If you were tracking the news from Ireland over the past two weeks, you might have noticed the ironic coincidence of two stories. When the author of the international best seller “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt, died on July 19, the Irish press was as quick to praise him in death as it had been to condemn him a little more than a decade ago when he published his controversial memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. A few days after McCourt’s death, legislation came before the Irish Dail that would make acts of blasphemy a criminal offence.
When “Angela’s Ashes” appeared in print in 1996, McCourt’s depiction of his childhood in the slums of Limerick was a punch to the solar plexus of Irish respectability. The Celtic Tiger was then just rising with its promise of a new economically prosperous Ireland and was not amused by McCourt’s stories.
There were charges that McCourt fabricated or grossly exaggerated the facts. This struck me as a bit disingenuous. After all, Irish writers have a long tradition of stepping over a few facts when they get in the way of a good story. The real complaint against McCourt seemed to be: Why did he bring all this old stuff up now just when Ireland was promoting a new image?
The prophet has no honor at home award went to McCourt’s childhood hometown of Limerick. The money in Limerick was not on McCourt’s side.
“Particularly incensed,” one observer wrote, “were the citizens of Limerick who, by the late 1990s, had embraced the idea of Ireland as the Celtic Tiger and wanted only modernity, change and growth. Talks of typhoid, rats and outside lavatories were not welcome.”
By the late 1990s, Limerick was boomtown in the Irish equivalent “silicon valley.” A Dell Computer Plant opened in 1991 bringing more than 4,000 jobs to the city. Other hi-tech firms followed Dell’s lead. Johnson & Johnson opened up a facility in the city. By the time “Angela’s Ashes” was published, Limerick had already demolished its slum district — the “lanes” of McCourt’s childhood — and put in their place a park along the Shannon River and new office buildings.
Charges of lies and plagiarism
One of his fiercest critics, Paddy Malone, had been a childhood friend and neighbor of McCourt in the “lanes.” Malone ripped up a copy of “Angela’s Ashes” at a reading McCourt gave in Limerick, charging his one-time friend both with lies and plagiarism. The photograph on the back of McCourt’s book, Malone alleged, was his photo. The international film star Richard Harris, also a Limerick man, went to the town’s radio airwaves to charge McCourt with slandering not merely their hometown. Harris also attacked McCourt for slandering his own mother.
A popular Limerick radio host, Gerry Hannan relentlessly pursued McCourt’s case. Hannan may have had ulterior motives. He had written two volumes of memoirs about his own Limerick childhood that was much happier than McCourt’s.
I had only one encounter with Limerick’s anti-McCourt lobby. It didn’t happen in Limerick — a city I have only visited once and spent most of my time lost in traffic and asking for directions to another town. Far away from Ireland, my Limerick moment happened in the unlikely setting of Nebraska.
It was the summer of 1998, when the squabble over “Angela’s Ashes” was still in the literary news. Driving back to Minnesota after a vacation in the Rockies, I ventured into North Platte, bypassing the franchise land that has sprung up along the I-80 exits and heading into the now mostly forgotten town center.
A storefront sign read “Espresso and Irish Specialties.” Inside, I found a floor space from another era living out the last chapter in its retail life as a used books and furniture store. At the back of the store, a fountain counter featured espresso drinks, sandwiches and Irish trinkets. An older gentlemen stood behind the counter.
Overhearing his accent, I asked him: “So, if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”
“Limerick,” he replied with a brevity uncharacteristic of the Irish.
I couldn’t resist. “So,” I continued, “did Frankie McCourt make up all those stories?”
“Look at me!” He ordered. “How old do you think I am?”
“Middle sixties?” I guessed.
“That’s right,” he said. “And how old do you think Frankie McCourt is?”
“About the same.”
“That’s right. Same age, same Limerick, same time.” The man was visibly angry. “Now you tell me how could McCourt tell the world all those terrible lies about the Church and the priests?”
I changed the subject, asking if he had seen the beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception just across the state line in Kansas.
To make sense out of why so much vitriol had been poured on McCourt, I turned to St. Paul’s Jim Rogers, writer and managing director of the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. Although Rogers has reservations about McCourt as a writer, he attributed the spitefulness of the critics to something other than literary standards.
“Angela’s Ashes” reaped for its author more than $8 million in international sales, a Pulitzer Prize and a box-office hit movie version. It’s hard not to be envious.
Rogers also sees a much more sensitive issue at play in the reaction to “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt depicted an Irish Catholic Church that did nothing to help to his desperate family. A priest literally slammed the door in the face of the young Frankie McCourt when he sought help. In the years of the Irish Free State and early years of the Republic of Ireland, a cash starved Irish government was all too eager to fob off on the Catholic Church the responsibilities for providing social services.
Although McCourt may have overstated his point, Ireland understated the Church’s failure in social policy. Rogers suggests that there’s a lesson to be learned here. “Ireland tried ‘faith based initiatives,'” he said, “and it didn’t work.”
What is more, in 1997 McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was the first in a series of messages about a trust betrayed by the Irish Catholic Church. In 1998 a story broke about the discovery of a mass grave of 133 young women unearthed when the Good Shepherd Convent was closed in Cork. The women were among the thousands of “Magdalenes.” These were young Irish girls committed to orphanages run by the nuns where the girls labored in the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Their crime was to have born a child out of wedlock or perhaps to have impressed a parish priest, teacher or family member as displaying a promiscuous personality.
The worst news was yet to come. This May a court-appointed commission released the Ryan Report, which documented an “endemic” culture of abuse and rape in Irish church-run orphanages. From the 1930s until the last facility closed in the 1990s, more than 30, 000 Irish children underwent detention in these facilities chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order. The testimony revealed how the crimes of abuse against the children were compounded by the complicity of politicians and church officials both eager to cover up the matter. The public testimony that accompanied would have made even McCourt wince.
In the 1930s, McCourt was probably only one step away from becoming one more statistic to appear in the Ryan Report.
Limerick has put aside its feud with McCourt. Its mayor wants to pay tribute July 20 to its most famous literary son by having his ashes spread across the Shannon and erecting a statue of McCourt to stand beside the city’s other most famous son, the actor Richard Harris.
Better rethink the latter idea. Harris and McCourt once got into a bar room brawl in New York. A “walking tour” of McCourt’s childhood neighborhood is one of the city’s major tourist attractions even if all the tour guide can show the tourists is where McCourt’s “lanes” stood before their demolition in urban renewal.
The city’s change of heart may be a sign that now that the ride on the Celtic Tiger is over, Limerick sees less of a need to disguise its history of poverty. Dell has announced plans to close its Limerick plant in 2010. Other hi-tech firms are following Dell’s lead. Familiar old stores are closing their doors. Unemployment today in Limerick is 14 percent and predicted to rise as high as 25 percent next year.
Maybe Limerick has decided in these hard economic times it makes no sense to knock McCourt. The “Angela’s Ashes” walking tour maybe the best thing going for the Limerick economy these days.
Meanwhile, the Irish Dail weighs the merits of a law criminalizing blasphemy. Somebody in Ireland must want legal protection in place in case McCourt embarrasses them by writing from the grave yet another volume of memoirs.
Richard Harris Stands Up For His Native City in Local Radio Interview
By Eugene Phelan
Airdate January 20th 2000
International film star Richard Harris has publicly lambasted his fellow Limerickman and contemporary Frank McCourt for his depiction of Limerick in the Pulitzer Prize winning book ANGELA’S ASHES.
He also launched an attack on film director ALAN PARKER whom he accuses of using Limerick as a ‘whipping boy’ to generate publicity for a twenty million-dollar flop.
In a frank two-hour live interview on the Limerick airwaves with Ireland’s most vocal McCourt critic Gerry Hannan, who presents a nighttime phone-in show on RLO, Harris spoke out for the first time on what he describes as a bitter attack on his native city.
Harris highlighted the fact that McCourt recently told the American media that the film star came from a different more up market part of Limerick than he did and couldn’t possible know about poverty and hardship on the lanes of Limerick.
‘But McCourt was very well versed in telling the press how well I lived. If he is so well informed about my life why is it unnecessary for me to be informed about his life?’
‘I knew Frank in his New York days and I found him to be probably the ugliest and the most bitter human being I have ever met in my entire life.
Frank was full of bitterness.
I don’t think I ever confronted a man that was so angry.
Ever fibre of his being was in rebellion against something.
I believe that he hated me with a passion because according to him I came from an elitist part of Limerick and because I became so successful.
Though he would use my success to promote himself he very much resented my success.
If Limerick is, as he claims, a city of begrudgers why then they did they give him an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Limerick and why did the Mayor propose making him a Freeman of Limerick?
Are these the acts of begrudgers?
I was offered an Honorary Doctorate by UL and though I never say never I would have to think very seriously about it because I don’t want to link myself to totally mediocre non-entities like McCourt.
So why does Harris believe that McCourt hates Limerick?
‘I really don’t know. I agree that there are stories about Limerick in ANGELA’S ASHES that just don’t make sense. Of course I knew that the poverty was going on but I also knew many people with difficult lives who grew up on the lanes of Limerick but yet, even to this day, there isn’t one ounce of bitterness in them.
There is a friendly tribal rivalry which exists in the rugby world in Limerick but when an outside team comes in to play they all come together in unison to support their own.
It is for that very reason that Limerick is unique.
The loyalty is absolutely astonishing and, I believe, that that element of Limerick totally by-passed the McCourts.
They are devoid of any sense of loyalty and are filled with hate for Limerick.
Here is a simple question.
Why wouldn’t Frank and Malachy McCourt hate Limerick – the fact is they hate each other.
Frank came out in a big campaign recently and knocked Malachy’s book.
When he was asked did he read Malachy’s book he said he wouldn’t read it.
He is quoted in some American newspapers as asking why Malachy dared to impose himself on my terrain.
They couldn’t even support each other.
Then Malachy came out and was vicious about Frank.
I’ve heard that Frank thinks of himself as a literary genius but I think his book has no literary merit whatsoever.
Recently the London Times carried an article about the terrible decline in the arts in the last century and it finished by saying that we started the last century with Henry James and we ended with Frank McCourt.
Harris laughs and says that he cannot think of anything more insulting.
But what about the Pulitzer Prize surely that is a real claim to fame?
‘Winning the Pulitzer is not that big a deal. I have seen hundreds of plays that have won the prize and you couldn’t sit half way through it. The Pulitzer is a common prize that means very little.
I was talking to Brian Friel recently who told me that there is not even one single line of poetry or literary merit in the book.
I asked Brian to explain to me why this book won the prize.
He believes that at the moment in America the fact that you are Irish is very fashionable and ANGELA’S ASHES, being Irish, is riding on this wave of enthusiasm for all things Irish.
Brian told me that if that attitude continues then the ANGELA’S ASHES of this world would deplete that opinion about Ireland.
A Coward Act
‘I first met Frank McCourt years ago in his brother Malachy’s pub called ‘Himself’ in New York and he was very derogative and derisive in his attitude and remarks about Limerick.
I was in discussion about Limerick to Malachy when Frank raised his fist and hit me a terrible belt on the nose. Like a hare running from a hound he raced toward the exit door and ran out of the pub. I said to Malachy, I’m afraid your brother is not really a Limerickman. When Malachy asked why not I told him that I have never yet been confronted by a Limerickman who ran away from a fight.’
We don’t do that in Limerick we stand our ground and we fight.
To run from a fight is not part of the Limerick character at all.’
‘I knew Malachy for years and he wrote a book called A MONK SWIMMING and I am very heavily featured throughout the book. I found both Malachy and Frank to be absolute users. They would use me and my position in America for them to gain some kind of notoriety and I can best characterise them both as users.
Angela’s Will to Die
‘I also knew Angela McCourt quite well and I visited her regularly and I spent a lot of time with her and they treated her really badly.
The way they spoke about their mother made me very angry.
They had an obvious disdain for their mother and I remember on one occasion in the pub where I grabbed her son Malachy by the neck and shouted that she is your mother and you cannot treat her like this.
Malachy’s only answer to me was that they were bringing her lots of beer and cigarettes in the hope that she would die because she is costing us rent money.
I believe in my heart that they were willing a death.
I found that very offensive to such an extent that I threatened to kill him.
‘When I met Angela she was in her old age and she was very quiet and once when I was alone with her she told me that she knew that they didn’t like her and wanted her dead.
She said that they don’t like me Dickie, they don’t treat me well, they don’t want me to be here, I am a nuisance to them and I am no more than a rock around their neck.
Angela told Richard that the boys treated her so badly that she wished she were dead and gone.
The Mystery of Angela’s Ashes
When Angela McCourt died she wanted to be buried in Limerick.
I happen to know that there is an Irish travel agency in New York where Malachy and Frank went to book tickets to take the coffin back to Limerick.
But the boys refused to pay the extra charge for the coffin.
So they decided to cremate their mother who allowed them to put her ashes into their overnight bags and take her back for nothing.
Now I know that Angela was a very devout Catholic and she would not have wanted to be cremated. Being cremated was something that she couldn’t countenance at all and she wanted to be buried.
But the boys were not willing to pay for that so they cremated her and put her into a tin.
When they got to the Airport in New York Frank turned to Malachy and asked ‘have you got her?’ and Malachy replied ‘Got who?’
They argued for a while and realised that the ashes had to be in one of the bags but neither one known which bag exactly.
The boys had to take separate flights for one reason or another and Malachy’s, who believed he had the ashes, plane got into trouble and had to go back to New York.
In all the coming and going the bags, containing the ashes, got lost.
It is a commonly held opinion amongst the Irish in New York that Angela’s Ashes are, in fact, buried away in some far distant remote lost property corner of Kennedy Airport in New York.
Speaking about Limerick’s influence on Frank McCourt – Harris believes that it is obvious that the author did not experience the true spirit of the city. ‘Limerick is a sporting city and when, as a young man, I had TB legions of my mates from the Young Munster’s Rugby Club of which I am a life time member came to see me in my sick bed. These guys were from the same background as the McCourts, they came from the lanes of Limerick and they had just as tough a time but, in spite of the poverty and hardship, they had an almost indestructible loyalty to Limerick.
You never heard from them one condemnation about Limerick. Not even one utterance of disloyalty and this was a quality that Frank never inherited.
Limerick people have passion about each other.
When I go back to Limerick they will attack me and they will make fun of me and they will pass jokes about me.
‘But God help if somebody from Dublin or London said anything nasty to a Limerickman about me – they would end up being killed.
‘Now that kind of loyalty is something that McCourt just did not have.
‘When Malachy McCourt played rugby he didn’t play with his own people. He didn’t play with Young Munster’s, St. Mary’s or Presentation, which was the clubs around his area. Instead he played for Bohemians and in those days they were the snobs, the most right wing club in Limerick.
Malachy elected not to play with his own class but to upgrade himself and play for Bohemians.
The man seems to be on a lifelong crusade to upgrade himself.
‘I believe that Malachy has always had ambitions above his station.
Alan Parker’s Agenda
We must remember that Hollywood is bereft of good material at the moment, all these remakes are getting tedious, ANGELA’S ASHES is such a worldwide phenomenon that it’s success was almost guaranteed.
But now that success seems highly unlikely.
Now it seems the only way to retrieve some of the investment is to create as much publicity as possible.
Alan Parker has come out in the past few days in a wealth of very bad publicity about Limerick.
He has been saying that Limerick is backward, uneducated and claiming that he got no cooperation whatsoever with the making of the movie.
He is accusing the people of Limerick of being catholic bigots.
All this negative publicity about Limerick is just a Hollywood publicity stunt to create interest in the film.
I believe that PARAMOUNT PICTURES know full well that this picture is not going to make it. It was test screened in America recently and the public reaction to it is very poor. Now they know they are into a twenty million-dollar loss here and they are drumming up as much bad publicity as they can to get people to come to the movie.
What they have done is they have picked Limerick as the whipping boy.
I have made 63 movies and I know how these guys operate.
I know exactly what they are doing and what they all about.
Alan Parker hasn’t directed a good movie in years, he destroyed EVITA, which went down the tubes for over one hundred million dollars, and he hoped that this was his chance to make a success.
The book was so successful and he hoped to ride on the coattails of the book but when he found out on screening tests that the movie is not going to make it his PR people, led by him, tried to create this huge publicity stunt just to get press.
‘They asked me a long time ago to come out and help them to create press but I refused because all I am doing is publicizing your picture.
That was my feeling until Parker came out and singled out Limerick for alleged prejudices, lack of education and so on. He even made the most stupid comment I ever heard in my life when he said that they are so backward in Limerick that they don’t even have EASTENDERS.
Can you imagine a man of culture making such a remark?
The man must have been mad to say it.
When I heard this I said to myself that this is it I have got to defend my city.
‘I am the man who should defend it, I love Limerick, although we have our bouts of hate and love this man has no right to make such ugly remarks and I will stand up against him and defend it now.
The portfolio that Alan Parker has given himself to try and create publicity for his movie at the expense of Limerick is totally unacceptable to me.
‘I saw ANGELA’S ASHES this week and I think the only Oscar it deserves is for special rain effects. The movie is two and half-hours of rain.
Parker has taken the Limerick of that era and he has dated it back to the late 19th Century.
It is more Dickensian in its squalor than it is accurately Limerick.
‘If so much rain fell in Limerick we would be famous for our water polo teams.’
I felt that, for the people not from Limerick, the book is a thrashey ‘unputdownable’ read but with the movie you can’t wait to get out.
It is a boring, dull and very repetitive movie and is totally unmoving.
I admit that McCourt had a wonderful sense of humor, an ironic sense of humor, which is characteristic of most Limerick people but I found that the picture does not have one bit of it.
The movie is nothing short of a two hour moan and the book was one long moan and ‘Tis is even worse.
The movie is one long perpetual moan.
It like McCourt is screaming out for love.
‘Feel sorry for me, love me, an endless search for love.
But I doubt very much that if he finds this elusive love that he can reciprocate.
I don’t think he can give anything back, it’s too late, not when you can treat your mother like that, what does his treatment of his mother in the book tell you about his emotional condition?
I don’t think all the money he has made by tarnishing the good names of people who cannot defend themselves against him will give him a moment of happiness or will fill that hollow in his life.