A City Descending Into ‘Ashes’
By Gerard Hannan
He was known by his childhood friends as Frank ‘The Flay’ McCourt because on his first day at Leamy’s School he was handed a small bun with hard burnt raisins on top. He had never seen a ‘burnt raisin’ in his life and he threw the bun on the floor and danced like a spoilt child on top of it. ‘I ain’t eating that it’s full of fleas,’ he howled as he pounded up and down on the bun. The other hungry boys watched and laughed at the strange behavior of an odd American speaking child who didn’t know the difference between a raisin and a flea. But the name stuck and from that day on he was known as ‘the flay McCourt.’ To this day there are people living in Limerick who don’t know who exactly Frank McCourt is until you tell them he was ‘the flay.’ Invariably they will reply, ‘ah that fellow, sure he was nothing short of a miserable scabby eyed ‘ol snob.’
McCourt himself has something ironic to say about fleas when he writes, ‘the flea sucks the blood from you mornin’ noon an’ night for that’s his nature an’ he can’t help himself.
‘But there is a peculiar mockery about the nickname in the light of the nature of ‘flays’ book,’ says one caller to a late-night radio talkshow in modern downtown Limerick.
He explains, ‘flea by name, flea by nature. A flea will attack you when you are fast asleep and at your most vulnerable. This ‘flay’ called McCourt attacked when other’s were dead.’
In Limerick city, the home of Frank McCourt’s alleged miserable Catholic poverty stricken childhood it is said that everybody loves the author except the people who know him and everybody loves Angela’s Ashes except the people who know the truth.
Since I first became involved in what the international media now describe as the ‘Ashes Debate’ I have been defined as an opportunist, publicity seeker, begrudger, ‘cashier’ on McCourt’s success, plagiarist, a cribber riding on the coattails of Angela’s Ashes, literary social climber and, perhaps most offensive of all, Malachy McCourt publicly described me as a descendant of the lowest orders from the lanes of Limerick. He failed to explain that if I was that then what did that make him but he later apologised and added that bygones should be bygones.
I have spoken to hundreds of journalists from all over the world and I can categorically state that not once did I ever initiate any phonecall, issued no press releases, or made any opening contact with any newspaper, magazine, radio or television station.
In short, if I was guilty of any one of the charges leveled against me then I was doing a very bad job of it indeed. So if I wasn’t making contact with the media about my opinions and feelings on the subject of Frank McCourt and his book then how were they getting my name and number?
The answer to this question came in November 1998 when I received a phonecall from the UK TV company ITV who were producing a special documentary for ‘The South Bank Show’ and wondered if I were willing to be interviewed.
I was surprised to receive the call and asked the researcher where she got my name and private number. Her reply was instant and shocking. ‘It was given to me by Frank McCourt.’
Following from that phonecall I then rang Mary Finnegan who was a researcher for CBS TV’s ’60 Minutes’ for which I had also been interviewed and asked her how she first got my name and number and again her answer surprised me. ‘It was given to our producers by Frank McCourt.’
So if I was ‘guilty’ of exploiting McCourt it was clear that he was a willing participant and was issuing my name ad-hoc to journalists and media folk globally.
This seems totally at odds with a quote he gave to the Daily Mail in January 2000 when he states, ‘I can’t get concerned with these critics, there are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going.’ (Amusingly, it can’t be seen as a complete lie as McCourt happened to be in Limerick at the time he gave the quote.) The one observation that kept coming up over and over again was the fact that I was only 40 years of age and was not in the position to speak with any great accuracy about life on the post-war lanes of Limerick.
I believe that any journalist or reporter is only as good as the research he or she is willing to put into any article (you don’t have to be a former inmate of Dachau to report on what life would have been like there when hundreds of people are willing to testify) and I rate myself as an acceptable researcher and reporter of facts.
Apart from this, and more significantly, I always felt that this ‘your too young to know the truth’ observation was completely out of context with the issue at hand. For me, Angela’s Ashes is, and always has been, a bitter, untrue attack on the true spirit of my native city of Limerick which I dearly love. It was a biased book written and ‘designed’ to do maximum damage to the ‘spirit’ of the city and it’s people. In short, Frank McCourt was no authority on that ‘spirit’ because he never experienced it. He existed rather than lived in Limerick for 12 years and buried himself away in the backstreets of the city but he was also a social recluse and an out and out intellectual snob primarily motivated by the desire to ‘get out’ of his hated Limerick and back to his much loved New York as quickly as possible. He had nothing but hatred for the people of Limerick, it’s institutions and beliefs and his book is proof positive of that fact. These pages will prove the veracity of my allegations.
I, on the other hand, have lived in Limerick for over 40 years and this automatically makes me a far better authority on the ‘spirit’ of my city than Frank McCourt will ever be. It’s as simple as that.
Frank McCourt’s bittersweet memoir of growing up poor in Limerick has sold millions of copies worldwide, camped on the New York Times bestsellers list for months on end, won a Pulitzer prize, translated into 25 languages and finally made into a multi-million pound Hollywood movie. It’s crushing story of destitution and human resilience has touched hearts across the world.
But in McCourt’s undesired adopted childhood town, the setting for his memoir, his tales have touched ‘raw nerve’ more than heart and has been attacked as mean-spirited fiction, cruel exaggeration and character assassination. There remains a small but persistent minority who accuse the author of distorting his family’s suffering and humiliation they endured at the hand’s of Limerick’s elite, especially the Roman Catholic clergy and laity. As a boy Frank McCourt ran barefoot in the post-war slums of Limerick rummaging for food and coal for his hard up family.
His home, he claims, was damp ridden and filthy, sewage ran from the outside toilet and there was no knowing where the family’s next meal was to come from.
The controversy was born within weeks of the publication of the book in 1996 when immediate local reaction was to describe it as 426 pages exercising a grudge against Limerick. Many of McCourt’s childhood playmates and neighbours say the book is rife with factual errors, exaggerates the poverty and, most importantly, humiliates his contemporaries by branding them with various sexual transgressions and other so-called sins.
Nowadays, some people in Limerick are utterly fed up with Angela’s Ashes and its story of the McCourt children who lived in the city’s slums (excepting those who died in the family’s communal bed) in the middle of last century. There are those who don’t believe Frank McCourt’s memoir, and those, such as Brendan Halligan, editor of the Limerick Leader, who wish Angela, the Ashes and everyone else would just go away. The book is a ghost haunting modern Limerick life: ‘It overshadows everything.’
Arguments over the veracity of McCourt’s account have, in the year’s since publication, caused endless fuss. The Limerick Leader is well-used to receiving letters that point out flaws in the McCourt children’s saga, and the filming has touched nerves over and over again. ‘Frank McCourt’s book,’ said one Limerick Leader editorial wearily, ‘generated more controversy in Limerick than anything since the opening of the interpretative centre in King John’s Castle. And that was a long time ago.’
The basic geography of the city has changed little since McCourt, who was born in Brooklyn, moved there with his family. The majestic River Shannon splits the city into three clear sections that are tied together by a series of bridges. Georgian brick buildings line the neatly gridded downtown streets. To someone from 1930’s Limerick the character of the city today would be totally unrecognisable. McCourt’s Limerick was poor, wet, malnourished, filthy and miserable. He lived with his parents and three brothers in ‘the lanes,’ the city’s crowded slum district. Consumption and fleas were rampant and the communal toilets overflowed with waste.
But all that is now firmly in the ‘good old days’ and Limerick has risen from the ashes to become a modern, fast moving, thriving small-time metropolis that is not ashamed to openly discuss the sins of her past. Limerick historian and ‘Angela’s Ashes’ tour operator Michael O’Donnell is the first to admit that McCourt’s Limerick is long since dead and those who take the tour will be disappointed if they expect to see lanes, poverty, misery and hardship.
One such ‘tourist’ was Mike Meyer of the Chicago Tribune who was left scratching his head as to why the tour is actually called after the book at all.
He writes, ‘We stood on Arthur’s Quay, a flat green park fronting the Shannon where once stood the lanes, a maze of poverty and damp. O’Donnell raised his voice above the traffic din. ‘Of course, people want to see the Limerick from `Angela’s Ashes,’ but it doesn’t exist. The city has changed so much, and I’m proud of that.’ O’Donnell walked quickly, belying his age of 65. He flicked out a Major cigarette and lit another in one quick motion and led us across the narrow streets.
What followed was a retelling of the Limerick portions of the book in front of sites where it happened. Up Henry Street and past the General Post Office, where O’Donnell smiled his way through a repetition of McCourt’s coupling with Theresa Carmody, wherein they have ‘the excitement.’
O’Donnell led us past the old Dock Road, formerly the setting for picking up stray bits of coal, now the home of a luxury hotel. Mill Lane, where Malachy begged for work, now hosts an office block. Limerick is a clanging, booming town and Dell computers have covered the city’s billboards with messages like, ‘Bored with your job? Join us! No experience necessary.’ The scenes of poverty in ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ O’Donnell noted, had to be filmed in Dublin and Cork. Limerick simply doesn’t have scummy enough sets anymore.
We bustled past kids in Catholic school uniforms to Windmill Street, site of the McCourts’ first Limerick home. The boulevards around it are a sea of To Let/For Sale signs, but O’Donnell took us back by telling some stories about the mattress and fleas and Pa Keating and dying babies. He’s a grand storyteller, Michael O’Donnell is, but I suspect he has better stories to tell than just Frank McCourt’s.
We continued on to Hartstonge Street and Roden Lane and Barrack Hill, and by now O’Donnell had retold most of McCourt’s Limerick life. Dusk broke over the city’s green hills, and we heard about some more of ‘the excitement’ (this time between Angela and Laman Griffin) and then it’s on to St. Joseph’s Church and the St. Vincent De Paul Society and Leamy’s School where the young McCourt was instructed to stock his mind, for it is a palace. O’Donnell paused and pointed to the doorway, ‘Can you imagine? A Pulitzer Prize winner coming from the lanes of Limerick and going to this very school. Why wouldn’t we be proud of him?’
We enjoyed a break at J.M. South’s pub, where McCourt had his first pint, but O’Donnell says he is on the job and sips Coke while I savor a fresh, creamy Guinness. O’Donnell explained that he charges four Irish punts for the tour and that the money goes into the St. Mary’s Integrated Development Program, which funds house painting, hedge cutting and window repairs for the older parishioners. ‘The people of Limerick are still benefiting from `Angela’s Ashes’,’ he said with a smile. Business keeps improving, especially during summer, when O’Donnell leads as many as three walks a day.
The drinking done for now, the two of us walked past the Carnegie Library (now an art museum) and People’s Park, where McCourt had ‘the excitement’ on his own. Youth hostels line Perry Square, facing the neatly manicured fenced-in park lawn. O’Donnell stopped us at Tait’s Clock to tell a story about Peter Tate, tailor to the Confederate Army, and later, having simply dyed the uniforms blue,
Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. ‘Can you imagine, Irish fighting Irish in North America, Irish fighting Indians? We fight everyone,’ he said, and laughed. I’m amazed at the wealth of architecture, monuments and neighborhoods we have walked through, details omitted from McCourt’s narrative, which made Limerick sound like wasteland. Maybe it used to be.’
As the controversy raged on throughout the streets of Limerick it quickly attracted the attention of the world’s journalists and media who flocked to the city to ascertain for themselves why ‘this book’ was being ‘flaked’ by some of the people of Limerick while the world’s intelligentsia continued to sing it’s praises.
It seemed to many people in Limerick that these journalists and reporters were evenly split into two clearly separate groups – firstly, those who loved Angela’s Ashes and it’s author and secondly – those who didn’t. Some came to defend him and prove him right while the others came to ‘exclusively’ reveal that the book was rampant with inconsistencies and that McCourt was the creator of a work of pure and absolute fiction.
Tara Mack of the Washington Post visited Limerick in January 2000 and was charismatic about what she found. ‘An economic boom in Ireland, fueled by subsidies from the European Union and growth in the hi-tech sector, has radically altered the fortunes of Limerick. The city’s economy is thriving. Resident’s, many of whom work at a Dell Computer plant, are confidant and prosperous. O’Connell Street, the main retail thoroughfare downtown, bustles with pedestrians and traffic. The tenements have been torn down.’
New York Times journalist Warren Hoge was not so upbeat. ‘This sodden city in Western Ireland has been such a hard-luck town that it cannot even lay claim to the form of verse everyone assumes was named after it. H.D. Inglis, author of an early travel guide came here in 1834 and found Limerick ‘the very vilest town’ he had ever visited. Heinrich Boll, the German Nobel prize-winning novelist saw it for the first time in 1950 and pronounced it ‘a gloomy little town’ with ‘everything submerged in sour darkness.’ Hoge continues, ‘More recently it has been made fun of in a popular television show as ‘stab city,’ a label – arising out of several muggings in the 1980’s – that the (then) Mayor Frank Leddin, finds so objectionable he will not utter it. Long considered Ireland’s most entrenched Catholic city it has suffered from stereotyping as ‘violent, intolerant, obscurantist and reactionary.’
Paul Daffey writing for the Evening Standard had a different spin on modern Limerick when he reported, ‘Two families were feuding over ascendancy in the drug trade. A member of one family was walking along a footpath when a car sidled up to the kerb. A member of the opposing family jumped out of the car and stabbed the pedestrian in the stomach – with a pitchfork.
The weapon of choice threw a rural twist on an urban tale. It was emblematic of an Ireland that, in the final decades of last century, was wrangling with itself over the shift from rural backwater to urban dynamism. The pitchfork incident could have taken place in Dublin or Cork, maybe even the light-spirited Galway, but somehow this seemed unlikely. Right or wrong, it did suggest merit behind Limerick’s reputation as Stab City. It is a reputation that Limerick hates, largely because it is distasteful, but also because the sobriquet was applied 30 years ago and the city has changed since then.
In the ’70s, the development of high-tech industries and the University of Limerick, which specialises in science and technology, brought a measure of wealth and vitality to the city. But it also created an income gap, with residents of rugged housing estates resenting the new order. Crime and violence were the inevitable result. The rest of the country gained the impression that stabbings were frequent. It titillated some to think of Limerick, with its reputation for inwardness and pious Catholicism, as a bloody frontier.
Violence in Limerick lessened in the ’90s after, among other things, the formation of ‘combat poverty’ groups with funds from the European Union. EU money was also put towards restoration of the town’s fading buildings. The Civic Trust, formed in the late ’80s as the first restoration body in Ireland, was instrumental in giving the worn city a facelift that impressed the rest of the country, although not enough to stop the stabbing slurs and the tittering. Frank Larkin, the public relations officer for Shannon Development, says half the city claims the poverty in Angela’s Ashes is exaggerated. ‘People felt it reflected poorly. They claim they had happy childhood’s and were happy in Limerick. You have that dichotomy of discussion. But there’s certainly a contrast between what Frank McCourt described and today.’
Larkin is unable to put a figure on Angela’s Ashes importance to the city, although he admits it has become a huge selling point. Other attractions include castles, cathedrals, Georgian architecture, the ‘Limerick Expo’ and the International Marching Bands Festival which attracts 40,000 people.
The city’s push – and for that matter Ireland’s push – to improve the poor quality of mid-range restaurants has spawned the International Food Festival, which is held annually, and the Good Food Circle of Restaurants. Limerick might be trying to improve its culinary standing but it has no doubts about its sporting prowess. The city thumps its chest about being Ireland’s sporting capital. It is, at best, a dubious claim, but one that receives support every autumn when Limerick hosts the battles between Munster and touring rugby sides from the Antipodes. Munster, the province that takes in the six counties in Ireland’s south-west, attacks the touring teams with a fervor that inevitably attracts ‘Gael force’ headlines. In 1978, the attack was so effective that Munster defeated New Zealand, a feat that was barely believed across Europe, and less so in New Zealand. The victory remains an Irish side’s only win over the All Blacks and it is not surprising that each player was guaranteed free pints for life.
The city has every right, however, to claim a rich history. Its city charter, drawn up in 1197, is the oldest in the British Isles, which includes Ireland and Britain, and King John’s Castle is a feature of the Heritage Precinct. The castle, built at the beginning of the 13th century, was the stronghold of the British empire in western Ireland and its presence is a reminder of Limerick’s struggles under a hated foreign power. The Heritage Precinct also includes the Castle Lane project, which is the reconstruction of a street from two centuries ago.
Downriver are the docks, which are undergoing a makeover not seen since the Vikings sailed up the Shannon in the ninth century. A handful of pubs in the city centre have also been refurbished. Some are modern and gleaming, but I preferred those with a traditional touch, such as WJ South’s on O’Connell Street. South’s is where Uncle Pa Keating bought the 16-year-old Frank McCourt his first pint. It looks like your average poky Irish pub from the street but opens out generously inside. It was a local for the men from the lanes of Limerick; now the clientele ranges from young professionals to older regulars. The floorboards and decor have been tastefully scrubbed up and Pa Keating would probably wonder where all the sawdust on the floor had gone. The bulldust, though, remains as thick on the ground as ever.
The Limerick banter is fun. Wit and irony are staples and all sentences are delivered with a delightful lilt. The accent is less distinctive than the sing-song carry-on in neighboring Cork but, since the publication of Angela’s Ashes, the language of Limerick is among the most distinctive in the world. Which, if anyone were in any doubt, just goes to show that the pen is mightier than the pitchfork.’
The controversy rapidly gained momentum over a period of two months after the publication of Angela’s Ashes and in that time the so called ‘inconsistencies’ started to emerge. ‘No one in Limerick denies that there was awful poverty in the city in the mid 1900’s, but further investigation has led them to wonder just how poor the McCourts really were. Some people have pointed out how overweight Angela and some of the children were, while the Limerick Leader dug up photographs of McCourt in his boy scout’s uniform. Scouting was expensive and usually for middle-class boys – ‘Is this the picture of misery?,’ asked the newspaper.’
The problem for the pro-McCourt camp is that their man’s mistakes are just the one’s that are likely to cause maximum offence among the people of Limerick, and the guardians of the truth. Queuing at a Limerick book-signing in 1997 was another contemporary from the Limerick Lanes, Willie Harold. Mr. Harold, now dead, appears in the book at his first confession, telling a priest how he has sinned, looking at his sister’s naked body. The problem is, Mr. Harold never had a sister. Many older Limerick people are incensed at the portrait of Angela herself. There’s no doubt that Mrs. McCourt would not like her son’s portrayal. Shortly before she died, in 1981, she was taken to see Frank and brother Malachy perform a stage show about their early lives. She stormed out, shouting: ‘It didn’t happen that way. It’s all a pack of lies.’
Mike Meyer of the Chicago Tribune saw a different Limerick to the one he expected having read Angela’s Ashes when he wrote, ‘Arriving in the city, I walked across the Sarsfield Bridge over the River Shannon. The description of the river was the only passage I remembered from ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ about how Angela could hear the river sing. The water surged quick under my feet, slicing the town in two, running the color of Guinness, all black flow and tan swells. It sang a song of urgency, and the first thought that struck me as I looked at Limerick was: This is a very pretty place.’
He continues, ‘A footpath edged the bank and I followed it west toward the ocean. A pair of swans swam calmly toward me, and past. There were no ashes here, only tranquility and the opposite bank lined with luxury hotels. I asked a few passersby what they thought of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and about the controversy, but their responses were noncommittal.’
There can be no doubt that Angela’s Ashes has certainly placed Limerick firmly on the international map. The city has rarely attracted so much publicity and for that some of her natives are grateful. However, there are others who don’t believe for a moment that there is any truth whatsoever in the saying there is no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, some would go so far as to say that ‘no publicity’ would be better publicity than the sort of ballyhoo Angela’s Ashes generated for their native city.
Are these people really, as McCourt describes them? ‘Begrudgers.’
In a full and forthright EXCLUSIVE interview with Limerick.com controversial author, journalist and broadcaster Gerard Hannan talks about his Limerick childhood, his brush with the international media, his popularity as a tamed Irish shock-jock and his globally famous row with Pulitzer prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt.
Interview conducted by Jan Rice for Limerick.com
Dateline: June 8th. 2002
LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
HANNAN: You’re very welcome. Why should I turn down such an opportunity to communicate my thoughts and feelings?
LIMERICK.COM: You are best known internationally for your row with Frank McCourt and we will talk in detail about that in a little while but firstly will you tell us a little bit about who you are and where you come from?
HANNAN: Well, I was born in 1959 and raised in a place called Garryowen, which is a working class suburb of Limerick. I am the fifth son in a family of eight. My mother would say that my head was so big when I was born that she couldn’t walk for six months after having me. My mother had five sons in a row and then three girls.I was in the middle, I think they really wanted a girl so the next baby after me was Mary. Our family was split in two groups of 4 and I got stuck in with the girls. But I have always had a better relationship with my sisters than with my brothers. I love them all but, I have to say, the girls are like my three guardian angels. I am lucky because they are so honest. They will tell me that I am either an idiot or a hero with everything I get involved with. They are the only people that can really influence me. I think women are far more intelligent than men; they have a keener sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Men just throw their eyes up to God and hope that whatever the problem is; it will soon go away. Women will tackle the problem head on. So my sisters are important to me.that sounds a bit clinical.what they have to say is significant to me.
LIMERICK.COM: Did you have a happy childhood?
HANNAN: Absolutely. I really have no outstanding memories that would haunt me in any way whatsoever. Yes there were ups and downs like everybody else but as I get older I realise that what seemed important to me in my twenties has paled into insignificance in my early forties. What seemed like defining moments in my childhood was only important because I deemed them so. But as I get older I think more about what happened yesterday than what happened last year. Even bitter memories from my childhood have become somewhat sweet because I now realise that those moments have made me what I am and if I don’t accept what those moments tell me about myself then I don’t accept myself and nothing would be further from the truth. I totally accept myself so it follows that those moments are of no real consequence. I even feel awkward talking about them because it is giving them more importance than they actually deserve.
LIMERICK.COM: Can you give us an example?
HANNAN: Well I write about a defining moment from my childhood in TIS IN ME ASS when I was about six or seven years of age and my mother caught me playing with the girls. That, for one reason or another, was totally unacceptable to her so she put a dress on me and sent me out onto the street and at first I was mortified because my best friends were out there playing football while I was indoors playing ‘house’. That was a very bitter memory for me as a teenager and in my early twenties but nowadays it think the episode was very funny. When I wrote about it I was writing with my tongue firmly in my cheek and was milking it a bit for laughs. I figure if I had wrote about it in my twenties I would have been milking it for sympathy.
LIMERICK.COM: So what you are saying is.?
HANNAN: I am saying that we are all better off leaving our luggage behind us and if we can’t do that then we should look for something funny about the memory and that will help us to leave it behind. That’s what I believe, it may sound like a ‘cock and bull’ story to others but that’s what I believe God help me!
LIMERICK.COM: As I mentioned earlier you are best known internationally as Frank McCourt’s protagonist but in Limerick you have a completely different image because of the popularity of your nightly radio talk show. Tell us a bit about that.
HANNAN: I keep hearing about this so-called ‘international image’ but I honestly don’t think in my mind that there are any more than a handful of Limerick’s ex-pats and a couple of student’s of Irish literature who give any more than a flying damn about Gerry Hannan and his point of view on McCourt or any other subject for that matter..
LIMERICK.COM: You could be wrong.
HANNAN: Maybe.but I doubt it.
LIMERICK.COM: A random search of the internet came up with results where you were quoted in newspapers such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Sunday Times, C.N.N., ’60 Minutes with Ed Bradley’, BBC Radio and Television, The South Bank Show, German, French Japanese and Australian newspapers, magazines, radio and television so how then can you say that there is nobody out there who gives a damn?
HANNAN: Well that was then and this is now. That was an incredible period of my life and I learned a lot about how the media works. Journalists hunt in packs and they go through you for a short cut but then the whole thing dies and you become yesterdays news thanks be to God!
LIMERICK.COM: You are grateful for that?
HANNAN: Jesus yes. That was fun while it lasted but as this media attention went on and on I got really bored with it and eventually I stopped taking calls because everything I had to say was somehow twisted to suit the angle the journalist was coming from. The American journalists were always pro-McCourt and to them I was a two-headed monster from Limerick. The European media, with the exception of the Irish hacks, were very fair and balanced. Irish journalists saw me as an opportunist jumping on McCourt’s success. The Europeans grasped the concept of two sides to every story.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your radio show for a moment.
HANNAN: Well I started broadcasting on local radio about twenty-five years ago, back in the pirate days; I immediately fell in love with the whole concept of radio. Back then I just went on and played music but as I got older I became more interested in talk radio. I loved what Howard Stern was doing in New York and I also knew there was some guy doing more or less the same thing in Dublin and it was proving extremely popular. Then, of course, there was Gerry Ryan on 2FM so I knew my day was coming. When I approached the local radio station in Limerick with the idea of a late night talk show they offered me a late night slot, the graveyard shift, on Sundays and I grabbed it. In a matter of months the show was running from Monday to Friday for three solid hours each night and it took off from there.
LIMERICK.COM: Why do you think your show is so popular?
HANNAN: I am still wondering about that. It is a complete mystery to me but I could hazard a guess at the answer. The popularity of the show has very little to do with me. The fact that so many people can have freedom of expression on the public airwaves is a very attractive proposition regardless of the presenter. The show furnishes ordinary people with a great opportunity for young and old alike to sing their songs, tell their stories, play their instruments, talk their talk, express their point of view, good, bad or indifferent, on any subject under the sun. It is radio with no rules. A sort of pot-pourri, if you like, of views, thoughts, talents, feelings and beliefs and I think you just can’t miss with that kind of a formula. Nobody knows, including myself, what is going to happen next and that keeps the whole thing interesting.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you a firm believer in freedom of expression?
HANNAN: Absolutely. But I only discovered that about myself when I started doing this show. People have every right to say exactly what is going on in their minds with regard to any issue and they also have a right to be heard. Of course there are certain rules and the greatest of these is you don’t get personal, hurt any individual or be disrespectful toward what they think or feel. After that, it is a sort of free for all. That’s democracy at it’s best and for as long as that freedom thrives in any society then that society can never be accused of being anything other than democratic.
LIMERICK.COM: Are there no exceptions to that rule?
HANNAN: None that I can think of off hand but I am open to contradiction. I don’t suggest for a moment that I am always right that would be undemocratic wouldn’t it?
LIMERICK.COM: You seem to have a great affinity for aged people; the national media once described you as ‘a defender of the elderly’ where does that come from?
HANNAN: I have no idea. I love to listen to elderly people talking to me on the radio show. They are always very interesting. The wisdom of years. They don’t take life as seriously as, let’s say, my generation would. They have seen it all and if you listen to what they have to say you can learn a lot. But, as for ‘defender of the elderly’, that’s a load of nonsense. If anything they defend me!
LIMERICK.COM: You frequently become involved in charity work in Limerick and were a founder member of ALJEFF (An organisation set up with the purpose of building a treatment centre for young addicts), you raised substantial funds for a local youth band to buy new instruments and uniforms for it’s thirty or more members, you also raised funds to pay for twenty or so mentally and physically handicapped young adults to travel to Lourdes and raised money to pay for an electronic wheelchair for a disabled young girl from the working-class suburb of Moyross – why?
HANNAN: The one great thing about the radio show is that it has an enormous audience and I think people are essentially good. When they hear of something worthwhile they respond immediately. I am fortunate to be in the position where I have their attention. It is these people that are the real unselfish ones here not me. I accept no praise, nor deserve any, for this work.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you religious?
HANNAN: I have no doubt God exists. I am very conscious of his presence in my life and would always aim to do my best to live my life to his satisfaction. I don’t believe that I am achieving that but I intend to keep trying to the best of my ability. If that makes me religious then I am.
LIMERICK.COM: Why have you remained single?
HANNAN: No comment.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes and the famous international debate.
HANNAN: I wondered when you would get round to that!
LIMERICK.COM: When did you first hear of Angela’s Ashes?
HANNAN: I met McCourt briefly one morning in autumn 1997 when he approached me at the radio station to interview him about his new book Angela’s Ashes. I liked him at first and arranged to interview him later that same week but he never showed up. I didn’t actually get round to reading the book for some weeks but my immediate response was lack of interest and by the time I got half way through the book it became a bit of a drag for me to finish but I soon did.
LIMERICK.COM: You didn’t like it?
HANNAN: I didn’t dislike it. Nobody can deny that the book was brilliantly written. McCourt got the childhood voice absolutely perfect. There was a certain innocence about the whole thing that was impressive. I was touched by specific parts of the book but not enough to warrant any great praise. That may sound vindictive coming from me but that is how I felt and I must be honest. I reread the book some months later because I figured that I was biased first time round and the same held true so maybe it deserves another chance. I have heard the book being described as a work of genius but I am hard pressed to find why.
LIMERICK.COM: At what point in time did you decide to publicly challenge the authenticity of Angela’s Ashes?
HANNAN: There was no particular point in time. I started to discuss the book on the radio show and I was overwhelmed with the amount of calls I received complaining about the inaccuracies of Angela’s Ashes. These calls were coming from Limerick’s senior citizens who came from the lanes of Limerick in the McCourt era. People who walked the walk and knew more about the reality of life in that time than I ever could.
LIMERICK.COM: Are you not far too young at 40 to know or remember anything at all about life on the lanes of Limerick?
HANNAN: This is often said to me but I am a journalist and a student of social research with some education in Sociology. I deem myself an acceptable researcher and reporter of facts. I have often said you don’t need to have spent time in Nazi Germany to write about it. There are plenty of witnesses willing to discuss their experiences and they can paint a pretty accurate picture of what life would have been like there and then.
LIMERICK.COM: Your first book ASHES was published within weeks of ANGELA’S ASHES. How did this come about?
HANNAN: ASHES was not my first book. I wrote a book called ‘FROM CAMPFIRE TO CARNEGIE HALL’ in 1994; that was a good seller in Limerick too. It was about Limerick’s comedy duo TOM & PASCAL whom I loved as a child. I had been working on a book called ‘Penance’ which was set in Limerick and was about two childhood friends who grew up on the lanes. It was pretty much completed and I decided to change the name because I wanted it to be linked with ANGELA’S ASHES. The idea was to present another side to the story. There are always two sides to every story and this book was about people who came from the lanes but emerged from the experience with little or no bitterness.
LIMERICK.COM: Wasn’t it a bit opportunistic to call the book ASHES?
HANNAN: A journalist once told me that if I were in any other business, other than writing, I would have been given an enterprise award for the idea. Others have said it was opportunistic; it depends on how you look at it. For me it meant instant recognition for my book. There are lots of books published in Limerick every year and calling my book ASHES gave it an edge that it otherwise would not have had.
LIMERICK.COM: Did it sell well?
HANNAN: I think we sold about 20,000 copies all over Ireland. It is out of print now and it had three print runs. I am very satisfied with the sales.
LIMERICK.COM: How did McCourt respond to the book?
HANNAN: I have no idea. He never publicly criticised it other than on one occasion he told the Sunday Times that he had no doubt that it would be a runaway best seller to the borders of Limerick. Being that that was all I was aiming for in the first place I was impressed by his intended insult. Maybe I’m small minded and a little too insular in my thinking but I never believed for a moment than anyone other than a Limerick person would have any interest whatsoever in my books.
LIMERICK.COM: Were you surprised by the amount of international media attention you received after the publication of ASHES?
HANNAN: Surprised and amused. But of course I became suspicious when the American journalists started to ring me and I asked a researcher for ’60 Minutes’ how she got my number and she told me that it was given to her by Frank McCourt. Here was the man calling me an opportunist and he was dishing my number out to anyone who cared to write a few paragraphs. I suppose I made good press for him so we both gained from the so-called ‘war of words’.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you regret calling your book ASHES?
HANNAN: No. Why should I?
LIMERICK.COM: Well it’s now branded the ‘anti-McCourt’ book.
HANNAN: Only by those who haven’t read it and therefore know no better.
LIMERICK.COM: You once told the media that you could pinpoint 117 inaccuracies in ANGELA’S ASHES what were the main ones?
HANNAN: Well the top three would be the story about Willie Harold masturbating at the sight of his own sisters undressing. Harold had no sisters. The story about Frank’s mother having sexual relations as rent payment with her first cousin Laman Griffin. She never actually lived with him. The story about Treasa Carmody having oral sex with Frank on her deathbed; she died a long time before Frank says she did. There are others, I don’t believe Malachy Snr was actually Frank’s father, the McCourt’s were not as poor as Frank claimed, the list goes on and on. The book was vindictive towards Limerick and it’s people. There were plenty of scurrilous lies about innocent people and a lot of facts about the McCourt family were conveniently omitted. It’s a fairy tale disguised as fact.
LIMERICK.COM: Why did it vex you so much?
HANNAN: It just did. I am not a psychologist so I can’t explain why. All I can tell you is that I felt very strongly about it. I am a passionate person by nature and I stand up for what I believe in. That’s all.
LIMERICK.COM: Your controversial appearance on the Ireland’s most popular talk show THE LATE LATE SHOW is still well remembered for its ferociousness. Do you regret the strength of your attack on Frank McCourt?
HANNAN: (Laughs).Not at all. Perhaps I would act differently nowadays. I don’t feel quite as passionate about the subject these days. That was what I felt there and then and I acted accordingly. But I do feel that was really a one-to-one conversation with McCourt. He knew exactly where I was coming from, no one else did. He got the message loud and clear so my mission was accomplished. I am told he told a friend of his in New York that my actions reminded him of his own mother’s behaviour in a New York theatre when she jumped up from the audience and called him a liar. The whole thing took him aback but I believe he knew exactly what I was saying. Other people’s opinions on the matter really are of no consequence to me.
LIMERICK.COM: Were you really as angry as you appeared?
HANNAN: I suppose there was an element of ‘acting’ there too. But I wanted to get my point across and the best form of defence is attack they say. I wanted the moment to be memorable for McCourt and it was. McCourt was in Galway recently and he met a friend of mine from Limerick and told him that he had no ill will toward me because he felt the producers of the ‘Late Late’ were ambushing him. But I have to say there was no such prior discussion between the producers and myself. It may have been their agenda but it wasn’t mine. I was finally given a chance to confront McCourt and I took it and that was my only motive. The producers assured me that McCourt knew full well that I was going to be in the audience and I don’t see why they would lie about that.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you dislike McCourt as a person?
HANNAN: I don’t know him well enough to have any kind of an informed opinion. But I do believe from people who do know him that he is not a likable fellow at all. I believe he is a most sarcastic and bitter man. But that’s just going on second hand information.
LIMERICK.COM: Did you ever meet McCourt after the initial meeting in the radio station?
HANNAN: Just once in the Green Room after the ‘Late Late’ but it was only for a fleeting moment. He gave me a rather friendly smile while his wife was calling me a ‘scum ball’ from Limerick. He told her to hush-up and shook his head as he walked by. That was it.
LIMERICK.COM: And there has been no further contact?
HANNAN: People that I know to be personal friends of his have often made contact with me on different matters but there has been no direct contact nor do I expect there will ever be. I am sure I am no more than a very minor player in the life of Frank McCourt.
LIMERICK.COM: Let’s talk about your second book TIS IN ME ASS.
HANNAN: Now, that for me was where the real fun began.
LIMERICK.COM: Why do you say that?
HANNAN: Well my three books, ASHES, TIS IN ME ASS and FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS are all part of one trilogy but they were all part of a sort of work-in-progress until the final part was complete. I first called the trilogy ‘The Penance Trilogy’, then changed it to ‘The Singland Trilogy’ – writers prerogative, then it finally became what it is now, ‘The Limerick Trilogy’. But TIS IN ME ASS was the most fun for me to write. I got great help from my brother Dominic who has a sort of photographic memory. I wrote about our childhood in Garryowen in the 1960’s and 70’s and I think it is a book that will be best appreciated in fifty years time when people wonder what life was like back then. I wanted it to be funny and I hope I achieved that.
LIMERICK.COM: So TIS IN ME ASS was a labour of love?
HANNAN: I love that cliché.
LIMERICK.COM: FROM BARDS TO BLACKGUARDS attempts to look at the history of Limerick storytelling right up to the writings of Frank McCourt. His presence is strong in your three books do you not fear being tagged ‘obsessed’ by Frank McCourt?
HANNAN: I’ve been called worse on a short walk.
LIMERICK.COM: Do you intend writing more books about McCourt?
HANNAN: (Laughs) I’m afraid the obsession has passed for the moment.
LIMERICK.COM: What are you working on now?
HANNAN: I have two books in draft form at the moment. I have been working for some time on a romantic novel called WHEN ANGELS WEEP and a children’s book called SHAWN OISIN. Look out Maeve Binchy and J.K. Rowlings I’m coming to get you!
LIMERICK.COM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
HANNAN: You’re welcome.