Alan Parker’s film version of Frank McCourt’s childhood memoir of his poverty-stricken upbringing in Limerick in the 1930s and ‘40s seems destined to bring Angela’s Ashes to an even wider audience than the phenomenally successful book. Since it was published in 1997, Angela’s Ashes has won the Pulitzer prize, spent over two years at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, as well as dominating the best-seller lists in Ireland and Britain and being translated into fifteen languages. All of this means that McCourt’s often harrowing and angry account of life in Limerick during his childhood has reached a wider international audience than any other Irish book of recent times. The book has generated considerable controversy in Frank McCourt’s home town. The bitterest reactions came from some of McCourt’s contemporaries, who disagreed with his version of events on several levels. Many Limerick people, including the late Jim Kemmy, defended the book against its detractors, and McCourt was awarded an honorary degree by Limerick University.
Parker’s film is very faithful to McCourt’s anger. The cold charity of what was still a poor-law system in the 1940s, supplemented by a network of Catholic charities which were often equally humiliating to the recipients of meagre and inadequate handouts, forms one of the most powerful themes. The book made the lanes of Limerick famous, and the insanitary squalor of this slum housing is brilliantly portrayed in Parker’s film. Despite slum clearance efforts, Limerick still had some of the worst housing in the state in this period. The film opens with a succession of deaths of the younger McCourt children in New York and then in Limerick, where the family return to live in a series of damp and verminous rooms. Their lives are dominated by hunger, disease and the endless humiliating search for charity. It is always raining in Parker’s Limerick and the rain becomes a metaphor for the unforgiving fate that wears down the resistance of the McCourts and their neighbours. Parker also captures the brutalisation which such mass poverty creates among the poor and their supposed benefactors. Relations within the extended family and the community are unsympathetic and harsh. Malachy McCourt, the father, is from the North, which means the McCourts are outsiders to the tight-knit working-class community, as well as destitute. Despite the harrowing nature of his story, Frank McCourt has a facility for humorous writing and a skill at presenting the horrors of the time through the eyes of a child. This is not so easily achieved in the cinema, even for a director with Parker’s comic gift, seen in The Commitments. It is hard for the film to convey the range of experience and emotions depicted in the book, though Parker is true to McCourt’s vivid recreation of the horror of urban poverty in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
The very divided reactions provoked in Limerick by the book are an interesting aspect of its success, as they reflect on how individuals and communities deal with their own history. Several books of Limerick working-class memoirs have appeared in the wake of Frank McCourt’s. Ger Hannon, who heckled McCourt on television, published Ashes which purports to supply a truer version of a Limerick childhood and accuses McCourt of exaggerating the deprivation of his own family in order to make his book more saleable. If McCourt has a problem, it’s that his memory is not always accurate and he has been accused of misrepresenting individuals. This arouses most indignation with the portrayal of his mother Angela. McCourt’s angry account of his mother having to sleep with her cousin so as to live in his house was shocking to many of his Limerick contemporaries. But of course much of the reaction was a defensive denial of the central message. Other books appeared which made no direct reference to Angela’s Ashes but offered a very different account of working-class life in the 1940s. In There is an Isle, for example, Criostóir Ó Floinn described a childhood which was happy enough despite poverty and allowed Ó Floinn to win a scholarship to secondary school and launch a successful career as a writer. But unlike Ó Floinn, McCourt’s family was at the mercy of an alcoholic and irresponsible father. The punishment for any deviation from a rigid model of family life was the cold and minimal charity on which the McCourt family had to subsist. To many in Limerick, McCourt’s memoir was an attack on their values, including deep affection for the Catholic church, which is the principal target of the indictment of the unjust society of the 1940s. This is all-too familiar to people throughout Ireland, where the whole question of the abuse and neglect of the weakest members of society by those who were in positions of responsibility has provoked a huge debate, most recently in response to Mary Raftery’s investigative work on the industrial schools.
The dominant image at the beginning and end of Parker’s film is of the statue of liberty. The idea that a family should actually leave the promised land to return to Ireland provides a light moment at the beginning of the film and McCourt’s sight of the statue at the end of the book somehow restores things to rights. This points to a key underlying theme of Angela’s Ashes, that young Frank’s escape from the nightmare of life in Limerick is a product of his own instinct for survival, culminating in the picaresque discovery of the dead Mrs Finnucane’s savings which finally ensures the hero’s rebirth in America. To some extent McCourt’s American audience may have found in this a vindication of their own ancestors’ decision to leave the old world. McCourt’s odyssey validates the American dream while at the same time casting a harsh light on an area of Irish social history which has only now been brought into the realm of public discussion. The fact that Parker’s locations for the film range from Limerick to Dublin and Cork point to the fact that the truth of Angela’s Ashes is not confined to the small world of Limerick in the 1940s but, with due allowance for literary invention, opens a window on the most shocking aspects of urban Irish life in the not too distant past.
Éamonn Ó Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.