My father is an honest man. He’s hard working, family orientated and deserving of every bit of luck he gets in life. He’s lived a hard one, being the second oldest in a family of 14, beginning work at the age of 13 to support a large family. They weren’t the poorest of the poor, because having a dad in the army meant a set sum came home each week to help them along. But he remembers the poor. They were all struggling back then, in the 1960’s. The way they saw it, nothing was given to you in life. You had to work god damn hard for it, and if you could once in a while cut a little corner to make it easier. These are the people who lived the life of Angela’s Ashes, the life of the Limerick slums depicted in the biography of Frank McCourt.
But was that a correct depiction, or was it exaggeration for want of a better story? Did Frank McCourt go to false extremes to add drama to his Pulitzer Prize winning material, or was Limerick really such a god forsaken place for the broken-backed families living under Irish poverty?
There were millions of families just like Frank McCourt’s struggling in Limerick, my fathers’ one of them. But Mister McCourt spoke of beggars at the church doors, starving children, a stinking rat-infested city. My father doesn’t remember such a city. “Sure, you had the odd hole in your sock, you carried a paper Tesco bag in your hand instead of a school bag on your back and you ate boiled potatoes every day till it came out your ears. But we weren’t poverty stricken. The worst I ever saw was borrowing money off the loan sharks.”
One of the biggest presences amongst struggling families in the old walls of Limerick was the church. They went to mass and paid their dues in the hope it would pay off. They went to school and learned from them, and were scolded by them. One thing Frank McCourt didn’t fail to mention was the absolute power of the church – the fear and respect they incited in the children and the poor alike. Visiting the Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick an exact replica of a classroom is on display, teachers cane included. The museum itself was once Frank McCourt’s former school, Leamy House. Tour guide Dorothy Cantrell explains that Mr McCourt attended such an establishment, and he writes of corporal punishment in his book.
Mostly nuns taught in primary schools and after that the secondary education available to young boys in Limerick was the Christian brothers. My father’s memories of punishment are very similar to that in Angela’s Ashes. He remembers the nuns wouldn’t put force into the stick but the “brothers”, as he calls them, would. “We feared them because if you got something wrong, they’d ring you up in front of the class and slap you across the hand with a stick, or worse a leather strap. They could whack you four or five times over and there was certain bitterness about the way they hit you. It was both a punishment and warning to the class.” Even outside the classroom they held a high status in Irish society. “We were brought up to respect them, to bow your head if you saw them in the street passing,” remembers my father.
But what he doesn’t remember are beggars at the church door, which was a big presence in Mr McCourt’s memoirs. There were individual members of the clergy that were generous and would help people out of their own will. But collectively the church did nothing for the poor aside from the odd collection, according to my father’s memories. “Some would steal from the candle boxes and collection boxes for the poor. The priests claimed the money was for the poor but personally I never believed it. Which is why some boys I knew would steal from them, it was supposed to be going to them anyway right?”
In his memoirs, Mr McCourt writes about stealing the odd loaf of bread or carton of milk to help his family along. This depiction of a family trying to make ends meet does not seem to be an exaggeration. Petty crime was big back then, more so out of survival than anything else. It was an innocent crime of hungry children. “We were as naive that when you broke into a bakery, you’d rob a few buns but not even think to look at the till for the hunger in your stomach commanded you,” recalls my father, speaking from experience.
My father recollects a lot about the way of life of a struggling Limerick family. In order to make ends meet, they had to try things differently. Their mentality was the way of the underdog; nothing was fairly given to them, so why should they play by the rules. He remembers most of the fathers of the families he lived near went down to the Dock Road of a Saturday morning. “They’d follow behind the horse and cart that carried the coal, and the coal that fell off they’d bag it and keep. Some would go home and use it, others would sell it, and I remember a lot of men coming into the pub to swap it for a few pints. We all had our own recycling systems going,” he laughs.
But there has been some outrage amongst members of the community in how Mr McCourt depicted the city. There have been public accusations of lying against him when he appeared on TV shows. The museums guide, Mrs Cantrell, commented that it was always a case of for and against when it came to Angela’s Ashes. “I can only say that here in the museum we have a comment book, our visitors like to write in it after they’ve seen the museum. Every single one of those comments is positive.” Their museum has encouraged a foreign interest in both the story and the city of Limerick, with visitors ranging from Japan to Texas.
So was Angela’s Ashes accurate, did it debase an entire city or did it bring it fame? It has upset Limerick residences and its author has been accused of lying. Then again it has brought a huge foreign interest to Limerick. His story has certainly left its legacy on his city. Mrs Cantrell says that both Mr McCourt’s story and the museum, in his honour, stand as a reminder. “To remind us what it was like for the majority of families in Limerick, it holds on to the story and offers hope. Hope for those less fortunate, that you can still aim high and that you can reach to the level of a Pulitzer prize, just like Frank did.”
The book strayed from a kinder view of Limerick to that of a harsh one. Life in the slums, although it was poor and sometimes cold, was not a constant stream of misery. One of the things my father looks back on fondly is the city’s sense of community. Community being another aspect which Mr McCourt failed to write about. It was a tale of sorrow, but a tale from only one man among thousands. It may have been the life of Frank McCourt, but it wasn’t the life of every Limerick resident. There are many more people left to tell their versions, people just like my father. So no, Frank McCourt wasn’t and will not be the only one to share his memories. Limerick city remains full of untold stories.