Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt; drawing by David Levine

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.

But in Limerick he remained a stranger, doubly homeless. He was in the first place suspect because of his Northern origin; Angela’s family used to say about Frank that he had the “odd [i.e. Northern] manner of his father, and look at the long puss [face] on him!” And he could not rediscover that wonderful free Ireland for which he had once fought in a Flying Column, a country of fine young men ready to lay down their lives for the cause. So he drank, and the desperation of his alcoholism shocked even the porter-swilling regulars in the city’s bars. As Angela put it, “A man that drinks the money for a new baby is gone beyond the beyond!”

Frank McCourt shows a man who is almost literally dissolving, physically and mentally, in a world which has no time or means to help him. This is a patriot whose country has left him, and in the end nothing remains to him but pride. He will never stoop to change his accent, although Limerick bosses disliked hiring men with Ulster voices, and when he works on a farm he refuses to ask for free food on top of his wages. On his final appearance, returning from England for a family Christmas, he offers the children a shiny box of British candies—but when they open it, they find that he has eaten half of them himself.

From the subtlety of Frank McCourt’s writing, we understand the finality of this moment. Even Malachy’s pride has gone: Frank’s father has reached a beyond the beyond from which there will be no more coming back. Now the boy is on his own. He gets through a schooling consisting as much of lashes as lessons; he steals food to keep his mother and brother alive; he meets an old man who shows him what books can mean. Somehow he emerges unharmed from puberty, in spite of the Redemptorist priest who barks at his class of boys that every time they masturbate they are nailing the Son of God to the Cross and hammering the Crown of Thorns into His head, while His Holy Mother weeps in horror to see the boys of Limerick crucifying her Son all over again. If you were serious about sex in Limerick, it seems that you had to be pretty resilient. Frank was serious, in both senses, but took love hard. As a telegram boy on a coveted bicycle—an ideal job for likely lads—he was seduced by young Theresa Carmody, who was dying of consumption. But after her funeral, Frank was tortured by the certainty that his Theresa was burning in Hell for what they did together. Only the skillful empathy of a Franciscan priest coaxed him to confess all the sins that weighed upon him, and to hear, in recompense and absolution, that poor Theresa was not in Hell but in Heaven being rewarded for all her suffering on earth.

This moment of release, bringing to resolution all the different unhappinesses in Frank’s short life, works as the turning point of the book. It’s a fine example, in fact, of how accomplished a writer Frank McCourt is, concealing a carefully planned dramatic structure under what at first feels like a spontaneous flow of reminiscence. After that moment with the Franciscan, the boy seems to take charge of his life; the rest of the book becomes a sustained epilogue as he prepares to leave Limerick forever. Frank has already been saving pennies toward a steamer ticket to America. Now, by a combination of earning and thieving, he rapidly scrapes together the rest of the money. The last scene shows his ship moored in the Hudson, with an amazed Frank spending his first night in the New World at a minor orgy in Poughkeepsie.

And even there, the Church is at his elbow in the form of a fellow passenger, an Irish priest who is waiting reproachfully for Frank when he finally staggers out of a Poughkeepsie lady’s bedroom. But if the Church is omnipresent in Angela’s Ashes, it has to be said that it does not come out of the book entirely badly. There are plenty of callous or greedy priests here, but there are also priests like that Franciscan father who understand very well how bitter the life of the Limerick poor is, and how much more the Church might, if it wished, do to assuage that bitterness. Such men know that telling people to “offer it up” is not enough, perhaps not even Christian.

Frank McCourt’s story provides some backing to Mary Kenny’s image of a laity-ridden priesthood. Take the episode of Frank’s First Communion, presided over by his Limerick grandmother, who regards her daughter’s marriage and family as beyond redemption. (“If you have anything to say, shut up!” she tells Frank as they set off for the church.) Frank manages to swallow the transubstantial wafer, but afterwards, overcome by emotion and his grandmother’s breakfast, he throws up in her backyard. Grandmother then panics. The boy, in her view, has “thrun up the body and blood of Jesus” and deposited God in her backyard along with his breakfast.

She rushes from church to church asking what to do: Should the mess be sluiced away with Holy Water or ordinary water? And eventually an exasperated priest is obliged to interrupt his duties in order to tell her, with the full authority of the Vatican, that water from the faucet will be good enough. Grandmother retorts that he is an ignorant bog-trotter. Frank, backing out of this imbroglio, slips down to the Lyric Cinema, where he dodges the ticket man and sees James Cagney for free.

This is the portrait of a flock-driven religion. Its priesthood may seem authoritarian from the outside, but authority does not always mean that everyone obeys. The reality is that the more extreme and unreasonable faith of its parishioners is always threatening to outbid the Irish clergy. Much the same is true of Poland, another “Catholic nation” where foreigners imagine priests with muskets leading a pious peasantry to the barricades. But the Polish Church, like the Irish, gets dragged along behind the expectations of the laity—in superstitious piety but above all in politics. Its priests and bishops would much rather be peacefully administering the Sacraments and teaching the Faith. But if the people assume that “the Church is with us!” as they declare national insurrection, then the Church has no alternative to hurrying to the front of the march and carrying the flag.

In much the same way, the Irish hierarchy were reluctant to support the struggle for independence until the faithful left them no choice. Mary Kenny shows how respectable Catholic Ireland deeply disapproved of the Easter Rising in 1916 when it took place, but then, under unexpected pressure from below, began to change its mind. The crucial and yet still mysterious moment of modern Irish history is the rapid turnaround of opinion after the Rising, when its leaders were executed by the British. Mary Kenny points out that

stories quickly spread throughout the country of the religious and sacrificial nature of the Rising itself: this was not a mere rebellion against the proper authority; it was a beautiful and voluntary martyrdom…. Almost all the rebels, including the Marxist James Connolly and the homosexual and convert Roger Casement, died quite beautiful Catholic deaths in the arms of Mother Church.

She agrees with Conor Cruise O’Brien that this sort of rhetoric, this welling-up of popular and pious myth, gave the Rising in retrospect a specifically Catholic character which the rebels themselves had not quite intended—and therefore, by its exclusion of other faiths, made partition from the Protestant North inevitable.

Mary Kenny, an Irish journalist who now lives in London, had the original idea of writing a history of modern Ireland through the eyes of the devotional press. So she has read her way through the files of The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart, The Irish Catholic, and even the Protestant Church of Ireland Gazette. Her ambition is to prove that the Catholic Church in Ireland has little to be ashamed of, and that its current collapse of self-confidence is unnecessary; many of the charges laid against the Church—insularity, bigotry, thought-control through censorship—were in truth not so much its own crimes as patterns of behavior forced on the Church by its own eager laity.

I am not sure that she succeeds, although her book is learned and lively and very much enriched by her own battling years as a young feminist in Dublin (she has since come round to the view that feminism and the whole “permissive society” have badly lost their way and require a severe lesson in old-fashioned moral values). But she certainly proves that the stifling years of literary censorship and especially the repression of pro-Allied sympathies during the Second World War were driven by the laity and the state rather than by the Church itself. During the war, for example, it was the Messenger which carried countless votive messages thanking the Sacred Heart for protecting Irish men and women serving in the British armed forces; in the circumstances that opened a small airhole of truth connecting Ireland to the real world.

There were many exceptions, of course. The notorious Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, tried in 1959 to forbid Dubliners from watching a football game against Communist Yugoslavia. And as late as 1966 there was the famous “Bishop and the Nightie” scandal, recounted with derision by Kenny. A certain Mrs. Fox had been asked on the TV “Late Late Show” what she had chosen to wear on her wedding night, and replied that perhaps she hadn’t worn anything at all; this provoked a furious denunciation by the Bishop of Clonfert in County Galway. Absurd as this was, the laity pitched in behind the Bishop and made the life of the Foxes and their children a misery.

But a new age was beginning. As Kenny astutely comments, the Bishop was correct in his instinct that “all modesty was about to be removed from the discussion of physical matters,” and also, more profoundly, in his intuition that “TV would challenge and eventually replace the Church as the teaching authority in manners and morals.” So to a great extent it has, even in Ireland. The old society of Frank McCourt’s Limerick and Mary Kenny’s Dublin, in which the common people offered up their pain to God and honored and loved the Church which guided their lives, is on the way into the past, and “post-Catholic Ireland” is arriving to take its place. Mary Kenny regrets this, but comforts herself with the thought that Catholic Christianity is somehow written into the nation’s cultural DNA, and that the faith will adapt and endure. But a reader of Angela’s Ashes may reflect that the times are over for a Church which built so much of its influence on the passive acceptance of poverty and injustice. Frank McCourt’s book leaves one unanswered question: Where is the line between Christian humility and mere humiliation?

This Issue

July 17, 1997