Click On Title To Link To NPR's Story On The Death Of Author Frank McCourt. Frank McCourt's story is my story about a generation later and a continent away. But it is still my story. I have reviewed that elsewhere in this space and have reposted it below.
*A Bit Of The Odd Manner- Irish Style- The Childhood Saga of Frank McCourt
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Of Childhood, Frank McCourt, Flamingo, London, 1997
Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” is probably the easiest review that I have had to write since I have been doing such reviews in this space. Why? Frank McCourt’s book of childhood memoirs is my story. No, not in the details of his life’s story, or mine. But rather in how being Irish, being poor and being uprooted affects your childhood, and later. And those traumas, for good or evil, cross generational lines. McCourt, we are told as his story unfolds, was born in America of immigrants of the Diaspora after Irish independence who, for one reason or another, returned to the old country in defeat in the 1930’s. As McCourt notes right at the beginning, that fact in itself provides a rather ironic twist if one is familiar with Irish history (at least until very recently). He is, in any case, thus a child of the Great Depression and World War II, the generation of my parents, as it was refracted through Ireland during that period. I, on the other hand, am a child of the 1960’s, the “Generation of ‘68” here in America born of the dreaded Irish Catholic-English Protestant combination- and raised in an Irish Catholic enclave. Nevertheless the pages of this memoir are filled to the brim with the results of the emotional (and sometimes physical scars) of being “shanty” Irish in this world that hit home to this reader.
That said, we did not share the terrible effect that “the drink” had on creating his dysfunctional family with his father’s, Malachy McCourt, crazed need for the alcohol cure to drown his sorrows and his bitterness and the fact that his great moment in life was his bit for “the cause” (of Irish independence). A familiar story in the Irish community here and in the old country but my father seldom drank, although he too was constantly out of work and shared with Frank’s father that same bitterness about his fate. He was uneducated, lacking in skills and prospects and as a “hillbilly” Protestant Southerner from coal country down in Kentucky. Thus, an ‘outsider’ like Frank’s father. That is the commonality that caught my eye (and sometimes my throat) as I read of Frank’s youthful trials, tribulations and adventures. McCourt’s ability to tap into that “mystical” something is what makes this a fine read, whether you are Irish or not.
Throughout the book McCourt’s woe begotten but fatally prideful father is constantly referred to in the Irishtown working class poor ghetto of Limerick (and elsewhere, as well, but the heart of the story is told from there) as having an odd manner. This reflects a certain clannishness against those from the North of Ireland (Dare I say it, the area then known as Ulster) and a sneaking suspicion amount that crowd of some alien (meaning English Protestant) heritage. As the book progresses that odd trait is transferred (by heredity?) to Frank in his various wanderings, enterprise and desires. What joins us together then is that odd manner that gets repeatedly invoked throughout the book. Frank survived to tell the tale. As did I. But in both cases it appears to have been a near thing.
There is more that unites us. The shame culture, not an exclusive Irish Catholic property but very strong nevertheless, drilled in by the clannishness, the closeness of neighbors, the Catholic religion and by the bloody outsiders- usually but not always Protestants of some sort (as least for blame purposes- you know, the eight hundred years of British tyranny although very real to be sure). All driven by not having nearly enough of this world’s goods. Every time I read a passage about the lack of food, the quality of the food, the conditions of the various tenements that the McCourt family lived in, the lack of adequate and clean clothing I cringed at the thoughts from my own childhood. Or the various times when the family was seriously down and out and his mother, the beloved Angela of the title, had to beg charity of one form or another from some institution that existed mainly to berate the poor. I can remember own my mother’s plaintive cry when my brothers and I misbehaved that the next step was the county poor farm.
And how about the false pride and skewed order of priorities? Frank’s father was a flat out drunk and was totally irresponsible. From a child's perspective, however, he is still your dad and must be given the respect accordingly, especially against the viciousness of the outside world. But life’s disappointments for the father also get reflected in the expectations for the son. The dreams are smaller. Here, the horizons are pretty small when a governmental job with its security just above the “dole” is the touchstone of respectability. Sean O’Casey was able to make enduring plays from the slums of Dublin out of this material. And Frank McCourt enduring literature. Thanks, brother.
Note: The movie version of “Angela’s Ashes” pretty fairly reflects the intentions of Frank McCourt in his childhood memoirs and follows the book accordingly, without the usual dramatic embellishments of that medium. The story line is so strong it needs no such “touch-ups”. Particularly compelling is the very visual sense of utter poverty down at the base of Irish society in Frank McCourt’s childhood.
These two songs below are constantly being sung by Frank McCourt's father when he is "on the drink"
O see the fleet-foot host of men, who march with faces drawn,
From farmstead and from fishers' cot, along the banks of Ban;
They come with vengeance in their eyes. Too late! Too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
Up the narrow street he stepped, so smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp-rope on his neck, the golden ringlets clung;
There's ne'er a tear in his blue eyes, fearless and brave are they,
As young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
When last this narrow street he trod, his shining pike in hand
Behind him marched, in grim array, a earnest stalwart band.
To Antrim town! To Antrim town, he led them to the fray,
But young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
There's never a one of all your dead more bravely died in fray
Than he who marches to his fate in Toomebridge town today; ray
True to the last! True to the last, he treads the upwards way,
And young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
In MOUNT JOY jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the 'cause of liberty
Just a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no true man can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head up high
Another martyr for old Erin
Another murder for the crown
The British laws may crush the Irish
But cannot keep their spirits down
Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
The British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The name of all his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
Turn informer or we'll kill you
Kevin Barry answered no
Another martyr for old Erin
Another murder for the crown
Whose cruel laws may crush the Irish
But CANNOT KEEP their spirits down