for steamers to call at I fear, like the “cook and the soup” the cost is bound to spoil the flavour.”
Lord Massy announced to the attending members,” it is undoubtedly a fact that if they carry out what is proposed it will ruin us as far as the fishing interests and milling and navigation interests are concerned. The original proposal was to take 200,000 ft.³ of water per minute out of the river. We got the river examined last year by a competent engineer. He took careful measurements at a time when the river was by no means what is known as summer level, and found that only 160,000 ft.³ per minute was running throughout the whole river. How the syndicate proposed to take 200,000 ft.³ per minute from that I don’t know. Even in average spring water there would be no water for the fish to get up, and that affects not only the ride interests, but also the netting interests below. Therefore, I think we should be united in opposing this measure. Of course, there will have to pay compensation to the different persons affected by it, but I noticed they propose to do so if possible by giving them shares in what I consider this rotten scheme of theirs. I hope it would not pass but we must oppose it.” 
Another speaker took the floor, Mr JA Place stated, “as everyone present may not have had an opportunity of reading this bill, allow me to explain shortly to the meeting what it proposes. They ask for powers to compulsorily take land to make their canals, first of all from above the steamboat pier at Killaloe to a point near Clarisford, the Bishop of Killaloe’s residence; and secondly, from above the “World’s End,” at Castleconnell, to below Plassey. The canals on both cases following the course taken by the existing navigation canals; close to the village of Clonlara their power station is to be erected. Through these canals they propose to divert the water of the Shannon; and, further, they propose to lower the summer level of Loch Derg, but to what extent it is not stated; it is left altogether indefinite. I understand they propose to lower it several feet. They also propose to stop up certain roads, and remove bridges; but that is a matter altogether for the County Clare County Council. The effect of lowering the water in Lough Derg by even 6 inches must necessarily reduce the traffic of the Grand Canal Company, and also that of the Shannon Lake Steamers, besides the traffic of numbers of independent traders who use the lake. The inhabitants of such important places as Dromineer and Scariff would be completely shut off from obtaining their supplies; also Garrykennedy and several others. The effect of diverting the water from its natural course above Castleconnell would be simply too close to the fisheries below Castleconnell, as it will leave the river practically dry between Castleconnell and Plassey; it will also close up the Limerick Waterworks, the erection of which has cost the citizens an immense sum. This latter, however, is a question for the Limerick Corporation. It is true they seek power to let down what they call “compensation water” from Loch Derg, but this is only to be exercised with the consent of the Board of Works, and should they for the purpose of maintaining navigation refuse to let down this compensation water, both the fisheries and Corporation Water Works will be left high and dry, as I have already stated. There will also be the important water rights for milling and other purposes enjoyed by Mr Lefroy, the Messrs. Russell, and others to be taken into account. It must also be remembered that several counties have guaranteed an annual subsidy to the Shannon Development Company, and the attention of the county councils, will now represent the grand juries, who guaranteed these subsidies, should be at once drawn to the matter. In addition to the direct effect upon the fisheries to which I have alluded, lowering Lough Derg will close up several of our most important spawning tributaries.”
It was proposed at the meeting that the principal fishery owners in the Limerick fishery district, Mill and factory owners using the waters of the Shannon below Loch Derg, riparian proprietors, and users of the water for navigation purposes, view with grave apprehension the works intended to be carried out by the proposed Shannon Water and Electric Power Company, and for which Parliamentary powers are sought, as we believe they will be ruinous to our respective interests, and we hereby call upon the Right Honourable the Chief Sec for Ireland and the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland to refuse their sanction to such a scheme; and we direct our secretary to send a copy of this resolution to the Chief Sec, the Board of Public Works, the Corporation of Limerick, the members of Parliament for the city and County of Limerick and counties Clare, Galway, and Tipperary, and Kings County, to the District Councils concerned, and to the several County Councils who have guaranteed the Shannon Lake Steamers.”
Those who attended the meeting were also informed that it was common knowledge that the board of Works were actually against the scheme altogether. And one member, Mr R. Twiss, stated that, “I’m not allowed to give authority, but I understand that the Chief Sec for Ireland is going to do his best to carry the scheme through the House. Whether the Board of Works will oppose it strongly or not; I don’t know.” It was further felt that it would be desirable to send a copy of the resolution to the commission appointed by the Lord-Lieutenant, because there was no doubt it would help if interest by the Lord-Lieutenant was generated.
“A distressing accident occurred at Limerick railway terminus last evening. James Davoren, labourer, was seeing his brother, a solicitor, off by train for Fermoy, when he accidentally fell off the platform onto the permanent way. After the train passed he was discovered lying on the rails. He was removed to Barrington’s Hospital, where his right leg had to be amputated.” 
“Yesterday evening as a man was bidding goodbye to his brother, who was leaving Limerick for Fermoy, was pulled off the platform under the wheels of the train, and one of his legs was so badly mangled that amputation was rendered necessary. The patient is doing as well as can be expected. This is the third serious accident which has occurred at the terminus during the holidays. Not the slightest blame, however, attaches to any of the officials.”
- 2. Important Busybodies
At Limerick County Courts there were heated sessions as Judge Adams asked if there were any of the professional men present in favour of extending the jurisdiction of the court by having eight instead of four quarter sessions in each year. The answer was in the negative, and Judge Adams said the demand for eight quarter sessions in the year was not made by the professional men, by the public, or the people of this city. It was made by three or four busybodies who go about waiting on the Lord Chancellor with the object of seeing their names in the papers under the caption of “Important Deputation to the Lord Chancellor.” He heard the Lord Chancellor induced the Recorder of Galway; “that most commercial, prosperous, and mercantile town, of which we all know too well, to hold eight quarter sessions there in the year”  As far as he, Judge Adams, was concerned, he would never hold more than four quarter sessions in the year in Limerick until he was compelled to do so by act of Parliament. Even when that act of Parliament was introduced he should have some friends there, and they would have something to say to the bill in both houses of the legislator.
- 3. Broken Glass
Two privates of the Cheshire Regiment named Ernest Hancock and Peter Ishwood found them-selves before Judge Adams indicted for the breaking of a plate glass window in Messrs. Kidd’s establishment, in George Street, on December 6. Both prisoners pleaded guilty. His honour asked if they would be willing to go to the front if they were discharged. The men said they would. Hancock stating that he wished to be with his brother; who had gone with the Cheshires to the front. Captain Marden having stated that, with the exception of some trivial offences, the men bore good characters. They were released on their own recognisances. It is likely they will be sent to South Africa with the next draft.
- Catholics and Protestants
A public meeting promoted by the clergy of St Michael’s, was held in the Lecture Hall of the Catholic Institute this week, to promote a Fete and fancy fair in June next in aid of the funds for the erection of an additional Parochial church, dedicated to St Joseph, in St Michael’s Parish, the building of which is in progress. The Bishop presided, and there was an exceedingly large attendance of clergy, ladies and gentlemen, all of whom showed great interest in the initiation of the fete. Rev Fr O’Donnell, administrator, St Michael’s made a preliminary statement, in which he explained that it had been rumoured that the hospitals were about to hold a fete this year, but he had waited on the committees of the hospitals, and it was only when they stated that they were not prepared to hold a hospitals fete this year that it was decided to hold a fete for the church. It had been decided to hold a fete in June, so as not to clash with any other event, and another reason for holding it in June was that they had an offer from their distinguished fellow citizen, Mr Joseph O’Mara, to hold himself free from that time, so as to assist them. In conclusion, Fr O’Donnell said he was very happy to be able to say that they had promises of support from many of their Protestant friends and he had only to say that they would be very glad to avail themselves of it. The Bishop, in an address, referred to the excellent work of the St Michael’s clergy. Numerous letters of apology were received in support of the fete, including letters from Count Moore, who had offered a prize. Several organising committees were appointed to work up the details of the fete, which is to be called “Kincora Fete.”
“The 3rd Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry Royal Bucks Militia, on embodiment at High Wycombe, after the New Year, will come to Limerick for garrison duty during the war. The details left behind by the 1st Battalion when it went out to the front from Aldershot arrived last week at Limerick.” 
“A shocking case of suicide occurred late last night in Newgate Street, Limerick, James Salmon, 35, an engine man, return to his residents about 9 o’clock, and, procuring a razor, went out into the yard of the house and cut his throat from ear to ear. When discovered shortly afterwards in the yard Salmon was lying in a pool of blood, life being extinct, Salmon was married, with a large family, but there were only two young children at home at the time” 
- 5. Hooting and Groaning
Judge Adams in the Limerick County Crown Court took up the hearing of claims for malicious injuries. Mr TM English, a member of Tipperary District Council, applied for £116 compensation for a quantity of hay, his property, maliciously burned at Templebredin on the night of 6 December 1899. The plaintiff’s case was that he incurred hostility through his action with regard to the maintenance and repairs of the public roads. He attended a meeting of the district council, the quarterly meeting, where the matter was discussed, but was groaned and hooted down, the labourers, headed by a band and banners, being present and interrupting the proceedings. He was in favour of giving half the main roads to be worked by the labourers for 12 months, to see what the expenditure would be, the rest of the main roads and the small roads to be done, as heretofore, by contractors. One of the labourers burst into the meeting and made a speech and Mr English would not be heard. Subsequently, while returning from Old Pallas Fair, two labourers attempted to assault him, and finally his hay was burned.
After the evidence had been given Judge Adams said he would award £105 compensation, and put the area of taxation on the county at large. He would have made the locality the area of taxation if he thought the ratepayers in any way aided or supported this labourer’s agitation, but nothing of the kind was deposed to. Unfortunately, this crime arose out of the labourer’s agitation, which extended throughout the whole county, supported, not by the ratepayers, but by the labourers aided and counselled by a gentleman of whom he would say nothing. The District Council and County Council were composed mainly of farmers, but they had not in any way supported this agitation, though they might have acted with a certain degree of timidity. Nothing like this would be tolerated in any civilised country that District Councils, an assembly to a certain extent like a court of justice, and sitting to discharge its duties, should be invaded by a band of ruffians, with bands and banners, and the proceedings interrupted. One man had the audacity to force himself into the room and make a speech, although not a member of the Council. The bands and banners commenced this, the hooting and groaning followed. Then there was the attempted assault and finally this fire. Those councils should be protected, the same as if it were the Lord Chief Justice’s Court was being held, and there should be an armed force of Constabulary present to put down mop clamour or violence, and restore, what the mob was always the enemy of, peace.
- Feeling the Pinch
A special meeting of Limerick Corporation was attended by several outsiders, and others opposed to the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company. Mr William L. Stokes, JP, moved a resolution authorising the solicitor to oppose the sale, and take the necessary steps to that effect. Cllr Obrien seconded the proposition. It was suggested that the resolution be enlarged so as to include the Midland Great Western Railway or any other intending purchasing company, but the suggestion was not entertained. Mr Shaw addressed the meeting by request, and said the great Southern Bill was very little changed from the one of 1899. The Great Southern and Western people were magnificently generous now in certain things, but why were they not so before? Some of those promises and guarantees looked very bright on paper and where glibly put into the bills, but they should be treated with indifference. There were 101 ways for the great Southern company to back out of their undertaking, and the people of Limerick should fight the bill in the interests of the city to which they all had the honour of saying they belonged. No matter what the cost of opposition was it would be but a drop in the ocean compared with what Limerick would suffer if the bill succeeded. He had discussed the matter with several, and came to the conclusion that if they permitted the bill to go through, their children would curse the day they were born. At Lahinch this year, the chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway said to him, “whatever you do” persuade the citizens of Limerick in their own and their children’s interest not to allow the great Southern Bill to go through. “And I tell you,” said he, “that in your own time, before there is 10 years over, you will feel the pinch as you never felt it before.” Let the Corporation join with the Harbour Board, Chambers of Commerce, and other bodies and they would smash this amalgamation as they did before. Mr Stokes said 90% of the citizens opposed amalgamation. Mr John F Power, who subsequently attended, addressed the meeting in favour of amalgamation. The resolution was unanimously adopted, and applause came from outside the barrier.
“The Local Government Board have written sanctioning the decision taken by the Limerick County Council at a meeting last Saturday. The council decided that in these cases where contracts had not been received for the maintenance and repairs of public roads, the roads in question should be given in charge to the County Surveyor to have the work done directly by labourers. The decision to have the opinion of the Local Government Board was to avoid any possible surcharge by the auditor for the expenditure to be incurred.”
- 7. Limerick Fish
At the monthly meeting of the Limerick Fishery Conservators the question of the threatened danger to the Shannon Salmon Fisheries in connection with the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill was under discussion. Mr Hosford, Secretary to the Conservators, stated that he had written to the Board of Public Works, who had charge of the navigation of the Shannon, in reference to the bill being promoted by the Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate, and he had received the following reply: “In reply to your letter of the 13th inst., relative to the Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill of 1900, I am directed by the Commissioners of public works to inform you that they would take such steps as may be necessary to guard their interests and responsibilities as Shannon Commissioners in maintaining the navigation and drainage of the River Shannon, and their revenue and property as such commissioners insofar as they may be affected by this bill. There may, however, be interests which will not be covered or protected by the action of the board, and it will rest with the parties concerned to consider and decide whether they should take independent action to protect such interest. I am, Sir, your obedient servant.
The chairman asked to know what they meant by that? Mr Smith said, “That they will not allow the matter to be dropped.” There was general consensus with all members of the committee that whatever the Board of Works say there is no doubt that the project would interfere with the fishing of the Shannon. If they reduce the water by seven feet it would bring the river below the summer level of 7’6”. The letter from the board of Works is simply a diplomatic letter. The board of Works do not say anything. They do not commit themselves to anything. It would be as well for the secretary to write to the Board of Works to know if there are going to allow the river to be lowered. If they allowed the river to be lowered they will leave all the spawning beds of the lake dry in summer. The lowering of the river by seven feet would bring the water of Loch Derg six inches below the sill of the Victoria Lock above Portumna. Some members commented that the Board of Works letter said they would guard their own interests. It would be better to write to the Board of Works and asked them what they propose to do, and are they going to allow the lake to be lowered seven feet, or if they will allow it to be lowered at all?
The chairman stated, “We are here to conserve very valuable interests, and we ought to be in a position to know what is to be done in the matter. The scheme would destroy the spawning beds of the river. In reference to the lowering of the river at Loch Derg, the fishery inspectors held an inquiry some years ago, about the year 1890, with reference to a bill promoted by the Shannon Commissioners, and the report of the inspectors to the Lord Lieutenant stated; “as to the proposed lowering of the lochs it would have an injurious effect on the fisheries, as it would render it difficult for fish to enter the tributaries, many of which are spawning rivers, and the principal feeders of the Shannon.” That was the report of the inspectors to the Lord Lieutenant, and it was an important extract in the report under question. The chairman also stated that it would be well to draw the attention of the Board of Works to it. The extract could be sent to them. After some conversation, it was decided the secretary should write to the board drawing their attention to the report of the inspectors, and the great injury the proposed scheme would be to the salmon and other fisheries of the Shannon” 
- Uprightness and Consistency
The Times in an article dealing with the outlook in Ireland at the beginning of the New Year appears to be favourably impressed with the material progress which agriculture, trade, and industry have shown during 1899. As to agriculture, the harvests of the past two years, especially that of 1899, have been very satisfactory. And a disposition appears to be spreading throughout the country to utilise modern methods, and to farm on a defined and recognised system. The new Department of Agriculture will develop this tendency, though there is a decided danger that agriculture is mainly indulge in exaggerated ideas as to what outside help can do for them. The Department, as Mr Horace Plunkett tells us “will not be the dispenser of charity, but merely a coadjutor of earnest individual effort.” The Times concludes, as all sensible and unprejudiced people here always knew that the real difficulties of Ireland are economic and agrarian, rather than political. It would have been well for this country if English men, and especially English politicians, had recognised this fact long ago. For nearly 20 years much of the energy which could have been profitably applied to the development of the country’s material interests has been expended in vain and unpractical pursuit of the ‘ignis fatuus’ of Home Rule. In this connection few Irishmen will be disposed to agree with Mr Redmond when he expresses the belief that the present slight and temporary embarrassment of England will dispose the British people towards lending a favourable ear to the demands of himself or his party. He knows but little of the past history or national characteristics of the British people who fondly thinks that they will yield to the threats what they deny to justice. Let Mr Redmond look to the history of the whole of the last century, and the beginning of the present. During that long period of fully 120 years England was engaged in a prolonged struggle, often with nearly all the powers of Europe. Her population at no time during that period was more than double that of Ireland. And yet this interval of 120 years comprises the time which Irish Nationalists now look back upon as the darkest in the history of this country. In 1800, when the union was affected, Napoleon had almost reached the Zenith of his power, and England was fighting for her very existence in every quarter of the globe. The experience of the past teaches a lesson the very contrary to that which Mr Redmond desires to inculcate, that the circumstances which call forth the intent strength of England are those which more strongly impel her to keep her hand on the throttle-valve of Irish disaffection. Whatever concessions England has made to Irish agitation have been made for the most part in a time of profound peace, when England’s greatness was undisputed and her prosperity undisturbed. But, further, England has lost many delusions in dealing with this country, and not least of these was the idea that the vapourings of windy orators had behind them any real body of public opinion. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the convictions of the public are indexed by the amount of pecuniary support which they are prepared to give for the furtherance of their opinions. If the vitality and reality of the recent effort of Irish agitators be tested by this criterion, they need not disturb the equanimity of those who desire for all is a period of peace and progress. The latest attempt at the pro-Boer agitation has been limited to the very “flotsam and jetsam” of the population. The inherent tendency which exists amongst a large section of urban communities in all countries to look after other people’s business, coupled with our national relish for whatever will amuse us, have disposed some of our people to attend pro-Boer meetings at street corners, and to give a laughing ascend to resolutions which mean nothing. Beyond this even the most extreme section in Ireland would not go, and if they did Great Britain would speedily and as effectually deal with them as she is now doing with those Germans who were alleged to be contravening international law.
The Times is evidently not in love with our new Local Government Bill. It notes the intolerance and want of practical good sense displayed by the new County Councils. The capture of the Western councils by the “United Irish League” and the outrageous pretensions of the Limerick labourers are a significant comment on our fitness for popular local government, and the exclusion of every element of stability and standing from the new councils has left the affairs of the taxpaying community at the mercy of ignorant and inexperienced persons. Although we are at one with the Times in many of its conclusions, we are not entirely without hope that time and experience will mitigate some of the evils which are now apparent, and imbue with a larger and more tolerant spirit those who have lately exercised their privileges for the first time. Of one thing we are certain, and that is that Unionists who desire to work in our County and District Councils will not increase their chances of doing so, nor render themselves more popular are respected by any weak attempts to water down their own principles in order to mitigate opposition. Uprightness and consistency are as necessary in public as in private affairs, and Irishmen of all classes respect those who display them.
“Schools open on Thursday, January 11. Scholars who do not return on the opening day are liable to be refused admission.”
At a meeting of Limerick Corporation the engineer reported against approving the Shannon Water and Electric Power Company scheme unless the town council had guarantees to prevent the city waterworks at Clareville being affected. The secretary of the company, Mr John Mackey, and Mr Fraser, engineer, wrote asking to have the decision on the scheme deferred until the latter had an opportunity of explaining the advantages of the undertaking and removing misconception. It was agreed to adjourn the consideration of the matter. The Council, by 24 votes to 4, adapted the scheme of Mr J Enright, of London, for lighting the city by electricity, and laying down the installation to meet the Board of Trade requirements. Sir Thomas Esmonde’s scheme for a national council was defeated.
“It is not easy to surprise Judge Adams, yet during an interesting action involving the Charter rights of the Mayor of Limerick he expressed astonishment that valuable muniments belonging to the city had been lost. Lapsing into history, he declared that Limerick, like Frances at Pavia, seem to have lost everything save her honour; but has she not he’s on steel?”
- 9. Cess Collectors 
The Limerick County Council decided that in the case of the deputy cess collectors who were not appointed by the grand jury they could not legally grant these officers compensation under the provisions of the Local Government Act. The deputy cess collectors held that their cases should be specially brought under the notice of the Treasury, with a view to compensation being allowed. A telegram was received from the Treasury stating that the claims of two of the officers affected where allowed, and it is anticipated that a similar result will follow other applications of a like nature pending.
At Limerick Quarter Sessions, in the hearing of an application to have a fair rent fixed, Mr John Ryan, solicitor, mentioned that when cases came into The Land Commission Court no attention, not the slightest, was given to the fines paid for their holdings by tenants. Judge Adams, “And I will not pay the slightest attention to anything the Land Commissioner say. This is a court, and not a tribunal of ex-bank clerks, and so on. I cannot be moved except by both Houses of Parliament, but the Lord Chancellor can sack any of the Land Commissioner if he pleases. I always pay attention to the fines, to the case of tenants paying twenty or thirty years purchase for their farms, and then turning around to try and make the landlord pay the amount by getting the court to cut down the rents.”
At the meeting of the Limerick Board of Guardians on this week complaint was made that there was a police constable present taking notes of the proceedings. A resolution was proposed by Mr Fitzgerald, and seconded by Mr Kelly, both Nationalist guardians, calling on the chairman to have the constable removed. The resolution was carried unanimously, and the Constable, who was in civilian clothing, left in the boardroom.
- Bishops Speech
The Bishop of Limerick, Dr O’Dwyer, presided last evening at the annual reunion of the Roman Catholics of the diocese of Birmingham in the Birmingham Town Hall, and delivered an address on the question of a Catholic University for Ireland. The platform was occupied by the Bishop of Southwark and a large number of clergy and leading laity of the diocese. The Most Rev President then delivered an address upon the subject of a Catholic University for Ireland he said they were met together as an association representing both England and Ireland, united by interests of the most transcendent character. He traced the history of the movement in favour of a Catholic University in Ireland, of the efforts made by the late Cardinal Newman, who laid the foundation of their existing university system, and proceeded to deal with the objections raised by Protestants and dissenters to the measure of justice which the Catholics of Ireland claimed. It was urged that religious tests had been abolished at Trinity College, Dublin, and that Catholics were as free to become students as Protestants; but he pointed out that the whole influence and traditions of the College were Protestant. Catholics asked that as they represented the great majority of the people of Ireland, they should have an institution similarly based on the Catholic lines. It was further urged by their opponents that as the national system of education was undenominational, higher education should also be undenominational; but he quoted instances both in England and Ireland in which this principle was departed from. In Ireland provision was made, and every convenience, for every form of religious belief and unbelief also, and the only body that was under the ban in this age of scientific and intellectual progress was the Catholic majority of Ireland. Could such a disability draw their hearts strongly in loyalty and devotion to the Empire to which they belonged? The champions of civil and religious liberty in England said that the objections to the present university system were simply the work of the priests; that the Catholic laity were so priest-ridden, or were too great cowards to express their feelings. It was a shame to cast such an insult in the face of any people. They were not slaves in Ireland. He drew attention to the fact that the petition in favour of the University was signed by all the Catholic nobility, and almost the whole of the landed proprietors, by practically the entire body of professional men, by every Catholic Member of Parliament, and was adopted by nine out of ten of the local representative bodies of Ireland. It was therefore hard that their petition should be contemptuously cast aside, and that they should be termed priest ridden serfs. They had been led to expect from the memorable speech of Mr Balfour that the present government would have conceded their claim, and particularly as Lord Cadogan, the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, had also spoken in similar terms of approval, but when the Catholic Bishops drew up their statement of the principle upon which they would accept a settlement, the Duke of Devonshire stated that the government had no intention of dealing with it, and that he had never regarded it as a practical question. It therefore seems that Catholics had been fooled by English politicians. He asked to compare this wretched wavering by the Unionist government in their dealing with Ireland with their concessions to their own political supporters in England. Was it a wonder, therefore, that unionism had not made much progress of late in Ireland. It was a fact that Irish men neither loved nor respected the government that was over them. Undisguised tyranny they could understand, but the pretence of constitutional government was simply contemptible in their eyes, and it seemed that Irish Catholics were condemned at the behest of the least enlightened and most fanatical section in this electorate to a deprivation of higher education as a disability of their religion in that great centre of Unionism. Its most distinguished leader, Mr Chamberlain had recently visited Ireland for the purpose of emphasising the determination of the government to maintain this educational inequality under which they laboured. Had Mr Chamberlain forgotten the principles of his pro-Unionist days? There was a time when he advocated the government of Ireland according to Irish ideas. Had his Unionism invalidated that principle now, and were they to be governed in the teeth of Irish ideas? He could easily understand Mr Chamberlain’s action in opposing Home Rule if he thought the interests of the country would be jeopardised by it; but that did not prevent him from governing Ireland in accordance with the ideas of the Irish people, and every instinct of truth and justice should have impelled him to deal with Irishmen in a most liberal manner. But instead of that the Unionist government seemed to aim no higher than their own party interest in the government of Ireland. The ablest statesman of the Unionist party and the best and most and enlightened of Irish Protestants has approved of the scheme; but all that went for nothing in the face of the dictation of a few dissenting circles in the cities of England. If that is the way English Unionism worked out they would not have long to wait for its political defeat. On the motion of the Bishop of Southwark, a resolution was enthusiastically carried asking the government to adopt prompt measures to redress Catholic religious disabilities in Ireland in the matter of university education.
“The Inspectors of Irish Fisheries have notified to the Limerick County Council that they will hold an enquiry into the scheme of the Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate on the 30th inst. Limerick City Engineers have reported against the works being allowed to interfere with the city water supply from the source at Doonass, and which the scheme might possibly affect.”
- 11. Direct Labour
At an adjourned quarterly meeting yesterday of Limerick (No. 1) District Council, Mr William Noonan, chairman, presiding, the question of the direct employment of Labour in the maintenance and repairs of the public roadways was again before the members. At the last meeting the tenders from contractors were rejected and referred to the County Council, who did not, however, go into them, but decided that they should be considered by the District Council. In reply to a member the clerk, Mr Guinane, said he could not explain what prompted the action of the County Council, but the matter was again afresh before the district council that day. After some discussion, Mr John Ryan, moved that contracts for the maintenance and repairs of the roads be advertised for 12 months from 31 March next, instead of 4 1/2 years as heretofore, and the security should be by a guaranteed society, Mr Doyle, solicitor, on behalf of the intending contractors, stated the condition with regard to the security was an impossible one, the gentlemen who suggested it, Mr Shee, MP, having admitted that he had been in consultation with some guarantee societies, the managers of which had informed him that their societies would decline to become security for contractors. The chairman thought the resolution should be amended so as to provide for such an emergency, but there was no response to the suggestion, and the resolution was eventually unanimously adopted.
“A County Limerick lady, Miss E Ryan, has had conferred on her by the Queen the highest distinction within the reach of a member of the Army Nursing Staff, namely, the decoration of the Royal Red Cross. Ms Ryan is engaged at the Military Hospital, Valetta, and the honour has been awarded in recognition of her services in connection with the nursing, at Malta, of the sick and wounded from Crete.”
“Lord Dunraven is breaking up his stud farm at Adare and a number of the thoroughbreds are to be sold by public auction at Limerick in the ensuing month.”
- 12. Potato Disease
Fortunately in the past year the dreaded potato disease was greatly circumscribed in its force in Ireland, the crop on wetlands in Connaught suffering most, but in the aggregate the yield was one of the best and soundest we have had in this country for a good many years. On this subject the Farmer’s Gazette contains an exhaustive account of an interesting series of experiments carried out in County Limerick during the past season, with the object of testing the effects of sulphate of copper solution as a preventive of potato disease. The experiments were carried out over a considerable area of country, and they conclusively proved that even in seasons when the disease is not very prevalent, the spraying more than repays the expense incurred in its application. These experiments also demonstrated that giving two dressings of the solution at a comparatively early period of the season is much more effective as a preventive of the disease than a single heavy dressing given later on. Another experiment was conducted in the same district with the object of testing the relative merits of old versus new seed, and in almost every instance it was found that the freshly introduced seed gave substantially better results than that previously grown on the same farm. The Limerick experiments also included an investigation into the subject of white scour in calves, a disease that causes great loss to farmers from year to year in the great dairying districts of the South. It has been found that by careful feeding and a strict attention to cleanliness the ravages of this disease may be very considerably mitigated.
- Hole and Corner
The quarterly meeting of Limerick Corporation was held for the election of Mayor and a selection of three burgesses qualified to serve as City High Sherriff for the year. The present Mayor was re-elected without opposition, and then the council proceeded to nominate three burgesses fit to serve as City High Sheriff. The candidates mentioned were the present Sheriff, Mr, Thomas H Cleeve, JP, and whom, it was announced, was to be opposed by Mr John F Power. Alderman O’ Mara said it would clear matters by his stating that owing to the action of the present City High Sheriff there was no necessity, rather than the necessity of a contest had been obviated. Owing to Mr Cleve being in favour of amalgamation last year, Mr Power was forced to oppose him for the office, and to enter into an active opposition against him with every prospect of success. However, an arrangement was come to and now the following agreement was made in this letter received from Mr Cleeve: “Dear Mr Power, with reference to our interview, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that as I am seeking the honour of High Sherriff at the hands of the Corporation I shall be bound both in my private and public capacity to conform to the expressed view of the corporation, which I admit are, as you state, against amalgamation, and I pledge myself to be so bound not to give evidence in favour of amalgamation, yours faithfully, TH Cleeve.”
Mr Power had been working in the interest of the locomotive men and the citizens, and when he got this guarantee he wrote as follows to him in reference to the matter: “My Dear Alderman O’Mara, I wish to inform to you that Mr Cleeve has written a guarantee that he will not in his official capacity or as a private individual give evidence in favour of or against in any way to promote railway amalgamation, which would be so disastrous to our city and to the South and West of Ireland, if elected to the office of High Sherriff; and as all are aware that my opposition was solely on the grounds of railway amalgamation, having recovered the guarantee referred to, and Mr Cleves having atoned for his past action, I with the consent of my friends desire to withdraw my candidature, and to take this opportunity of sincerely thanking my supporters, the majority of the Limerick Corporation., Very sincerely yours, John F Power.”
Cllr Dalton denied that Mr Power was acting for the locomotive men, or that he was consulted by them. He was acting for three or four city merchants, who held a ‘hole- and-corner’ meeting on this subject. Mr Power withdrew now from the Shrievalty because he knew he would be beaten. Councillor Fitzgerald said Cllr Dalton was not in order. Counter Dalton replied, “It is not fair for Alderman O’Mara to say that the railwaymen consulted Mr Power. What right has the railway men to consult him? Cllr O’Brien said if the corporation were to confer an office on anyone it should be given unconditionally. Otherwise it was not worth at the having, and did not bring any honour with it to the recipient. The chairman told Cllr O’Brien if he wanted to make a speech and what is the speech about? Eventually Mr Cleeves name was placed first on the list, the vote being a unanimous one, Cllr John Hayes and Councillor Stokes, being nominated to the second and third places. Mr Cleeves selection for the office by the Lord-Lieutenant is therefore likely to follow. The council decided to hold a specially adjourned meeting later in the week to arrange for opposing the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company, and other matters in connection therewith.
- Reservist Alacrity
A striking instance of the alacrity of the Reservists in responding to the summons to rejoin the colours was evidenced in a letter from an officer of the house at a meeting of the Limerick Board of Guardians; “Sir, Having today been served with a warrant from the War Office for active service in South Africa, I regret that in consequence I was obliged to leave my situation on the 20th. Now, as you are doubtless aware, since my appointment I have given you every satisfaction as attested by always having favourable reports from Board Inspector Burke and also the Lunacy Inspectors, and as I now leave for a short time only, through no fault of my own, I sincerely trust you will be considerate enough to keep the situation open for me until the war is over, when, if not amongst the slain, I shall return to your service with the least possible delay. Your Obedient Servant, James Ryan (Male Lunatic Keeper). Members of the Board agreed that he has been a very faithful officer, and a credit to the Department he has charge of. Members had personal knowledge he would not be sent to the front, as he only has four months to serve the balance of his reserve time. He would be kept in garrison duty during the period, and another man could be temporarily appointed for the four or six months he will be away. If you were going to South Africa would be another matter, Mr O’Regan stated “for we should leave it to the brave loyalists of England to keep positions open for those Reserve men. One member suggested, as a Nationalist Board, “We should not hold any of our offices open for anyone going to fight for her Majesty, but under the circumstances we can appoint a man temporarily for four months during his absence.” The chairman said that whatever the merits of the case might be, they had only to consider the application as it affected them as a Board of Guardians. They should look at the application as one from a very deserving officer, filling a trying position in the house, and in justice to him, and as it would involve no cost to the ratepayers, the least the board could do was to grant six months leave. On the motion of Alderman O’Mara, seconded by Mr P McNamara, it was agreed to give the officer six months leave of absence, and advertise for a substitute to take his place while he was away with the colours. It was also noted that he does not ask for any salary while he is away.
“The enquiry into the cause or causes of the very high death rate in cities in Ireland will be extended to Limerick. Once the Local Government Board sets the machinery in order it is a very simple matter extending the same kind of commission to the city. A through overhauling of the “health” responsibilities is to be keenly insisted upon, and sanitation, drainage, and cleansing will be gone into, as well as water supply, and the dairy and slaughter systems.”
At a meeting of the Limerick County Council, the chairman, Mr Thomas Mitchell, presiding, an animated discussion took place relative to the contemplated sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway to the Great Southern and Western Company. The Mayor, Alexander Shaw, William Stokes, William Halliday, Alderman S. O’Mara, John F Power, and James Roche attended as a joint deputation to ask support of the council in opposing the scheme for the sale of the Waterford and Limerick line, respecting which the Great Southern and Western Company and Midler and great Western company are promoting bills in Parliament. Eventually it was decided that a special meeting of the County Council should be held on Saturday to consider the whole question of amalgamation.
At the meeting of the Limerick Harbour Commissioners a long discussion ensued relative to the Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme. On the last day permission was given Mr James Goodbody, a member of the board and also a member of the firm of Bannatyne & Sons, to get what figures and statistics he might require from the books of the Harbour Board, and to which when it became known Mr John Power, likewise a member of the board, objected, if the figures were required for the purpose of supporting the sale of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway. Bannatyne wrote to the board, and letter was read at the meeting asking to have the matter again brought before the members, and adding that the returns required were for their information in connection with the railway question. The chairman said he did not know who made the objection Mr Power stated to Mr Goodbody do you mean objection to this return? The Chairman replied yes. Mr Power said it was he made it, although, of course, he had no authority to do so on the part of the board. He was not present at the last meeting of the commissioners, but when he heard that Mr Goodbody got this permission he waited on him with another member of the board to know if the returns were required for the purpose of supporting the Railway amalgamation scheme. If the returns were not for that purpose he had no objection to Mr Goodbody getting them, but if they were he did not think it would be fair they should be so used until the board were made acquainted with the matter, as they had by a large majority decided to oppose amalgamation.
Mr Goodbody said the matter had not struck him in the way Mr Power had put it, but he said he would consult his directors, and that for the present he would not use the figures. If the figures were for trade purposes all right, but if to support a railway monopoly, which the majority of the board thought would injure the port and city, then the figures would not be supplied. Alderman O’Mara took a similar view. He voted for Mr Goodbody getting the figures on the last day, but certainly not with the idea that they should be applied as it now appeared there were to be applied. Mr William McDonnell, as one voting in favour of Mr Goodbody on the last day, he was tremendously taken by surprise when he heard of the purpose for which the figures were proposed to be used. Mr James Ellis Goodbody said he did not intend to say overmuch in regard to the application, and he did not wish to give any agreement as to how the figures were to be used. Mr Power had stated the conversation very accurately, but he also told him (Mr Goodbody) on the occasion that this question was very much on a par with a legal case. He (Mr Goodbody) thought his action as a member of the board, if he used the information he obtained, would be as proper as that of the majority of the board. A Parliamentary enquiry was quite a different thing to legal action, and he considered he had as perfect a right to put his side of the case on behalf of the minority, as the other members had on the part of the majority. It was a case that affected the whole South and West of Ireland more than it did the Port and docks of Limerick. Mr Boyd asked for an order in the matter. Mr McDonnell said he would propose that Mr Goodbody be refused figures. Mr Goodbody stated, “You must go further than that. I must be refused everything, for I may ask something else tomorrow.” Mr EJ Long said he opposed the information being issued as he thought it was unfair to traders that any member of the board should get exclusive information. Mr Goodbody said he wanted to get the names of the twelve largest ratepayers. Mr McDonnell held it should be known what Mr Goodbody wanted his information for before getting it. If it was for the great Southern and Western company he certainly should not get a stick to beat the back of those who were opposing the amalgamation scheme. After some further conversation it was decided that Mr McDonnell’s motion should be considered on notice at the next meeting of the board, Mr Goodbody stating he would not ask for the information required in the interim. A letter was read from the secretary of the Midland Great Western Company asking the Harbour Board to support a scheme of the board for the acquisition of the Waterford, Limerick, and Western Railway. Mr Power suggested it be referred to a committee who were willing to receive a deputation on the subject. Mr Goodbody mentioned that the Harbour board were spending thousands, while the Corporation, who were deeply interested, were spending but hundreds in opposing the scheme after some discussion, the chairman said if the sole task of the scheme were confined to this cooperation Mr Goodbody and others like him would have to pay all the same, as they were large ratepayers. On the motion of Alderman Joyce, seconded by Mr Power, a resolution was adopted condemning the action of the Waterford, Limerick and Western directors in dismissing three of their skilled workmen who had been opposed to amalgamation. Mr Goodbody said the men were dismissed for insubordination.
“Mr JP Gunning, of the Inland Revenue Service, who had recently been promoted from Carrickmacross district to Glasgow, has now been further promoted to an important position in Limerick. Mr Gunning was most popular in all centres in which he has served; he has decided taste and aptitude for literary pursuits, as was evidenced in his excellent brochure on “Burns, Poet and Excise Officer,” an appreciative sketch of the Scottish National Bard.”
 Freemans Journal: The Railway Amalgamation Proposals: Action of Limerick Harbour Commissioners: January 2, 1900: page 6.
 The Irish Times: Shannon Water and Electric Power Company; January 2, 1900/page 7.
 Irish Times, Accident At Limerick, January 2, 1900; page 6
 Freemans Journal: Train Accident: January 3, 1900: page 7
 Irish Times, Jurisdiction of Courts: Judge Adams’s Opinion; January 3 1900: page 6.
 Freemans Journal: Window Breaking in Limerick: January 3, 1900: page 6.
 Freemans Journal: Proposed Fete in June: January 4, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times, Third Battalion; January 2 1900; pg6
 Irish Times: Shocking Suicide at Limerick: January 4, 1900: page 6
 Irish Times: The Direct Labour Agitation; Strong Remarks by Judge Adams; January 5 1900; page 2.
 In fact, John F Power later took umbrage to the article and wrote to the Editor of the Irish Times in which he states; “In the report which you published in your issue of today of the proceedings of the Limerick Corporation on the subject of the contemplated railway monopoly in the South West of Ireland, you state that I ‘subsequently’ attended the meeting and addressed it in favour of amalgamation. This is not a fact, and I beg that you will kindly give as much prominence to this contradiction as you have given to the report. What actually occurred is that the Mayor was kind enough to ask me to lay my views before the meeting, which I did, and they were entirely against the amalgamation of Waterford and Limerick with the great Southern and Western Railway as creating a monopoly which has been proved would be most injurious to the progress and to the commercial and agricultural interests of the South and West of Ireland, and would benefit only the monopolists. Yours, John F Power. Limerick, January 5. (Irish Times; Railway Monopoly in the South and West of Ireland: To the Editor of the Irish Times: January 6, 1900: page 7)
 Irish Times; Waterford Railway Purchase, Action of Limerick Corporation; January 5, 1900; page 3.
 Irish Times: Limerick County Council and the Roads: January 5, 1900: page 3.
 Irish Times: Limerick Fishery Conservators: The Shannon Water and Electric Power Bill: January 5 1900: page 3.
 Irish Times: Editorial: January 6, 1900: page 4.
 Irish Times: Mungret College Limerick: January 9, 1900: page 1.
 Irish Times: Limerick Corporation: January 12, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times: Passing Events: January 13, 1900: page 7.
 Cess Collectors were Tax Collectors.
 Irish Times: Deputy Cess Collectors and Compensation: January 13, 1900: page 9.
 Irish Times: Judge Adams and Tenants Fines: January 13, 1900: page 4.
 Irish Times: Constable Present: January 13, 1900: page 8.
 Irish Times: Speech by the Bishop of Limerick: January 16, 1900: page 5.
 Irish Times: News from the Provinces: Shannon Water and Electric Power Syndicate: January 18, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times: The Direct Labour Question: January 18, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times: Passing Events: January 20, 1900: page 4.
 Irish Times: Lord Dunraven: January 23, 1900: page 4.
 Irish Times: Sulphate of Copper Solution and Potato Disease: January 23, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times: Limerick Corporation Railway Amalgamation Question: January 24, 1900: page 3.
 Irish Times: Limerick Guardians and the Reservists: January 25, 1900: page 6
 Weekly Irish Times: London Notes: January 27, 1900: page 18.
 Irish times That: Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme: January 29, 1900: page 6.
 Irish Times: Southern Railway Amalgamation Scheme: January 30, 1900: page 7.
 Irish Times: Passing Events: January 31, 1900: page 5.
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
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.