Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
Goodbye to Catholic Ireland
Ireland, in the last few years, has had more posts driven into her small patch of earth than any other country in the world. It was post-British and post-colonial for some decades. But now, in quick succession, it has become post-unionist, post-tribalist, post-nationalist (this post hammered in with particular vigor by Professor Richard Kearney in his recent book of that title* ), and finally post-Catholic. About the only empty space left in this fence is that reserved for “post-Partition” Ireland.
What does it mean when a country comes to think of itself as being after so many things? It’s almost as if Ireland were some bare, eroded skerry in the Atlantic, a rocky island whose old deposits of belief, hope, or hate had been washed into the sea by the rain and wind of time. But the true explanation, I think, is a much happier one. Ireland’s thinking people feel now that they live in a time of powerful movement into the future. Buffeted by the slipstream of change, they are trying to locate themselves against an older landscape now vanishing behind them. Ireland has once again produced a generation of astonishing national intellectuals, not only—this time—poets and novelists like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, or John McGahern but above all bold historians and social analysts: Roy Foster, Declan Kiberd, Richard Kearney, and a crowd of others. They have been seeking, in very different ways, to revise, redefine, or even reinvent the Irish past, in order to express this sense of “post-ness.” Once more “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” this time because the fashion among historians is to disbelieve the innocence and concentrate on the ceremony. But just at this moment, there comes a book about growing up in Ireland whose cry of pain is so loud and unceremonious that there are no clever games to be played with it.
“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” This sentence, from the opening of Frank McCourt’s wonderful memoir, seems set to become a sort of proverb. The book is already a grand success, as it deserves to be; at the Los Angeles Book Fair last month I watched hundreds of readers standing in line to meet the amiable McCourt and get his signature in their copies. But why should an Irish Catholic childhood, if miserable, seem to excel all others in misery?
In post-Catholic Ireland, if that is what now exists, almost every month brings a fresh gush of scandal and shame to the Church. Famous and popular bishops turn out to have sired and abandoned children; parish priests admit to maintaining harems; communities of teaching nuns or brothers are faced with terrible accusations of torment and sexual abuse by pupils now grown to middle age. Even the Christian Brothers, who in the 1900s were the only teaching order approved of by nationalist anti-clericals because they were modern and “manly,” are pleading for public forgiveness and confessing to the callous and sometimes sadistic cruelty they have meted out to one generation of Irish children after another.
Mary Kenny’s purpose in her own book is to reverse the image of the “priest-ridden Irish.” She suggests, instead, that the problem in Ireland is one of a laity-ridden priesthood. Pursuing her thesis that the Catholic Church in Ireland has always reflected the wishes of the people, rather than the other way round, she manages to convert these disasters into evidence for her own case.
When the people were obsessed with land, the priests were obsessed with land; when they were into agricultural “improvements,” the priests were the same; nationalism, internationalism, Gaelic Leaguism, pro-British feelings too were represented within the priesthood…. When we built bigger houses, they built bigger churches. And it may be said that when we grew tired of chastity, and went in for sexual liberation, and did our own thing, some of the men of the cloth did too.
Once there was an Ireland, already becoming hard to imagine, in which there was no culture of rights and no cult of the victim. Harsh things simply happened to people, a good many of them caused by harsh human authority, and while it was thought good to prevent their recurrence as far as the laws of God and man allowed, few indeed stood up and cried that they had a right not to be bullied by officials, a right to basic health care or housing or a minimum family income. In the Ireland where Frank McCourt and—a generation later—Mary Kenny were raised, the Church adjured those in trouble or pain to “offer it up.” If nothing could be done about an evil, then one should simply dedicate one’s suffering to the Sacred Heart or the Trinity or the Savior, as a small emulation of God’s suffering on the cross.
“Offering it up” was about all the McCourt family could do with their misery. There was never a chance of the family not being a social disaster, unless you count the chances for each of their children to survive such conditions, to grow up and so to escape. And the odds were not at all good even for growing up. Three of Frank McCourt’s siblings died of preventible diseases in childhood, and he was very lucky to come through an onslaught of typhoid fever, left untreated for days because the rapidly dying Frank was thought to have “growing pains” or “a bad cold.” All around them, in the slum alleys of Limerick, lived families little better off than they. And yet the poverty of the McCourts had a special edge of hopelessness, hunger, squalor, and shame.
The reason was their father. Malachy McCourt had fought with the IRA during the Troubles and then fled to America. Here he declined—still a young man—into a shiftless alcoholic wanderer who still retained enough charm to seduce and impregnate Angela Sheehan, a Limerick girl working in New York. They were pushed into marriage by her family, and at once began to live out the catastrophic pattern that recurred for the rest of their lives together: wages or welfare money spent at the pub, sobbing Angela beset by dirty and often starving babies, angry landlords, little coffins.
In the 1930s, the family retreated to Ireland. Malachy’s family in the North rapidly shunted them on to Dublin, where IRA veterans’ welfare officials also refused to help them. Kind policemen in a Dublin “Garda” barracks made a cash collection to raise their rail fare on to Limerick, where the destitute McCourts threw themselves on the charity of Angela’s relations. There the old pattern reasserted itself: the pub consumed the pay from Malachy’s few and short-lived jobs, while Angela, her children gnawed by fleas and hunger, grew old before her time in a losing struggle to keep them all afloat.
New York had at least provided a few great-hearted neighbors, like Mrs. Leibowitz across the landing who regularly rescued the children with her rich soups. Limerick in the Depression had no flesh on its bones and nothing to spare. On his first page, Frank McCourt introduces his city with a gloomy relish worthy of Dickens:
Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…. The rain drove us into church—our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.
Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.
In this moist and merciless old town, Frank managed to beat the odds and grow up. All about him, other children in large families were succumbing to tuberculosis—almost the only disease not to strike the McCourts. But the poor children of Limerick were too preoccupied with their empty stomachs, with the constant and distracting ache of hunger, to worry too much about bereavement. The point for them was that they got a week off school when a brother or sister died, and the chance to eat plenty at the funeral. Mickey Spellacy’s brothers and sisters were dying, so he persuaded Frank to pray to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (another consumption victim) that his sister Brenda should last until term-time began in September and thereby win him a week’s holiday. In return for the prayers, Frank was promised an invitation to come to Brenda’s wake and fill his belly. But Mrs. Spellacy slammed the door in hopeful Frank’s face, and Mickey’s own funeral followed within the year.
Slowly and reluctantly, Angela was forced down from one rung in the ladder of humiliation to another. At first it was waiting in line for a handout at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where women who grovelled convincingly could get a pair of childrens’ boots and a docket for food at the grocer’s shop. Later, the outbreak of war seemed to promise hope; Britain sent for laborers from neutral Ireland, and wage allotments began to flow back to Limerick from the munitions factories of England. But Malachy, persuaded to join the stream of jobseekers across the Irish Sea, found the pubs of Coventry more congenial than the factories. No money telegrams arrived from him for the McCourts, who slithered even further into misery just as their neighbors were acquiring the cash for square meals.
Now Angela had to go for relief money to the Dispensary, the ultimate disgrace, where she was taunted by petty officials with suggestions that her husband was wasting his wages on “Piccadilly tarts.” By this time, her surviving children were sleeping under heaped rags and burning the wooden partitions of their slum apartment for warmth. And in the end she fell lower still. Frank, now suffering from an agonizing eye infection, came upon her in a crowd of women waiting outside the house of the Redemptorist priests. They were waiting to beg for scraps of food left over from the priests’ dinner. “This is my own mother, begging.”
In spite of the title of the book, Malachy rather than his wife Angela is the central figure. Useless as he was—he couldn’t even nail up a picture of Pope Leo XIII, the workingman’s friend, without wrecking it—he tried to impart to his children something of the Ireland in which he believed. He would tell little Frank tales of the hero Cuchulain, and when coming home drunk, would rouse the whole family to get out of bed and swear to die for Ireland while he sang his favorite rebel songs at the top of his voice. At his intermittent best, he would read the newspaper to the children in the morning, help them with homework in the evening, and even lead family prayers at bedtime—a role usually reserved for mothers.
Richard Kearney, Post-Nationalist Ireland: Politics, Literature, Philosophy (Routledge, 1996).↩
Richard Kearney, Post-Nationalist Ireland: Politics, Literature, Philosophy (Routledge, 1996).↩