Dublin, Grasmere, Haworth ... Limerick

`Angela's Ashes', Frank McCourt's memoir of his childhood in Limerick, is a phenomenal best-seller. So phenomenal that the city's tourism executives hope McCourt can do for Limerick what James Joyce did for Dublin. But can they explain away his portrait of a city cursed by poverty and TB? By Alan Murdoch
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The Independent Online
Few recent novels have hit readers in the pit of the stomach with the punch of Frank McCourt's unflinching but darkly humorous memoir of squalor in the slums of Limerick, Angela's Ashes. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, with worldwide sales of 1.5 million, it is becoming the publishing phenomenon of the decade.

The story opens in New York, where Frank McCourt was born to emigrant parents, and follows the family's return to his mother's native Limerick when Frank is four. The boy is one of four surviving brothers; baby sister Margaret died in New York, while twins Eugene and Oliver met their deaths in Limerick.

Poverty and sickness are ever-present in McCourt's Ireland. Frank and his brother Malachy are sent out on Christmas Day to look for coal dropped by lorries so that the meal, a pig's head, can be cooked. The family drink tea from jam jars. The young McCourt steals lemonade for his sick mother. Locals praise Hitler for creating work in Britain for Irish unemployed. His father returns penniless from working in England, having drunk his wages and eaten half the chocolates brought as his wife's Christmas present. McCourt's tale could have been one of relentless misery, but its child's eye, present-tense narrative has a riveting vitality and immediacy.

Just as James Joyce's Ulysses has made Dublin a curiosity for literati from all over the world, so now McCourt's best-seller is putting Limerick on the map. Visitors to Dublin enjoy bus tours and the literary pub crawl, visiting old haunts of Joyce and Behan. Now Limerick is leading transatlantic McCourt fans around places featured in his autobiographical tale. Mindful of the book's success, plans are being laid by local tourism executives to use Angela's Ashes to increase the number of overseas visitor coming to Limerick. Some 200,000 North Americans arrive each year at nearby Shannon airport, heading for Kerry and Galway; few venture into Limerick, just 15 miles away, but with a million copies sold in the US, many to Irish Americans, McCourt's book provides a tailor-made script for a theatrical walking tour.

But McCourt's vivid portrayal of an often unsympathetic 1940s Limerick, held in an almost militaristic social order through the fervent neighbourhood Roman Catholic "confraternities", poses a dilemma for the city. It is only now achieving an economic and cultural revival after decades of stagnation. Its centre has recently been imaginatively opened up to face the broad expanse of the River Shannon. Its university is increasingly a powerhouse for Ireland's microelectronics boom. Arts centres, new galleries and colourful cafes brighten the once bleak landscape.

Amid this recovery, McCourt's runaway success has put the spotlight on the city's darker past, when tuberculosis decimated adults and children alike and poverty was a glaring fact of life. Can today's reborn Limerick afford that as a calling card?

Locally, the book has drawn praise, but also some virulent denunciations from a faction of Limerick citizens who claim it exaggerates the poverty. The Lord Mayor, Frank Leddin, says that although the book has been generally well-received, "there are people who feel it is critical. But it is Limerick then, and the reality he refers to was no different to any other city or town in Ireland at that time. They [visitors] will find it hard to trace the places he was referring to."

Limerick residents are more resentful of recent violent images of their city. The country's favourite satirical programme, Scrap Saturday (partly written by a Limerick exile), used to feature weekly parodies of the idea of Limerick tourism, while it laboured under the inflated tabloid tag Stab City, a legacy of a handful of knife attacks involving local youths in the 1980s. The Irish media found the snappy phrase irresistible, and it hung around the city's name like a plague bell for almost a decade. "I take firm exception to the term," says Mr Leddin emphatically, furious at any press mention of it.

Jim Kemmy is the member of parliament for Limerick and a former mayor, who edits The Old Limerick Journal and chairs Ireland's Labour Party. He defends the book strongly. "It has put Limerick on the international map. You must see it in the context of its time. It has caused controversy in Limerick, but I grew up at the same time as McCourt and his brothers. You had those slums, tenements and lanes almost in the shadow of Georgian Limerick.

"Most people were badly off in Limerick. But they would bring home some money, and there was bread on the table. In the case of McCourt's father he would drink the money in the pub. If it was dole money, he would drink it, too. That was the difference between McCourt and everyone else. But there were people even worse off than them, with families of 12 or 13."

Mr Kemmy found the children's funeral wakes in the book particularly poignant. "My own father died of TB. In my mother's case, there were 15 in the family, and 14 emigrated to America. That was par for the course here." In the overcrowded slums, TB deaths increased by almost 50 per cent in the Forties, killing between 3,000 and 4,000 every year.

Citing Robert Burns's lines "there's a chile among ye taking notes, and, by faith, he'll print it", Mr Kemmy sees McCourt's book as a reminder to the conscience of newer generations. Mr Kemmy himself leads American trade-unionists, hardback copies in hand, through streets mentioned in the novel.

Happily for tour organisers, several of the book's most memorable passages relate to specific surviving sites. The McCourts' grim, damp homes are in old central Limerick: Windmill Street, Hartstonge Street, Roden Lane, Rosbrien Road, Little Barrington Street (large parts of them renovated as office and business premises). Barringtons' (Protestant) Hospital is where Frank's younger brother Malachy is brought one night after forcing his father's false upper teeth into his mouth. "[He] can't get them out again. His lips are drawn back and the teeth make a big grin. He looks like a monster in a film ... I hear Dad and Mam laughing till they see he can choke."

The doctor pours oil into Malachy's mouth and succeeds in easing the alien dentures out.

"Mam says, If 'tis a thing I ever see you with a fag in your gob I'll break your face. They tell us the cigarettes rot your teeth and you can see they're not lying. Dad says he has holes in his teeth big enough for a sparrow to raise a family."

According to Mr Kemmy, most people in Limerick are proud of Frank McCourt. "Some squeamish people don't want dirty linen washed in public, and would prefer to forget that we came from that era and those housing conditions," he says. "But the genie is out of the bottle and can't be put back in again."

Brendan Halligan, editor of The Limerick Leader, confirms that some locals were "deeply hurt" by the book. "They regard it as a libel on the community of the times, the kids who lived in the lanes. But I think they are making the mistake of viewing it as a social history rather than a work of literature."

Until the Fifties, overcrowding was also a serious problem in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. By 1946, only one in four houses in the Republic had running water. Mr Halligan suspects that Limerick was no more impoverished than other cities, and that its confraternities, by instilling social discipline, averted much wider deprivation. "Confraternities instilled zealotry rather than religious fervour, but did an enormous amount socially to keep the working man on the straight and narrow and to stop him becoming the kind of guy that McCourt's father became," he says. Limerick's business, trade-union and political figures learnt self-discipline this way, he argues. "But for the confraternity, they would probably have gone off on the piss."

Limerick's 1904 pogrom against Jews, he feels, tarred the city for ever as a bastion of monolithic conservatism. "It is a complete myth. Limerick has been more politically volatile than any city in Ireland. We've had the rise of the [1919] Limerick Soviet, Kemmy's party [his Democratic Socialists group merged with Labour in 1990], you have the emergence of the [centre-right, but socially liberal] Progressive Democrats here. We've had massive shifts in the political philosophy of the place."

That said, old habits die hard. The hardline Bishop from 1974 to 1996, Jeremiah Newman (dubbed the Mullah of Limerick by Conor Cruise O'Brien), brooked no compromise on social policy and aroused controversy for snubbing a Protestant mayor.

The author retains an enduring criticism for Limerick clergy. As "lane children", he and his brothers were deemed untouchables, and his mother was reduced to begging from a Catholic charity for the destitute. "They [the clergy] could have done something for the poor, but they didn't. They should have come among their people to help us, but they ignored us," he said recently on Irish radio.

McCourt, who started work as a telegram boy in Limerick at 14 and later returned to the US where he became a schoolteacher, will soon be plunged personally into the debate he has provoked, when he returns to Limerick in a few weeks to become writer-in-residence at the university. On recent visits he has found a more welcoming place than the one he describes in Angela's Ashes. At a recent book signing, he was mobbed by fans and former schoolmates. "I was offered hundreds of free pints. I could have stayed in the bar for months," he said.