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?