Wed, Jul 22, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Even in death, McCourt’s ‘Ashes’ divides Limerick


Bitterness over Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes still smolders in his hometown of Limerick. Residents of the western Irish city have never agreed whether his Pulitzer-winning account of childhood survival amid soul-crushing poverty was more fact than fiction.

Limerick City Hall opened a book of condolence in memory of its most famous writer on Monday, the day after McCourt’s death and 13 years after Angela’s Ashes put the city by the River Shannon on the literary map.

The vocal minority who have long branded the late author a self-promoting liar kept a respectful silence — but observers wondered how long this restraint would last.

“The book was a delight and 80 percent true,” said Tony Browne, a Limerick amateur historian who has found himself caught between two verbally warring camps in his past career as a local radio host.

“Some people will keep saying it’s all lies. They’ll go to their deathbeds still in denial,” he said.

Official Ireland offered united condolences for the 78-year-old writer, who at age 19 left behind a Limerick that — through a combination of wretched housing, sanitation, sickness and hunger — had claimed the lives of three young siblings.

“Limerick is very proud of, and will never forget, Frank McCourt,” said the mayor, Kevin Kiely, who plans to attend the US funeral service and expressed hopes that McCourt’s family would set aside some of the author’s own ashes to be scattered on the Shannon.

McCourt himself once expressed that hope — later adding the barb that he hoped his ashes would pollute the river.

For many locals, McCourt’s memoirs have forever tarnished their own families’ reputations and their parents’ sentimental memories of a happy, harmonious Limerick.

The Limerick Leader — which in the past published criticisms of McCourt, once reprinting pictures of him as a smiling Limerick boy scout and asking “Is this the picture of misery?” — led the public eulogies on Monday.

It reprinted pictures of McCourt’s last visit to the city last August, when the author admitted to mixed feelings about the impact his book had on local sensitivities.

“I’ve had such a turbulent relationship with the city,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “It’s what I had to write about when I finally started writing after teaching for 30 years. I had to get it out of my system, but you never do. People say it’s a catharsis, but it’s not. Look at me — I’m back here again.”

The author’s younger brother, Malachy, said last week that, even from his Manhattan deathbed, McCourt was ruminating on “his unfinished emotional business with Limerick.”

The split in Limerick has long pitted a pro-McCourt majority — which views Angela’s Ashes as an honest portrait of the poverty and smothering conservatism of bygone Ireland — against a vituperous minority. The critics charge McCourt with portraying his own family as poorer than it really was and blackening the names of their own dead relatives, particularly by placing them in immoral sexual situations with McCourt himself and his late mother, Angela.

The leader of the critics, former bookshop owner Gerard Hannan, published two anti-McCourt books that became Limerick best sellers in their own right.

The first, Ashes, openly questioned McCourt’s accounts and denounced him as a snob. The second — timed to coincide with McCourt’s sequel ’Tis and titled ’Tis in Me Ass — lauded those who stayed in Limerick rather than emigrated to the US.

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