It was on Christmas Eve so many years ago in the hard city of Limerick that my friends Frank and Malachy McCourt brought home a pig’s head from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It was to be their Christmas meal. If you read Frank’s book, Angela’s Ashes, you know the conflicting emotions that scene inspired: There was shame, for a pig’s head (and one gotten through charity, no less) was hardly the usual holiday fare, even in impoverished Limerick. But there was joy, too, for at least there would be food on the table for Christmas.
Not long ago, my wife Elise and I were with Frank and his wife, Ellen McCourt, strolling down Dock Road, the very lane where the young McCourt boys spent Christmas Eve gathering spare bits of turf and coal so that Angela would have a fire to prepare their feast. Frank was back in the city of his youth to receive the accolades of scholars, politicians, journalists and even some old friends who shared the childhood he so poignantly described in Angela’s Ashes . And we were there to join in the cheering.
But, as we learned, not everybody was in a celebratory mood.
It was a Friday night in Foley’s Pub on Shannon Street. Leo Doyle, the owner, recognized our New York accents as we ordered our Guinness. He asked: “And what brings two Yanks to Limerick at this time of year?”
I told him that my wife and I had come from New York to be with our friend Frank McCourt when he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Limerick.
Now, in certain literary circles in New York, to claim Frank McCourt as a friend of long standing is to be inundated with wide-eyed inquiries. Being with Frank in a public place in New York is to know firsthand the power of freshly minted celebrity.
In Limerick, however, opinion is rather more divided.
A voice from behind us, from across the room, bellowed an unrequested opinion: “Sure, that fellow’s full of lies-a pack of lies and slanders against this city and his own dear mother, God rest her soul!”
The voice belonged to an old man, perhaps in his 70’s, wearing an overcoat and hat, nursing a pint of stout. He claimed to have grown up near the McCourt family and to have attended Leamy’s National School while the McCourt boys were there.
The old man continued to defend the honor of Limerick City and Angela McCourt. Leo, the barman, gently asked him: “Have you read the book yourself?”
The old man contorted his face in disgust. “Ah,” he said, “I wouldn’t read such lies and filth; I don’t have to read it to know it’s all lies and filth!”
He paused for a moment of contemplation and then added, in a mixture of defiance and doubt: “Sure, even if it was all true, he still shouldn’t have written it.”
Elise and I encountered similar sentiments during our five-day stay in Limerick. Indeed, the local newspaper, the Limerick Leader , featured a front-page photograph of a smiling and apparently happy Frank McCourt as a Boy Scout in the 1940’s. Over the picture, a headline asked: “Is this the picture of misery in the lanes?” An accompanying article insisted that the picture of a happy little Frank McCourt clearly refuted claims that he had been hungry or deprived as a child. As I read the story, I couldn’t help reflecting on the fate of three people from the pages of Angela’s Ashes : Frank’s twin brothers Oliver and Eugene and his sister Margaret. They died of poverty as children.
Several days later, Frank offered to take us on a tour of the places made famous in his book. How could we refuse? Somewhere in this city hard by the Shannon, the truth of Frank McCourt’s childhood, the truth of many childhoods, awaited those with open eyes and minds.
We began our journey through time and memory later that afternoon. The old houses of Roden Lane, where the McCourts moved after Eugene died, are long gone, replaced by modern corporate housing complete with the indoor plumbing that was so conspicuously absent in several of Frank’s more memorable scenes. A stone wall is all that’s left of the old days. We took a snapshot of Frank standing against the wall; he had a look about him, the hint of the boy who spent so many memorable years here.
We moved on. Leamy’s National School, which Frank attended, is now an office building, but the facade is intact. Next door is the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s office, the very same place where poor Angela sought charity to keep her family fed.
The Redemptorist Church that the McCourts attended remains in all its power and glory. We entered, and Frank pointed out the statue of Jesus that terrified him as a child. No wonder. It was terrifying indeed, intent on putting the fear of God into worshipers who already had much to fear. We wandered through the aisles, and when I rested on a bench outside the confessional box, Frank laughed and said: “God almighty, Terry, we don’t have time enough in this life to wait while you confess the sins you’ve accumulated since your last confession.” All too true. I found no redemption in Limerick.
That night, callers to a local radio host echoed the complaints of the old man who hadn’t read the book, of the newspaper editors who saw a happy childhood in the momentary sparkle of a boy’s smile. One caller argued that people in Limerick could not have been as hungry as Frank wrote because Limerick fielded excellent football teams during those years.
Later in the week, the rest of the Clan McCourt arrived: Malachy, Mike and Alphie and their wives, along with Conor McCourt, the police officer son of Malachy and Diana, who had another reason to be in Ireland. His film, The McCourts of Limerick , was to be shown at the Cork Film Festival. It turned out to be a hit and was purchased by HBO.
Together, we made the short journey to the University of Limerick to witness a minor miracle: The Brooklyn-born boy of Limerick’s lanes was to be transformed into a Doctor of Letters. Before the ceremony, we all attended a small reception and were joined by the American Ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith.
Finally, the ceremony began, filled with pomp, circumstance and more than a little sentiment. Boyhood friends (who apparently were not offended by Frank’s depiction of their childhoods) mixed with friends from New York, family members and civic leaders. All had assembled to pay tribute to a man who, at age 67, had become one of the world’s most famous writers. A citation presented to Frank was filled with what Stephen Dedalus called “big words”-honesty, truth, beauty, courage, perseverance, language.
In accepting the degree, Frank talked not only about his childhood, but about the years he spent as an English teacher in the New York City public school system, where he inspired thousands of students with his honesty, truth and courage. It had been a remarkable journey. We all were on the verge of weeping when the irrepressible Malachy pronounced his blessing: “Good on ye, Frank.” Malachy’s voice made us smile. Good on ye, Frank.
The Prodigal Son had returned in triumph, but the trumpets of vindication did not completely drown out the sour mutterings of the begrudgers. That puts Frank McCourt in the company of John Millington Synge, James Joyce and Sean O’Casey.
Angela would have loved every minute of it.