Rarely has a book had such a compelling opening line. ‘When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’
And so Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday aged 78 after a battle with skin cancer, launched a new literary genre: the misery memoir. Dozens have followed him – so much so that they are now generically called ‘mis-lit’. These tales of childhood woe have become highly lucrative.
Called ‘inspirational memoirs’ by publishers, ‘mis-lit’ now accounts for nine per cent of the British book market, shifting 1.9 million copies a year and generating £24 million of revenue. HarperCollins recently admitted to a 31 per cent increase in annual profits thanks to ‘mis-lit’.
But as well as starting a publishing phenomenon, McCourt’s searing bestseller Angela’s Ashes, which has sold some five million copies, also began a terrible feud.
Locals called him ‘a conman and a hoaxer’, and claim he ‘prostituted’ his own mother in his quest for literary stardom, by turning her into a downtrodden harlot who committed incest in his book.
One thing is not under debate – when it came to writing limpid, magical prose, McCourt was the real thing, following in his countrymen’s footsteps to emerge as an Irish writer par excellence.
So just who was the real Frank McCourt? Did he win the Pulitzer Prize with his lyrical, poignant memoir under false pretences? Or was he indeed the ultimate rags-to-riches story, who survived the grinding poverty of Limerick’s slums to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, triumphant?
The truth is, we may never know. Perhaps, as McCourt did in Angela’s Ashes, we had better begin at the beginning. In the book, set in the Thirties, McCourt writes that his parents returned when he was four from New York to Ireland, against the tide of Irish emigration.
His family consisted of ‘my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone’.
His mother, the Angela of the book’s title – had become pregnant in New York after ‘a knee-trembler – the act itself done up against a wall’. Four months later, she married Malachy McCourt, her family having pressed him to do the decent thing.
So began a downward spiral into alcohol and poverty, with a feckless father drinking his wages away.
Subjective: Frank McCourt said the memoir chronicled his family and his emotions
Far worse was to come. The death of their daughter at seven weeks sent McCourt’s parents into an abyss of despair, from which they never emerged.
They return, despondent, by boat to Ireland – with Angela pregnant again. But soon, one of the twins, Oliver, has died, too.
His second child’s death precipitated McCourt Sr’s complete decline into alcoholism. He promised coal for the fire, rashers, eggs and tea for a celebration of Oliver’s life, but instead took his week’s dole to the pub.
School, full of bare-footed slum children, is no relief. The masters ‘hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish. If you don’t cry the masters hate you because you’ve made them look weak before the class and they promise themselves the next time they have you up they’ll draw tears or blood or both’.
Then, worse. ‘Six months after Oliver went, we woke on a mean November morning and there was Eugene, cold in the bed beside us.’ He had died of pneumonia.
Another brother is born, Michael – Angela’s sixth pregnancy. As her husband continues to drink away the dole, a friend tells her off for cursing God, saying: ‘Oh, Angela, you could go to Hell for that.’ ‘Aren’t I there already?’ she replies.
Another baby arrives, Alphonsus Joseph. No matter that his family fight for charity vouchers for food, furniture and medicine and share a stinking lavatory with six other houses, McCourt Sr drinks the baby’s christening money.
His father leaves for England, finally abandoning his family. When they are evicted for not paying rent, Angela takes her family to live with a cousin, Laman.
McCourt wrote that his mother and her cousin had an incestuous relationship. ‘She climbs to the loft with Laman’s last mug of tea. There are nights when we hear them grunting, moaning. I think they’re at the excitement up there.’
Laman also beat the children. At 14, McCourt got a job as a telegraph boy. At 19, he left Limerick behind for ever for a new life in America. He first lived in Connecticut, where he became a teacher. He wrote Angela’s Ashes in his mid-60s, and became hugely wealthy.
But how much of his landmark book was true? Did McCourt cross the line between fact and fiction?
Limerick locals, horrified at the squalid depiction of their town, counted a total of ‘117 lies or inaccuracies’ in the 426-page book, that range from obscure details to wrongly accusing one local man of being a Peeping Tom. They called for a boycott of the film of Angela’s Ashes.
Paddy Malone, a retired coach driver who appears in the frayed school photograph on the book’s original cover, is among McCourt’s most furious detractors.
He, too, grew up in the Lanes of Limerick and went to the same school as McCourt.
‘I know nothing about literature, but I do know the difference between fact and fiction,’ says Malone. ‘McCourt calls this book a memoir, but it is filled with lies and exaggerations. The McCourts were never that poor. He has some cheek.’
Malone recalls the family having a pleasant green lawn behind their home, and Angela being overweight – despite the graphic descriptions of hunger in the book.
Limerick broadcaster Gerry Hannan spearheaded a campaign against Angela’s Ashes, confronting McCourt on a TV show and calling him a liar.
Although he is too young to remember the period of which McCourt writes, Hannan is convinced McCourt has twisted Limerick’s history to make his book more shocking.
‘As far as I’m concerned, he’s a conman and a hoaxer,’ says Hannan. ‘He knew the right things to say to get the result he wanted. He’s a darling on television. He’s got this beautiful brogue and he can put the charm on. And don’t get me wrong, the book is beautifully written. But it’s not true.’
Their three biggest criticisms of the book, aside from the endless grinding misery it depicts, include the description of a local boy, Willy Harold, as a Peeping Tom who spied on his naked sister. It turns out that Mr Harold, now dead, never had a sister – which McCourt did later acknowledge.
They also disputed McCourt’s account of his sexual relations with Teresa Carmody, when he was 14. She was dying of TB at the time, and locals were outraged that he sullied her memory.
Frank Prendergast, a former Limerick mayor and local historian who grew up within 200 yards of McCourt’s house, says that if McCourt did suffer, it was because he had a feckless father.
‘He suffered a unique poverty because his father was an alcoholic, not because he lived in Limerick,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘But he has traduced people and institutions that are very dear to Limerick people.’
McCourt said: ‘I can’t get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.
‘Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they’re kidding themselves.’
Time will tell whether his impressionistic account of a brutal childhood endures. But whether embellished or not, it certainly left its mark on Limerick – and on literature itself.