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Smoldering 'Ashes'

Frank McCourt's Bestselling Memoir About His Painful and Impoverished Childhood in Ireland Has Ignited an Emotional Debate in His Hometown of Limerick

September 11, 1998|AMBROSE CLANCY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LIMERICK — On a quiet Sunday afternoon at W.J. South's pub--all mahogany, frosted glass, marble and mirrors--an old fellow at the bar was contentedly sinking a pint of Guinness when a photographer's flash whitened the room.

"I don't like my picture taken," the man snapped, glaring. Assured that he hadn't been included in the shot, he turned away, still angry.

Asked his name, he said "Martin, and that's all I'm givin'. The worst thing to happen to Limerick was that book. And the next worse was the likes of you fellas. This isn't a pub anymore, it's a bloody disco. Try and drink a pint in peace and here's another Yank or Englishman or God-knows-who after your opinion. Opinion about a book!"

"That book" being "Angela's Ashes," a coming-of-age memoir by Frank McCourt set amid the horrific poverty of Limerick in the 1930s and '40s. It is one of the publishing phenomena of the century. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it has been on the hard-cover bestseller lists for nearly two years. Sales are so strong there is still no American paperback edition. The numbers of copies sold worldwide, in English and in translation, are "like the national debt: I can't begin to understand it," McCourt said recently from his home in Manhattan.

A film version, produced by Scott Rudin and David Brown and directed by Alan Parker, will include Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, star of the "The Full Monty," as McCourt's parents.

"The whole thing," the author said with comic gravity, "has gotten out of hand entirely."

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Beyond the numbers of editions and copies sold, there is another sure sign of McCourt's success: the appearance of searbhas, the Irish word for begrudgery.

"A defining national trait," McCourt said. "They should put the word on the Irish flag. Oh, the snipers are out in Limerick, you can be sure of that."

South's pub features prominently in the book as the neighborhood "local," the place where the family's meager finances go, mostly for drink for McCourt's ne'er-do-well father. The current owner of South's, David Hickey, says there have been many visitors lately, from the world over. Proudly, he shows a picture of a Chinese journalist who dropped in a month ago.

The people of Limerick, Hickey continues, have three opinions of the memoir: "Pro, anti and against the whole debate itself. Deep down, I feel, it's a true book, or 75% to 80% true, and that's a good percentage for memory. The anti crowd says it never happened, the poverty that McCourt describes. Or they say he never should have written about his family that way, you know, his mother being sort of a prostitute. That did not go down well.

"The pro people say it's a great book, and something that should be said. There were poor people everywhere in Ireland in those days. Everywhere. Don't I remember it," says the 60-something-year-old. "The women in the old shawls and ragged clothes. Toilets in the yards, the smell, Jesus. And cold. And hunger."

And are the people against the book motivated by searbhas? "Some, I suppose." Hickey reflects. "But some who went through those times have a sense of shame about it. Limerick people take everything so personally, you know."

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Thin-skin isn't all that the people in this city of 150,000 are accused of. Many Irish look at Limerick as forbidding, insular, clannish, hopelessly provincial. It was a grim British Army garrison town for more than two centuries; unlike other Irish cities of its size, it was without a university until 25 years ago. If young people wanted higher education, they had to leave. Meanwhile, culture was defined exclusively by the Church.

"Angela's Ashes" seems to some people just one more black mark against their city, a reaction that hasn't been confined to barroom arguments. Last year, after the University of Limerick awarded McCourt an honorary doctor of letters, comments by phone and letter began to flood in, including anonymous threats.

"The response was overwhelmingly favorable," recalls Colin Townsend, dean of Humanities. "But then there were some saying McCourt had fouled his own nest, that sort of thing. We even got a letter from a convent of nuns in Florida, letting us know what a scurrilous book it was and that giving the author a degree was absolutely disgraceful."

Were the threats taken seriously?

"Enough to get in touch with the police," Townsend replies. "At every event there was security. But it all went smoothly."

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These days, with its world-class university, and benefiting from Ireland's powerhouse economy, Limerick in many ways has been reborn. The filthy, crowded "lanes" where the McCourts lived are long gone, having been replaced with new housing or gentrified into pleasant rows of brick houses and flower boxes. The poor don't live there anymore.

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