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Not all are happy with author's return

When he came back to this city that he hates, loves, and can't get over, Frank McCourt brought along his three brothers because, as he put it, "In Limerick, you've got to watch your back."

McCourt, whose memoir of growing up destitute here, Angela's Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, returned Tuesday to the city he has made famous to receive an honorary degree and take up his post as writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick.

But while McCourt's poignant, unflinching account of how poor people were marginalized by the wider society and humiliated by the Catholic church is as wildly popular in Ireland as it is in the United States, there are some here who do not share the enthusiasm for a book that has sold more than 1-million copies worldwide.

It wouldn't be Irish if there wasn't a split, and the split here is between those who see Angela's Ashes as an exaggerated, mean-spirited attack on the city and its people, and those who embrace the book's art, humanity, and the attention, whether good or bad, it has brought Limerick.

Long derided as a backwater, and more recently as "Stab City" for its rough neighborhoods like Southill, Limerick has always had something of an inferiority complex. But as this city of 150,000, like the rest of Ireland, undergoes an economic renaissance, some people bitterly resent the image McCourt has presented to the rest of the world.

Gerard Hannan, who runs a bookshop here, has written what he calls "the other side of the story," an account of those who grew up as poor and as disadvantaged as McCourt but who look back on those days fondly. Hannan claims McCourt embellished much of the misery contained in Angela's Ashes.

"I loved Angela's Ashes. It was beautifully written," Hannan says, sitting in the lounge of the Castletroy Park Hotel, just yards from where McCourt was celebrating Tuesday with friends and family. "The problem with it is that it's just one side of the story. Frank McCourt had a miserable life. Lots of people grew up under the same conditions and don't consider their lives miserable."

Hannan says McCourt gets Limerick wrong. For example, McCourt ends his book with the single word "T'is" on the last page. Hannan says real Limerick people would say "T'was."

It was inevitable, McCourt says, the confrontation between him and those who took his book the wrong way. "Begrudgers," he says. "What would Ireland be without them?"

The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, has made disparaging McCourt a regular feature. Over the weekend, it published a half-page of pictures showing McCourt in a Boy Scout uniform, with a headline asking, "Is this the picture of misery?"

Brendan Halligan, editor of the Leader, denied that the paper was engaged in a campaign to discredit McCourt, even while citing recent stories that purported to do just that. One story McCourt's scoutmaster as saying he gave McCourt a job fixing bicycles at a time when McCourt claimed he was scrounging for work.

Halligan says many people in Limerick resent McCourt's book, and says attempts to dismiss critics as a few isolated cranks are misleading. But while his paper frequently attacks McCourt, Halligan, who is friendly with McCourt's brother, Alfie, says he considers the book "a work of art."

"It's the truth," Halligan says. "Despite its factual inaccuracies, it faithfully captures the impressions of a child who grew up here in the 1930s and 1940s."

McCourt is alternately annoyed and bemused by all this.

"Some people are running around town saying I made all this suffering up," he says. "I wish I did. I would have had a nicer life. My sister and two brothers wouldn't have died as children."

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