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The Chancer Debagged

Alan Titley

I did not read Angela’s Ashes when it first appeared. This was largely because so many great books are published in any one month that you have to be careful to distinguish between what is hype and what is tripe. And as life is short and reading is long you better watch out as you will never read them all. Thus, an in-built crap detector is vital to see what you should feast on, or alternatively dump in the jar beside the door.

I didn’t have any particular gripe against Frank McCourt’s memoir, but I was aware of the controversy which it vomited up. Too true, I was suspicious of the oft-quoted “miserable Irish childhood”.

Ah, yes, I said to myself, this does look very like a real dose of Irish cultural cringe. Having lived in poor countries, and travelled here and there, and read millions of words about life and growing up throughout the world, and seen pictures and fillums, and met people from what we superciliously used to call the “third world” my head scratched itself while it screamed “Are you really saying that growing up in Ireland, even in the thirties and forties of the most appalling century that the human race has ever encountered for its butchery, are you saying that you would have been better off growing up in … well, Morocco, Nigeria, Mali, Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Egypt, Cuba, Texas, Vietnam, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Lesotho, United Arab Emirates, one Congo or another, Chile, Brazil, Mozambique, Mongolia, Tierra del Fuego, Cameroon?

You will have noticed that this list, which can be reasonably cited to have been worse for the growing-up of a child than anywhere in Ireland unless you were one of a very privileged few, does not include our neighbouring or far-off countries of Europe. But then again, Frank McCourt’s memoir largely deals with the ’30s and ’40s of the last century, when things were worse in Ireland, and even in Limerick, than in anywhere else in the universe.

But let me return to my list. Even in civilised Europe, would you seriously have been better off in those dark, damp, dreary dumbed-down deadly ’30s and ’40s than in the ghettoes of Poland, or the drought, dead, arid patches of Spain or Portugal, or the community farms of Russia, or hoeing the ground as a woman in Bulgaria, or in a slum in the Gorbals in Glasgow, or a stamper of grapes in Greece, or just an ordinary not-very-bright aspiring barber in Balaclava or messenger boy in Minsk or serving girl in Sarajevo or in any the smaller cities of the continent? And when the barbarian war came in between the mobsters, were we more sensible to stand aside from the endless horror, or be part of the death of millions? Ah yes, would you have been safer as a schoolboy in Limerick between 1940 and 1945 than in London or Dresden or Stalingrad or even Hiroshima, not to mention the innumerable horrors of the now nameless towns and the lists of other flattened cities which no editor could allow for space?

Ah yes, that old devil called evidence, you might suppress it, but it seems to just jump back up. Sorry about that.

So then, first piece of crap unravelled. An Irish Catholic childhood was not the worst ever, certainly not in the first half of the twentieth century in neutral independent very safe Ireland. It might actually have been one of the best places to live in that has ever seen the light of day, unless you were a king or a sponging royal. And even then, a miserable draughty castle in most ages, with the rain coming in, was much worse than an invented slum in Limerick.

So, let’s call it as it is. McCourt’s opening sentences about the miserable Catholic childhood are a lie. Lovers of facts, at least, have to admit that, even if it sticks in their gullets.

This niggling doubt becomes a rolling rollicking tsunami of evidence when you go on, as you must go on, as it morphs into irrefutable view as you clamour through the fake news of this infamous book.

The very first of these is, of course, the weather. Strangely enough, most of us thinking back on our youth remember hot summers and doddly days arseing around in fields, street corners or back yards, depending on your fancy. This, we know, is our imagination playing nice games on us because the sun did not always shine and the clouds blurred those duller memories. Frank McCourt, on the other hand, hardly remembered a time when the sun did shine and only recalled the rain, the falling rain, the rain which fell on Frank and on Malachy, and on Eugene, falling softly on Oliver, and softly softly on Michael, and all over Ireland, but especially in Limerick. This dismal view was entirely reinforced by the phantasmagorical film directed by Alan Parker, which must have cost millions of lost revenue to Bord Fáilte, or whatever it is called now.

I did the stupid thing of checking out the weather in Limerick in those years of rain and wet and slosh and slop, and lo, I discovered there had been a drought in Limerick during 1938, (“the longest absolute drought”) and that many of McCourt’s summers and autumns had been as dry as a cow pat on a humming July evening, as a bone after exhumation, as a withered prune. The sun had shone on the ever new in those balmy days in Limerick, there had been halcyon days, and people picnicked in the public parks like they had never done since before the breaking of the treaty. This research, while largely down to Mr Google, has at least the benefit of being based on facts, unlike McCourt’s book, but the question persisted, why would one (or even a young fella) want to lowtail it to New York to escape the raindrops falling on his head in Limerick in order to escape even more and bigger drops in New York? Let’s be simple, for the benefit of the simple-minded folk who swallowed Angela’s Ashes without liquid or a spoonful of medicine going down, why would you go to a place that was wetter than Limerick in order to escape the rain?

There was even a bigger conundrum than this which assailed my senses. If this story be true, why was it that these put-upon McCourts would return to Ireland to save themselves from starvation because of the urban famine and slum starvation in the gold gleam of the world, in the home of the bold and the brave? After all, this was Dev’s narrow-minded Ireland, where people went hungry, there was nothing to do, there was no sex, although some observers noticed with puzzlement that people were still being conceived, and even occasionally born, as it happened in large families, unless it happened by macular conceptions. Why escape from Eutopia and return to such a barbaric and backward place? And yet, could it be, whisper it, that Limerick was a better place to grow up and to live in than in New York in those olden golden apple dawn days?

I probably would not have read Angela’s Ashes at all, as its moment had passed, had it not been that I was asked to contribute an essay for a festschrift for Pádraic Breathnach, the Galway/Limerick writer and scholar who has spent all of his academic life in Coláiste Mhuire gan Smál/Mary Immaculate College of Education. I was unable to attend the lecture series in honour of his work, and as others had purloined the best of his sweat, his short stories, his novels, his local history, his editing of folklore, I searched for something to do and my eye fell on his translation of Angela’s Ashes, Luaithreach Angela, published by Ionad Scríbhneoirí Luimneach, who for some reason apparently asked him to translate it. In the meantime, this festschrift has just been published as Prós Paiteanta: aistí in ómós do Phádraic Breathnach, published by Coiscéim (€15) and edited by Laoise Ní Cheallaigh, Róisín Nic Dhonncha and Breandán Ó Cróinín. I have to admit that I enjoyed Breathnach’s version of McCourt, as he has a cool, sharp, precise and poetic style of Irish which made it a pleasure to read, at least on the surface. He may be one of the few translators who have improved on the original and while he has done it with style and with aplomb there remains part of me which insists that any other version rather than the original would have been an improvement. It was, however, what lurked beneath that smooth diction of Breathnach’s which bothered me. It was the cringe-inducing, scrotum-crunching subject matter itself what bothered me.

Thus, I went back to the font, to the first paddy’s well, and started taking notes and attempted to stop myself sticking in exclamation marks with purple biro, as you might do to a voodoo doll, after just a few pages. My conclusions were few and brief and adamant. This concockjob was one of the most appalling, ridiculous, unbelievable, mendacious, toilet tissue turds of crap that I have ever read – and I have read a lot.

During my tortuous reading, I happened to meet Críostóir Ó Floinn when he was awarded Gradam an Oireachtais in recognition of his great writings in Irish over six decades or more. This was a too-belatedly well-deserved honour as Ó Floinn had been central to Irish drama in the ’50s and ’60s and had written poetry, novels, stories and memoirs over long decades, which in recent years have been somewhat neglected. He is now in his nineties, and seems as sprightly, sharp and combative as he ever was.

I mentioned to him that I had written this piece on Pádraic Breathnach’s translation of the Ashes, and shortly afterwards he sent me his “Angela’s Ashes” Analysed: an essay in aid of truth, which is what it says on the cover. It is a self-published book which debunks with energy, drive and more importantly honesty, and God help us, even with research, the piece of shit which is Angela’s Ashes. As he said himself, his own work is a book which would not be lightly, or even heavily, published by a mainstream publisher. And why would it? It gives the lie to one of the fattest cash cows that was every milked in Ireland in recent years and slashes to bits the easy much-internalised colonial convention that the country was a failed state. And even a theocracy ‑ as distinct from neighbouring state which had an official church and where the head of state was also the head of the church and other religions were specifically forbidden to be permitted in such high office, and where the president of Ireland during most of the long langers of Angela’s Ashes was actually a member of the former established church and his father a minister thereof.

But Ó Floinn, proudly displaying his Catholic credentials, does not shirk from the dominant clerical control of many aspects of Irish life, nor does he fail to call them out. “ …in Ireland we suffered under the moral dictatorship of bishops and priests who taught the doctrine of Christ with the legalistic values of the Pharisees rather than with the compassion of the Good Shepherd”, nor does he deny the horrors of the industrial schools where “orphans were also committed … where some endured sexual abuse in addition to severe corporal punishment which was part of the regime”. No apologist he. What he balks at is the assertion that they were all meanspirited nasty self-serving gombeens and that many were not inspired by charity and by their call to help others.

Time for a thought experiment: those of us who went through a determinedly Catholic education with priests or brothers or nuns, let us ask ourselves were the religiously-soutaned more brutal than their lay gutterparts? Did they wield the leather and the strap and the cat of nine tails with more venom and enjoyment than the nice man or woman who went off home to his affordable house in those impoverished days when the state built places for people to live?

My own experience is that they didn’t, but my experience may not be typical. On the other hand out of ten different teachers in ten years of primary and elementary education, of whom a little more than half went back to sleep in monasteries or nunneries after their day was done, the ratio of brutality was just about the same, with the nuns and brothers shading it for kindness. It might just be, beyond the flicker of the fashionist mind, that a beating by a brother, priest or nun reflected badly on all in their communities, whereas a thrashing by a teacher did not mean that every part of society, including your lay parents and neighbours, were vicious nasties.

I get it: a Traveller, for example, does some nasty deed, thus all Travellers are criminals; a nicely-educated person with strangulated vowels robs the state, but he/she is not typical at all, at all, at all. This is the poisoned seed in the ahistorical class-blind mind.

But let us return to the sheepish stuff.

Angela’s Ashes in its aboriginal swaddling clothes is a confection of easily refutable untruths. The biggest con-job of all which is staring us in the jowls and which is not only the elephant in the room, but also the moose in the hoos and the ox in the jax, is that the McCourts fled the horror and poverty and abject awfulness of the US in order to gain refuge in Ireland, obviously then a place of succour and of salvation. Their situation in the land of gold and gory was so bad that his grandmother in the land of potatoes and paddies was able to get together the price of a trip home for the whole family. What moolah and kudos would be got for a book on a miserable American childhood? Did nobody spot the irony? Here is a young fella dreaming and longing and whoring to get back to a place from which his family had fled for their lives from starvation and servitude and to escape from a country which had given him safety, some measure of social security from the state and from the Church, and a good education to boot. The awful De Valera even gave the eponymous Angela a house as part of those communist schemes which ensured that people would not live Reaganously or Thatcheritely in the gutters.

Críostóir Ó Floinn forensically cuts through it all with a crap-cutter. We must emphasise that this rag is not a novel. Angela’s Ashes is a memoir, and sold and emphasised and publicised as such. If it was a novel sent forth into the world as an imaginative deconstruction of youth it may have been perceived as fantastic enough, and wild imaginations are willing to forgive the suppose. But a memoir must bear some relationship to social, historical, educational, meteorological, bibliographical and even goddam ordinary cop on facts. In each of these, Angela’s Ashes reveals itself as a sham.

Ó Floinn asks, again and again, how can he remember? Reminding us that the book is purported to be an account of the author’s life up to the age of nineteen, when he fled from the corset of Ireland to the better life he desired, he asks how it was that no “intelligent reader, above all any literary critic, should therefore have questioned how the author was able to recall and provide verbatim reports of conversations, letters, long speeches, a school essay, long extracts from books, even extraneous matter like a priest’s sermon when he was eleven …”But they didn’t. And with copious other examples he drives the obvious home: “It will be seen again later [and it was] that remembering titles and authors fifty years later is no problem for a man who was apparently born with film-camera eyes and an auricular faculty surpassing even the modern tape-recorder.” He queries his ability “to see through walls” and his “gift of total recall”: I always found unbelievable his supposed overhearing of his mother pleading that she had enough children and that his father should desist from trying to sleep with her. If you have already read it, do it again, and ask yourself honestly and sincerely “Do you really think he overheard this?” If you have not read it, don’t bother.

Ó Floinn is searing about McCourt’s apparent ignorance of Limerick itself, or his deliberate snubbing thereof, or his forgetting to mention those big events which were part of the growing up of children in his time. But for all the stuff about education he never mentions the primary certificate, which dominated early education for decades, while “During the fifteen years he spent in Limerick, McCourt apparently never saw King John’s Castle or the Treaty Stone, never heard of Sarsfield’s ride to Ballyneety in 1690 … and heard nothing in school or at home about Brian Boru, the Vikings, or the three sieges of Limerick in the 17th century, sieges unequalled in Ireland”. He also points out that there is only one fleeting sideways mention of rugby in the entire book; he doesn’t bother to mention, because it was so obvious, that hurling didn’t figure in his head during those few glorious years when Mick Mackey strode the field and Limerick had their greatest time of glory until the present day. A memoir from Limerick without hurling or rugby even in the background as the shadow of a ghost: how could that be?

There is much more that sticks in the unbelieving craw. I’m sure it is true that some fathers, drunken or otherwise, came home and sang patriotic or nationalist ballads. It may be true that some said that their sons should die for Ireland. It is possible that McCourt’s father did this. But when this urging to die for Ireland appears again and again and again and again and again, and even six times on the one page, and twice more on the next, we feel that he has to be having us on. Repetition is permissible to an author, and to a good teacher, but to clobber us with it is either a sign of carelessness or that the writer thinks that his readers are thick. This latter seems the more likely, and he may have been right.

The unbelievable mounts up, invention by invention. I always thought that the teacher’s strictures on sins against chastity and the sixth commandment while they were preparing for their first communion at seven or eight years of age pushed it a bit far, as brothers and nuns blushed purple at any mention of any sin which dared not speak its name, and nobody queried why anyone should covet their neighbour’s wife, or ox. A city boy sticking a child underneath a cow in order to squirt milk into his mouth …well, what do you think yourself? And wandering through the streets of Limerick on Christmas Day gawking in through conveniently exposed windows with curtains undrawn to watch people guzzling their turkeys while the boyos outside starved? Well,  if you believe this … Not to mention going to the pub on Christmas Day, and hitchhiking on Christmas Day, and having sex with a young wan behind her parents’ couch on Christmas Day … (sorry I just threw in this last one to see if you could suspend disbelief).

Ó Floinn is most excoriating, however, on the genesis of this trashy book. It crawled out of a pub and back room theatre routine which Frank and Malachy did in America souping the paddywhackery up for the displaced Irish and the gullible Yanks who had seen The Quiet Man and may have been at a John Millington Synge play and most certainly had swallowed Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Most critically of all, their mother saw the show. Mothers, being the most clear-minded of all, are the most honest critics. Their mother, Angela, ran out of the theatre shouting “It didn’t happen like that at all. It is all lies!” In other words, she knew it was mendacious shite. This in itself should have sunk the garbage forever, but the boyos were clever enough not to write it all down until their mother, and most of the caricatures of their commercial imagination, were dead and gone. Malachy himself was honest enough to admit that he wouldn’t step out into the financial cess pool until most of the participants in a memoir were dead. He was true to his word.

Ó Floinn is equally excoriating in the defamation of their mother’s name, pointing out that their claim that she sold sex for rent would have been physically impossible given the author’s description of their house, and is forensic about the dubious facts of Frank McCourt’s employment, his necessary Catholic devotion for years as part of the scout movement, the fact that they were not any poorer than most others (in fact, considerably better off), and provides a comprehensive list of rebuttals and factual inaccuracies which cannot be denied. He also emphasises that such a great Limerick luminary as Richard Harris saw through it straight away, that the journalist Mary Kenny, who might be considered no friend of traditional Ireland, knew it was a con-job, and that the historian Roy Foster also copped on that it was a crock.

McCourt is “a chancer”, “an inventor of his own folklore”; his book is “a total sham” and “a concocted narrative”; “he touched nothing that he did not defile”. Sometimes I think Ó Floinn was too nice. But he returns again and again to the conundrum: how it was that all this guff was swallowed in the first place. It is one of the huge unanswered questions in modern Irish culture. I have no doubt myself that it is part of a larger cultural cringe which privileges what others say about us over that which we have thought ourselves outside the lure and commanding presence of commercial domination and dissemination.

Críostóir Ó Floinn’s book “Angela’s Ashes” analysed: an essay in aid of truth should be taken up by a commercial publisher. It is one of the best and most incisive pieces of literary polemic that I have read in a long time.

1/2/2021

Alan Titley is emeritus professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork and is the author of novels, stories, poetry and plays.

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