Smoldering 'Ashes'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a quiet Sunday afternoon at W.J. South's pub--all mahogany, frosted glass, marble and mirrors--an old fellow at the bar was contentedly sinking a pint of Guinness when a photographer's flash whitened the room.

"I don't like my picture taken," the man snapped, glaring. Assured that he hadn't been included in the shot, he turned away, still angry.

Asked his name, he said "Martin, and that's all I'm givin'. The worst thing to happen to Limerick was that book. And the next worse was the likes of you fellas. This isn't a pub anymore, it's a bloody disco. Try and drink a pint in peace and here's another Yank or Englishman or God-knows-who after your opinion. Opinion about a book!"

"That book" being "Angela's Ashes," a coming-of-age memoir by Frank McCourt set amid the horrific poverty of Limerick in the 1930s and '40s. It is one of the publishing phenomena of the century. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it has been on the hard-cover bestseller lists for nearly two years. Sales are so strong there is still no American paperback edition. The numbers of copies sold worldwide, in English and in translation, are "like the national debt: I can't begin to understand it," McCourt said recently from his home in Manhattan.

A film version, produced by Scott Rudin and David Brown and directed by Alan Parker, will include Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, star of the "The Full Monty," as McCourt's parents.

"The whole thing," the author said with comic gravity, "has gotten out of hand entirely."

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Beyond the numbers of editions and copies sold, there is another sure sign of McCourt's success: the appearance of searbhas, the Irish word for begrudgery.

"A defining national trait," McCourt said. "They should put the word on the Irish flag. Oh, the snipers are out in Limerick, you can be sure of that."

South's pub features prominently in the book as the neighborhood "local," the place where the family's meager finances go, mostly for drink for McCourt's ne'er-do-well father. The current owner of South's, David Hickey, says there have been many visitors lately, from the world over. Proudly, he shows a picture of a Chinese journalist who dropped in a month ago.

The people of Limerick, Hickey continues, have three opinions of the memoir: "Pro, anti and against the whole debate itself. Deep down, I feel, it's a true book, or 75% to 80% true, and that's a good percentage for memory. The anti crowd says it never happened, the poverty that McCourt describes. Or they say he never should have written about his family that way, you know, his mother being sort of a prostitute. That did not go down well.

"The pro people say it's a great book, and something that should be said. There were poor people everywhere in Ireland in those days. Everywhere. Don't I remember it," says the 60-something-year-old. "The women in the old shawls and ragged clothes. Toilets in the yards, the smell, Jesus. And cold. And hunger."

And are the people against the book motivated by searbhas? "Some, I suppose." Hickey reflects. "But some who went through those times have a sense of shame about it. Limerick people take everything so personally, you know."

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Thin-skin isn't all that the people in this city of 150,000 are accused of. Many Irish look at Limerick as forbidding, insular, clannish, hopelessly provincial. It was a grim British Army garrison town for more than two centuries; unlike other Irish cities of its size, it was without a university until 25 years ago. If young people wanted higher education, they had to leave. Meanwhile, culture was defined exclusively by the Church.

"Angela's Ashes" seems to some people just one more black mark against their city, a reaction that hasn't been confined to barroom arguments. Last year, after the University of Limerick awarded McCourt an honorary doctor of letters, comments by phone and letter began to flood in, including anonymous threats.

"The response was overwhelmingly favorable," recalls Colin Townsend, dean of Humanities. "But then there were some saying McCourt had fouled his own nest, that sort of thing. We even got a letter from a convent of nuns in Florida, letting us know what a scurrilous book it was and that giving the author a degree was absolutely disgraceful."

Were the threats taken seriously?

"Enough to get in touch with the police," Townsend replies. "At every event there was security. But it all went smoothly."

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These days, with its world-class university, and benefiting from Ireland's powerhouse economy, Limerick in many ways has been reborn. The filthy, crowded "lanes" where the McCourts lived are long gone, having been replaced with new housing or gentrified into pleasant rows of brick houses and flower boxes. The poor don't live there anymore.

Indeed, there is a social safety net now, and life for the poor has been eased somewhat since McCourt's boyhood days. But poverty still exists: The poor are still ghettoized, and it is still a struggle to escape. In what ironically are called "estates" such as Southill and Weston on the edges of the city--bleak, graffiti-scarred neighborhoods that are drug-plagued and violent--the dole still passes from one generation to the next like patrimony. And now there are the added scourges of addiction and crime.

In Weston--where the graffiti is about soccer ("Leeds United"), nationalist politics ("Brits Out") and rock 'n' roll ("Metal Rules")--Josephine O'Reilly, 68, invites a visitor into her immaculate home to talk about "that book."

She grew up in the lanes before moving to Weston in the early '50s.

"It was nice then," she says in a clear, musical voice. "We had some beautiful neighbors." Seated at a table in her small, tidy garden, she waves a hand in the direction of the street, shaking her head. "But now these drug people. It's very frightening. I had a car, but it was burned out, right outside there. If they can't steal it, they burn it. If they can't have it, you can't have it."

Still, O'Reilly--who "knew the McCourts, I lived on Windmill Lane with them"--was horrified by "Angela's Ashes."

"The way he wrote about Angela, his own mother! I think it's a pity. She was a very good woman. I can't see her doing anything bad. And Pa Keating taking a child into a pub, young Frank for a pint, it was a crime to do that sort of thing. I don't believe it a'tall."

She speaks of Malachy McCourt, Frank's brother and author of his own bestselling memoir, "A Monk Swimming."

"He was on the radio here in Limerick, a call-in show, Malachy was. I phoned in and said, 'Your brother has wronged your aunt, Aggie Keating.' Malachy said she'd once hit him in the head with a bottle. I said, 'Well, I'm sure you deserved it."'

When Josephine was 9 years old, her mother died at age 36, leaving a husband and five children. The family lived in one room "and a very small room at that. Right after my mother died, my grandmother stood me on a stool and taught me to wash on an old washboard. At 9 years old I had work." Asked if her reaction to the book might have anything to do with memories of her own hard times, she answers indirectly:

"I can't really be bitter or cross. He's telling the truth in a lot of ways. But why write a book about Limerick showing it in that light?"

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The call-in radio show of which Josephine spoke is "Limerick 95," a late-night program hosted five nights a week by Gerry Hannan, easily the most dedicated and vocal critic in town of Frank McCourt's memoir.

Hannan is the author of "Ashes," a self-published book ("I paid for the entire excursion myself") dedicated to "all the people who grew up on the lanes of Limerick and were perfectly happy during their childhood."

Hannan was born in 1959, well after the lanes were gone; nevertheless, he claims on the book cover that these are "real memoirs." The 383 pages, he says proudly, took him "only six weeks to write." Some say it shows. But sales have been brisk in Limerick--nearly 8,000 copies and climbing.

"I have no ax to grind with Frank McCourt," Hannan says. "And I don't begrudge him the success he's had with his book. But I genuinely feel he was unfair to his contemporaries. I wrote my book to defend the people of the city I love."

At midnight on a Monday, from his studio on the third floor of a downtown building, Hannan broadcasts yet another program on "the controversy." Caller Jim, who describes himself as "a country man down to the ground," says he has not read the book but heard it is "indecent." Terence, "67 today, and lived every day of my life in Limerick," says that McCourt "hasn't a bloody clue. He makes Limerick sound like a third-world country, for the love of God." Hannan asks Terence if he had a happy childhood.

"Happy? If you wanted some help from the church, from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, they'd come, wouldn't they, to your place and say, 'You're not poor. Sell that chair. Sell that table.' "

Hannan moves quickly to a new caller.

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