Sifting Through Frank's Ashes


Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, the blockbuster memoir of his "miserable Irish childhood" has died, and the people of Limerick bid him farewell with mixed feelings.

Limerick remains a small city — a population of perhaps 100,000 — but in McCourt’s childhood it was smaller still, geographically isolated and economically fast asleep.

This was the city of my parents and grandparents. My grandmother’s best friend was Mrs Coffey and her husband was the ogre McCourt describes insulting the wives of Limerick in the social welfare office while their husbands were off working in the English munitions factories during the war.

As a teenager, my father collected The Limerick Leader newspaper twice a week for the family shop. On that assignment, he had to deal with "The Abbot", an unforgettable character in McCourt’s book, who stood for decades as a newspaper seller on the main street, O’Connell Street.

Reading Angela’s Ashes for the first time back in 1996, when it was just "another book about the city" and not a Pulitzer Prize-winning runaway bestseller, I was bowled over by the beauty and restraint of McCourt’s retelling of his extremely difficult childhood. The first time I saw someone reading the book on a suburban Melbourne train, I was compelled to ask them what they thought of it. Little did I know that Angela’s Ashes would soon become as successful in Australia as it was in the USA where it sold over 10 million copies.

While my Limerick, that of the 1960s and 1970s, lacked the utter squalor and religious dominance of the 1930s, much of the old town remained. McCourt’s old school, Leamy’s, by then a clothing factory, was not far from mine in the Crescent, and the lanes of Limerick were still intact. By the time Alan Parker and his crew came to film the movie adaptation of the book in 1999, the lanes were gone (they had to film the lane scenes in Cork).

An abiding memory is a lane close to where McCourt spent his first years in the town. I can see it now, permanently wet and with tiny houses all around whose front doors opened directly into the living rooms. How did all those big families fit into those dainty damp cottages? Another nearby lane had a butcher’s yard in the middle where the blood would regularly run out under big wooden gates and flow freely into the gutters.

Mostly, however, my bright new Limerick had turned its back on McCourt’s world. We had cars, televisions and shiny new houses in estates that fringed the old town. McCourt’s Dickensian tramps, crumbling tenements and sickness were fading away — and my parents’ generation could not wait for them to disappear altogether.

When I returned to the city after Angela’s Ashes was published, McCourt’s Limerick seemed to lurk around every corner. The book was the talk of the town. I found locations from the memoir springing up everywhere. Behind my old childhood street was the "City Home" where McCourt nearly died of typhoid (or was it starvation?). Our old cinema — the Lyric — was where the McCourts could spend a few shillings and escape their desolation for a few hours.

Around the city I found the book well known but hardly well loved. Moreover, it attracted deep suspicions. Was McCourt’s story even true? Were the people of Limerick ever that cruel? Nobody, it must be said, had any dispute with McCourt’s recollections of the weather.

My father would say: "The problem with the McCourts is that their father was an alcoholic, in those days if the father was alcoholic, you were finished."

And my mother would add: "A friend of your father’s knew those McCourts well. He says Frank McCourt always seemed to be alright, always had enough money for the scouts and all that."

McCourt himself, as graceful in person as in his own writings, never had any illusions about the town and what it thought of him for making it famous for all the wrong reasons. He loved to tell a story about going back for a book signing in O’Mahony’s bookshop on O’Connell Street where there was a big crowd lining up for his autograph. A year or two later he returned again, this time as an international celebrity. On that occasion, the crowd of autograph hunters had shrunk.

"Where is everybody?" asked McCourt.

The bookshop manager replied, "The first time you were here they had heard about it, this time round they’d read it."

In recent years, as McCourt turned out lesser books and his brother Malachy turned out ever weaker volumes of reminiscence, many of the townspeople set out for revenge: After the publication of ’Tis, Frank McCourt’s recollections of American adulthood, a Limerick local radio personality, Gerry Hannan, published a riposte titled Tis Me Ass. You don’t have to read it to taste the sarcastic venom aimed at the man who talked down the town.

On O’Connell Street, the Coliseum café and the Jesuit church are gone but the local paper, the Limerick Leader, is going strong. And the Limerick Leader still knows its market. A few months before Frank McCourt died, it published yet another feature on the family. This time, someone had dug up a picture of Frank and Malachy as boys all dressed up in their scout uniforms — and not looking hungry at all. As anyone from Limerick could have told you.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.