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 …