Date: Mon, 13 Jun 2005 22:07:53 +0100 (BST)
From: Rory Connor
Subject: Appendix: Angela's Ashes
To: Jesuit America Magazine
CC: Letters Irish Voice
Editor, America Magazine
Tom Deignan, Irish Voice
Limerick and the Art of StoryTelling - Gerard Hannan
Irish journalist Mary Kenny is angry at the manner in which Ireland, it's people and institutions and more specifically Saint Vincent De Paul are depicted in Angela's Ashes.
'There is scarcely anyone in the whole story with an ounce of humanity. The McCourt family are all vile: the father is an aimless drunk, and the mother is a weak slut: the grandmother is a bigoted old bitch and the aunt is an embittered, scolding battle-ax. The Uncle is selfish and ignorant. The cousin is a loathsome brute. They are, as a clan, entirely devoid of family feeling or kindness for one another, at least when the children are young. Indeed, everyone in the Limerick of Angela's Ashes is especially beastly to children. If the family is awful, the neighbours are ugly and mean-spirited, the representatives of the state are cruel and hard-hearted, and teachers, with one exception, are sadistic, twisted tyrants who deliberately mock poor children for their poverty. It goes without saying that the Church is sneering, cruel, rejecting, and exploitative, and the Saint Vincent De Paul are represented by most particularly odious characters who taunt poor women before they patronise them. You cannot libel a group of more than eight people, but if you could, the Vincent De Paul certainly would have a legal redress, they should do something to contradict their good name being attacked and undermined as it is in this book.'
Limerick.com "The Sting of Memory" by Fawn Vrazo
But the 67-year-old McCourt, a longtime New York high school teacher with white hair and a pale, delicate face, concedes that Angela's Ashes is ``a memoir, not an exact history.''
``I'm not qualified to do that,'' he told the audience at his doctoral degree ceremony.
He has admitted one error. In the book, childhood classmate Willie Harold is depicted walking to his first confession while ``whispering about his big sin, that he looked at his sister's naked body.'
' The problem was that Harold did not have a sister, and last year the by-then aging and cancer-ridden Harold approached McCourt at a book-signing event to point out the mistake.
``I settled that with him,'' McCourt said last week. ``[Harold] said, `I'm in bad shape, I don't have any money, could you give me a book?' '' Of course, said McCourt, and he did. If McCourt thought this was in any way an inadequate gesture to a sick, wronged friend, he did not indicate it. Harold has since died.
"Mrs Finucane" the repulsive Catholic Moneylender (Gerard Hannan)
It seems that Frank without explanation made a conscious decision to protect the identity of Jackie Brosnan and seemed to have substituted his name and identity with that of an alleged 'Irishtown' community resident moneylender named Mrs. Brigid Finucane.
'Finucane is a repellent moneylender who exploits the poor of Limerick, though Mr. McCourt has noticeably very carefully not written her as Jewish. It is a simple point of objective history that - for quite understandable historical reasons - moneylenders in Limerick were Jewish, but there are regulations now that you are only allowed to be critical of Catholics, so the moneylender in the story has to be made into a spiteful Catholic vixen, complete with statues of the Blessed Virgin scattered around her extortionate book-keeping.'
None of the people I interviewed had any recollection whatsoever of this lady and we can therefore fairly conclude that no such person existed.
Just another of Frank's 'made up' characters.
As a post-office worker McCourt delivers a telegram to Finucane who offers him a commissioned job writing threatening letters to her customers. Frank, without hesitation, seizes the opportunity because he was desperate to go to America and saw this as a way of financing his trip.
He responds to Finucane's demands to 'threaten 'em, boy. Frighten the life out of them' by composing letters to his laneway neighbours ' my own people' and family friends and then proceeding to pilfer the money as a drunken Finucane slips into sleep while counting the profits.
McCourt arrives at Finucane's home one evening to find her dead and help's himself to a substantial amount of her money 'enough to go to America' and her accounts book which he later throws into the river Shannon. In the period Frank claims he was in the employ of Mrs. Finucane he was actually employed by Jackie Brosnan.
Jackie was the owner of a very busy 'Radio and Bicycle Shop' also offering a range of nursery items on Upper William Street in Limerick before, during and after the McCourt era. It was a matter of procedure that his customers would call to the shop and buy goods on what was commonly known as the 'never never.' This simply meant that the customer would take the goods away from the shop and return each week and pay the bill by installment. Jackie, being the soft hearted gentleman that he was would, more often than not, be taken advantage of by some of the less scrupled people who failed to pay up for the goods, 'Many is the time I was left unpaid for goods,' he openly admits in the interview.
Gerald 'Laman' Griffin, Rockwell College and and Sex with Angela
The first reference to the affair is made when young Frank is lying awake in bed and listening to 'talking, grunting and moaning' coming from the attic bedroom where Laman is with Angela.
'I 'm thirteen and I think they're at the excitement up there.'
In fairness, the possibility that the alleged relationship may be no more than the product of a sexually fertile teenage imagination is not ruled out.
What would motivate a son to write such unprovable allegations about his own mother?
One can only speculate as to the answer.
By writing this he is clearly accusing his mother of breaking the sixth commandment. This is interesting because throughout the narrative this is the only commandment he repeatedly quotes 'Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery'. He needs to reinforce the importance of this commandment for the reader because it is one that he obviously hold's very very dear.
In short, break this one and you are really trash and fitting of any abuse that any person cares to hurl at you. He considers masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality forms of adultery.
His distorted interpretation of the word makes him a vile and repulsive sinner in his own eyes and if he can justifiably accuse his own mother of equal sin then it makes the load on his catholic conscience a little less burdensome.
The revelation that he believes his mother has broken this commandment makes her, in his estimation, a fitting target for his judgmental accusations.
Interestingly the fact that he is equally as judgmental to his mother prior to her 'big sin' with Griffin is further proof, if needed, of his maternal contempt.
Sex is foremost on his mind at the time of the alleged incident between Angela and Griffin and it is therefor fair to conclude that it is possible that they were totally innocent of the charge.
The reality may be that Gerald 'Laman' Griffin was an innocent party to the allegations leveled against him by Frank. It is possible that 'Laman' became a euphemism or name substitute for another man.
But because 'Laman' is long dead and has no known living relatives at the time of publication his name was used to protect the identity of the true perpetrator of the so called crime.
The facts about 'Laman' are in total contradiction to Frank's revelations.
Laman was never a student at Rockwell College and was never in the British navy as Frank claimed. A detailed search of the records at the library at Rockwell College in Clonmel, County Tipperary in March 2000 produced no former records whatsoever of a Gerard, Gerald, Jerome or Jeremiah Griffin ever being in attendance at the school. However, there was a man by the name of Michael Griffin (surname merely a coincidence and no relation of Frank's or Laman's) who lived on Barrack Hill, just a stones throw from Frank's home on Barrack Lane, who was a student at Rockwell and also spent some time in the British Merchant Marines.
Could he have been the 'real' Laman Griffin?
If so why would Frank intentionally conceal his identity while, at the same time, destroy the reputation of an innocent man?
Stephen Carey ("Limerick and the Art of Story Telling" by Gerard Hannan)
Stephen Carey, another of McCourt's victims can be best described as a social apostle.
He dedicated his life to the catholic church and was famous throughout the length and breadth of the region for his devotion to the poor people of the lanes of Limerick.
Stephen was noted as a very decent and caring man who gave his life to the church and the community for which he was awarded the Papal Benemeranti Medal.
His living relatives have publicly testified to their abhorrence at the way in which their beloved family member was treated in Angela's Ashes.
In the book Stephen is accused of slamming the door in the face of the young McCourt when he wanted to become an altar boy.
McCourt tells of how he and his father walk to Saint Joseph's Church to see the sacristan, Stephen Carey, about young Frank becoming an altar boy. When they knock on the door, Stephen answers and McCourt tells in his book: 'Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, we don't have room for him, and closes the door. Dad is still holding my hand and squeezes till it hurts and I want to cry out.'
But the Carey family are deeply hurt at the insulting manner in which Stephen was portrayed as a heartless man. 'We thought it was unjust and hurtful what Mr. McCourt said about my father,' said Marie Siegel, daughter of Stephen, (now living in Friedrichdorf, Germany) to Limerick Leader journalist Iain Dempsey in March 2000.
'We want the people of Limerick to look on my father with kindness and not with malice. He spent his life in the church and was of great benefit to his native Limerick and it's people.'
Diana Peckham (Granddaughter of Stephen) says, 'My grandfather is portrayed in the book as a cold and heartless person who slams the door in the face of a poor little boy who wants to be an acolyte and with these few words from McCourt a very decent and caring man has been damned in the eyes of many readers around the world. My Grandfather was a great parish clerk, dedicating his life to the church and to the community.'
'My family also suffered the loss of two infants who would have undoubtedly have lived had they been born into more modern times. Stephen did not blame fate or others for the things that went wrong in his life but gathered strength and carried on. Times were hard for everyone and he had an enormous faith and lived his life in accordance with Christian principles.'
'My grandfather was always a gentleman and he viewed the world with compassion and he is part of Limerick history and represents all that is commendable in the Irish spirit.'
She further stated that she is 'stung' by the injustice that the book was published and embraced as a work of non-fiction when the author himself had often admitted that he has embellished imperfect memory.
Frank McCourt and the Misery of Limerick
Although he is totally ignored throughout the text of Angela's Ashes Jackie Brosnan was a major player in the life of Frank McCourt. If he were to appear in McCourt's narrative he would be a total contradiction to the illusion of 'poverty and hardship' that the author was creating.
Limerick businessman and former St. Joseph's Scoutmaster Jackie had a tremendous influence on Frank McCourt's teenage life in Limerick.
Not only was he the man who introduced McCourt to Saint Joseph's Boyscouts, who were considered to be the 'elite' boyscout movement of that era, but he also employed McCourt for five years (1944 to 1949).
Jackie's recollection's of the young Frank, whom he describes as a 'Walter Mitty' type character, are nothing but pleasant and up to his death in Summer 1999 when he granted me an interview on his deathbed he defended the authenticity of 'Angela's Ashes' at every available opportunity.
Jackie states in the interview that McCourt was a pleasant, outgoing, jovial and talented young man. He further reveals that Frank was an amazing drummer.
'He was one of the best drummers I have ever seen in my life.'
This was an astonishing revelation in that McCourt fails to make any reference whatsoever in Angela's Ashes to the fact that he was trained, at some expense to his family, to become a noted Bass drummer.
Loathing of the Catholic Church
In an interview with Jim Saah of 'Uno Mas' he admits to his loathing for the Catholic Church.
'So now I just have nothing but contempt for the institution of the church. And the priests who should have known better, who were of no... not just of no use to us, they just ignored us. Except to threaten us. Come to pay our dues... although we didn't have it. They were always looking for money. And they lived well. They were nice and fat, glowing. They had cars, they had crates of whiskey and wine delivered to their houses, and they preached poverty but as far as the institution of the church is concerned, I think it is despicable.'
Hardly the words of an unbiased man.
Clearly then it is not Carey the man that is under attack here at all but what he represented. Stephen was the archetype of all that is good about the Catholic Church. By discrediting him McCourt may well have known in his heart that only the people of Limerick would truly understand the level of bitterness of the attack.
To the rest of the world Stephen is no more than just another minor character in a book but to the people of Limerick he was an angel of the streets.
Tom, who has an honorary doctorate from UL, was born at 30, St Joseph's Street, in a cul de sac leading to the People's Park.
His memories of the neighborhood are far brighter than those set out by Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes, a book which Tom is highly critical of.
'Don't mention that McCourt name to me again,' he told Mr. Woulfe of the Limerick Leader in January 2000. When Woulfe asked him to elaborate, he continued: 'He mentioned people whom I knew and respected. I was an altar boy in St Joseph's where Stephen Carey was the parish clerk. Stephen was a very special man, a small man with black curly hair. He kept the church beautifully and attended to his duties in a very correct way. People liked and respected him. One of the things he taught me was the Morse code.
'I think McCourt was malicious in the way be portrayed Stephen. The only way to sustain that deliberate antagonism was malice, and if he had written it about some town in the middle of the Ukraine it might have been easy for us to read it.
'The book had a remarkable success and people are a bit intimidated by that. Certainly, some of the people who applauded it already had chips on their shoulder about Limerick. So this book was proof positive for them.
'Take the Redemptorists. Apart from the rigidity which was fashionable in religious circles at that time, they were very generous as well. They looked after the poor; they looked after the necessitous. They set up a credit union. A totally admirable body of men and this bloody blackguard attacks them.'