Books: The hyphenated people

'Tis by Frank McCourt Flamingo pounds 17.99
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Ah, sure, is it not a wonderful thing to be writing about the Irish at such a time, when there are so many people in the world all willing to be entertained with a story from the Auld Country and a nice turn of phrase, and all the better if that story can be told in a breezy way, in long, friendly sentences that have the manner of one friend talking to another and never seem to end? 'Tis, Frankie boy. 'Tis.

And you, dear reader, would you not think it was easy to fashion a page or two with the blarney in it? Well you'd be wrong, as the hopeless pastiche of that first paragraph demonstrates. Enough of it then; there has been so much since Angela's Ashes. There are stories to be told from Ireland, but they must be handled with care, and without sentiment.

Let us talk frankly and urgently instead, because you need to know that the sons and daughters of Eire have been trying to take over the world. A decade or so ago they hatched an ingenious plan which involved luring innocent parties into Irish theme pubs, with their fake Killarney road signs and bacon-in-a-basket lunches, wherein the masses could be fed stout until we felt frisky enough to try those hideously complicated dance steps.

Soppy films like Far and Away followed, in which American millionaire actors dirtied their boyish faces and put on accents located between County Kerry and Bombay, and their flame-haired colleens looked gorgeous but frail. Then the older generation was sent into action, in Waking Ned and even Ballykissangel, to persuade us that the older Irish were funny and cute, if a bit strange in the head. Fiddle-de-dee music was simplified and commercialised until the Corrs dominated pop as Riverdance did the theatre, and Irish imagery infiltrated contemporary culture so that mist and mountains were equated with myth and mystery, and romance, and other such frivolous things.

The devilish plan was to give us all such a good time that the English and all our friends would forget to persecute the Irish, as we had done for a thousand years.. And finally we would cry, "Enough! Let us have comedy Indians, or Africans, or anyone but yet another soft-voiced Irishman."

At which point we would look around and realise that it had all been a smokescreen, under cover of which they had been left alone to organise themselves and inherit the earth.

It would have worked, but for a fatal flaw in the plan. Frank McCourt gave the game away, by emerging as an unexpected genius among the boozy bullshit and bar-room sentiment. Angela's Ashes was supposed to convince us that the poor, miserable children of Eire deserved tears of sympathy, and it did its job, but the story was too well told.

McCourt, the Irish-American schoolteacher who wrote it, was a masterful writer whose prose went beyond the easy, stultifying plastic paddyisms of his contemporaries. He won the Pulitzer Prize with his first effort, for heaven's sake, and a few other awards beside, and sold millions of copies of his book, which made people cry. It made them angry, that a man could be so hopeless as McCourt's father with a drink inside him. It reminded them that the Irish were not just the ethnic minority you could now invite to dinner (as long as you marked the whiskey level first), but also a nation of serious talents.

Rather than cry out for him to stop they demanded more, so that he had to think about a sequel, taking us further than the harbour at New York, where he had left off full of the joys of a young man who had recently had his way with a woman for the first time and who was on the shores of a city he had always dreamed of.

So the one-word final chapter of the first book became the title of the sequel, 'Tis, which takes us from McCourt's arrival in 1949 to the death of his errant father almost four decades later, in a breathless St Paddy's Day parade of anecdote and reminiscence.

The author is a houseman in a hotel and a docker and a soldier and an insurance man and a student and finally a teacher. He lives in a hostel, in a hovel, in an apartment and in a nice brownstone house with a WASP wife who will never ease his restlessness, that same wandering that afflicted his father, and almost the same taste for the drink, and whom he has to leave. The hidden truths of his past emerge in an English literature nightclass and he begins to write, so that we see the embryonic author of one of the great memoirs emerge in those essays.

These stories will be familiar to millions of emigrants, Irish and otherwise. They fly by, like the years. The growth of the son sheds light on the struggles of the father, and the sorrows of the first book. The McCourts have sadness in their bones that cannot be shaken off, even when Frank and his brothers become successful and prosperous - and that is how it feels for so much of Irish-America, a nation of hyphenated people who understand themselves best in the light of the past.

'Tis is like that. It stands proudly alone, but can best be read after its prequel. So is it as good as Angela's Ashes? Technically, I suppose not. It could hardly be. The language is not as dense, as evocative, as powerful - but neither is the subject matter. If you had to put down the first book from time to time because of the unrelenting misery of that childhood, be assured that such evasive action will not be necessary here. There is sadness, and death, and poverty in 'Tis but it is borne with a courage that seems to come from the proximity of America and all it means. This is a book that feels like a friend, telling the tales of his life over a pint, with charm and humour, economy and pace. There is a sense of loss when you have to close the pages and sleep, or go on to other things.

I have spent the best part of three years talking and drinking with Irish- Americans, researching a book of my own, and almost all of them wanted to pick a fight with Frank McCourt. He had painted a false picture of Irish childhood, they said, theirs was nothing like as brutal or abusive or poor as that - and no doubt it seemed that way from their perspective, 3,000 miles and several decades away from whatever really did happen in their lives. The resigned humour of those days had been superseded by the optimism that every Irish-American seemed to consider his or her patriotic duty. Nevertheless they had all read Angela's Ashes, just as they will all read 'Tis. They will love it, and so did I.

`Hungry for Home' by Cole Moreton (Viking) is out in March