Author and raconteur Frank McCourt, in his autobiography, “has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, transformed it into a triumphant work of art,” writes Pete Hamill.
Frank McCourt has written a triumphant book. His memoir of an Irish childhood is in turns hilarious, heart-scalding, bitterly angry. It takes us through a world of daily, repetitive, cyclical horror in “the lanes” of Limerick in the 1930s and 1940s, providing the sort of soul-murdering detail that no survivor can ever forget. But McCourt’s soul was not murdered. This book is the proof of his survival. This book, this affirmation of humane values in the face of all odds, is his triumph.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all,” he writes on the first page. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
The tone here is ironical, of course; irony, as practiced by the Jews and the Irish, can be wielded as a weapon, but it is above all a kind of armor. It is adapted as protection against all manner of psychic injury from enemies, from friendly fire, from self-inflicted wounds. Irony creates distance, a certain knowing detachment, while acknowledging membership in the club of human weakness and folly.
“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”
He is saying: this is a very old story. He is saying too that he is adding to a bookshelf that includes Christy Brown and Brendan Behan, among many others, but that he will tell the story anyway. God, after all, is in the details, and so is the Devil. And he declares his authority in the following blunt sentence:
“Above all — we were wet.”
They were wet upon the return to Ireland, in some unstated year in the early 1930s: four-year-old Frank, his younger brother Malachy, and his twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, who were less than a year old; his father, Malachy, from County Antrim in the North, and his mother, Angela, from the slums of Limerick City. They were heading home to Ireland in gloom and defeat. Malachy, the father, and Angela, the mother, had found their separate ways to New York years earlier, met at a party on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn, and were locked into marriage by the eminent arrival of Frank.
This is told with great good humor and affection for human weakness. Faced with marriage, Frank’s father borrowed money to escape to California; he got drunk instead and wound up on a bench in the station of the Long Island Railroad, the money gone, his life permanently changed.
There is affection too, for life, as Frank McCourt remembers it, in the tenement on Classon Avenue, the arrival of little Malachy, trips to the playground, the good heart of a Jewish neighbor, the birth of a sister named Margaret. And then he introduces, in an indirect way, the great chilly presence that haunts this book. Little Malachy is playing in front of the house when a dog is hit by a car. Malachy tries to help the dog and gets blood all over him. A neighbor tries to explain it to Malachy:
“She tells me the poor wee dog was hit by a car and he crawled all the way from the middle of the street before he died. Wanted to come home, the poor wee creature.”
This is the first of many deaths in this death-haunted book. In brilliantly realized prose, McCourt retrieves from memory the process of coming to consciousness. And death is crucial to the process. As the Depression worsens, poverty becomes a texture of daily life. Now twins are born. McCourt’s memory does not edit the story into sentimentality:
“We have to stay in the playground because the twins are sleeping and my mother says she’s worn out. Go out and play, she says, and give me some rest. Dad is out looking for a job again and sometimes he comes home with the smell of whiskey, singing all the songs about suffering Ireland. Mam gets angry and says Ireland can kiss her arse. He says that’s nice language to be using in front of the children and she says never mind the language, food on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland…”
Angela’s mood rises and falls with the father’s ability to put food on the table. He brings home money, and her mood is bright; she washes, cleans, sings a romantic ballad from her youth with a refrain that says, “Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss.” Most of the time, her mood falls into desperation, sorrow, indolence and inertia. The father brings home nothing, except his drunken commands to the older boys to die for Ireland, his songs about Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry, and his tales of mighty Cuchulainn. Then a girl, Margaret, is born.
“We all love Margaret. She has black curly hair and blue eyes like Mam and she waves her little hands and chirps like any little bird in the trees along Classon Avenue. Minnie says there was a holiday in heaven the day this child was made. Mrs. Leibowitz says the world never saw such eyes, such a smile, such happiness. She makes me dance, says Mrs. Leibowitz.”
Seven weeks later, Margaret is dead. A doctor comes to the flat and then says he’ll have to take the dead child with him for an examination.
“My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn’t have all day. When dad reaches for Margaret, my mother pulls away against the wall. She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning. Ah, no, ah, no, till Dad eases the baby from her arms. The doctor wraps Margaret completely in a blanket and my mother cries, oh Jesus, you’ll smother her. Jesus, Mary and Joseph help me. The doctor leaves. My mother turns to the wall and doesn’t make a move or sound. The twins are awake, crying with the hunger, but Dad stands in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling. His face is white and he beats on his thighs with his fists. He comes to the bed, puts his hand on my head. His hand is shaking. Francis, I’m going out for cigarettes.”
No room for irony here. More than half a century later, there is only the raw pain. And the remorseless details. Unlike many other men who went for cigarettes or milk or a loaf of bread during the Depression and never came back, the father returns two days later. Aunts and neighbors try to deal with the four children and the ruined, inconsolable mother. But America is over. Soon they are on their way back to Ireland, the money for the fare borrowed from Angela’s mother, and we are only on page 45. Up ahead, across the Atlantic, death is waiting.
In Eamon deValera’s Ireland, the McCourts find their way to the vile slums of Limerick, to rooms crawling with fleas and lice, to rotting houses slithery with rats. All the elements of what Oscar Lewis called “the culture of poverty” are present: heavy drinking, the loss of pride, growing dependence on the wan generosity of bureaucrats, the unraveling of family structure, a belief that the game is fixed and no effort can change anything. You can see it in the slums of Mexico City and in the projects of Detroit, but in Limerick in the 1930s, it was compounded by the power granted to the Church by deValera, and the insistence that no Irish person could be truly happy until dead.
And death was always in the lanes of Limerick. Frank and his brother Malachy see the twins die, first Oliver and then Eugene six months later. Pneumonia. Poverty. Days go by when the children literally starve, when there is not even bread to soak in water. The father keeps drinking. He drinks the few pounds he gets in wages. He drinks the dole money. He blames the deaths on the foggy airs of the River Shannon. He sings about Roddy McCorley. He sings about Kevin Barry. He tells tales of Cuchullain.
After the twins die, the McCourts move to a house on Roden Lane in Barrack Hill, two up and two down, six shillings a week, getting scraps of second-hand furniture through the St. Vincent De Paul Society, moving them through the streets in the pram no longer needed by the twins. The ground floor floods in the steady gray rains; they move upstairs to what the father dubs Italy, so sunny and dry, the downstairs being Ireland. The first night, a man goes by carrying a bucket to deposit in the outside lavatory.
“Mam goes to the door and says, why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory? He raises his cap to her. Your lavatory, missus? Ah, no. You’re making a bit of a mistake there, ha, ha. This is not your lavatory. Sure, isn’t this the lavatory for the whole lane. You’ll see passing your door here the buckets of eleven families and I can tell you it gets powerful here in the warm weather, very powerful altogether. ‘Tis December now, thank God, with a chill in the air and Christmas around the corner and the lavatory isn’t that bad, but the day will come when you’ll be calling for a gas mask. So, good night to you, missus and I hope you’ll be happy in your house.”
The odor of stewing excrement permeates the air, like a metaphor for Ireland itself. Somehow, while the father sinks deeper into the delusions of the pubs and the mother slides into hysteria and self-pity, Frank gets educated. Most of the kids are cruel and parochial, but not all; most of the schoolmasters are ignorant fools, but not all. Frank struggles against what I’ve called elsewhere the Green Ceiling; that repulsive, self-limiting strain in Irish life that discourages all dreamers, all those attempting excellence, with the question: Who do you think you are? And he burns with a need to live.
“The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.”
Another child is born, this one named Michael. “Dad says he found Michael on the seventh step of the stairs to Italy. He says that’s what you have to watch out for when you ask for a new baby, the Angel on the Seventh Step.” In the dark of the night, Frank talks to the angel, but gets no answers. When inspectors arrive to approve an increase in charity, one looks around at the decay and filth, inhales the stink of shit and mutters about Calcutta…nothing changes. In that Ireland, you suffered your way into heaven, where, of course, the language was Irish.
Frank did have some luck. He started reading to a blind man named Timoney, who had broken out of the smothering Irish parochialism by serving with the British army in India. Frank asks him if he wants to be read the Limerick Leader…Timoney, perhaps the only self-professed Buddhist in town, roars:
“No, not the bloody Limerick Leader. I wouldn’t wipe the hole of my arse with the Limerick Leader. There’s a book over there on the table, Gulliver’s Travels. That’s not what I want you to read. Look in the back for another thing. A Modest Proposal. Read that to me. It begins, ‘It is a melancholy object to those who walk…’”
It’s a marvelous moment, introducing a boy to one of the greatest of all Irishmen, at a moment in the island’s history that would have looked all too familiar to the corrosive eye of the Dean. Ireland was still eating its young. It ate some of Frank McCourt’s friends. It almost ate him. Pneumonia didn’t get him, and neither did tuberculosis, which was general in the slums. But typhoid almost finished him off. He was ten years old. Sleeping and bleeding. From the nose, from the rectum. The regular doctor was away. A substitute arrived, reeking of whiskey, and told them Frank had a bad cold. Days passed, full of sleeping and bleeding, before the regular doctor returned.
“He feels my forehead, rolls up my eyelids, turns me over to see my back, picks me up and runs to his motor car. Mam runs after him and he tells her I have typhoid fever. Mam cries, Oh, God, oh, God, am I to lose the whole family? Will it ever end?” No. In the ghost-ridden Fever Hospital, that relic of the Famine, Frank befriends a girl in the next room, a girl he cannot see because of strict rules enforced by nuns. An illiterate porter brings the boy an enormous gift: Shakespeare. Only a few lines, buried in a history of England. But enough to burn into the boy’s mind forever. The unseen girl teaches him some poetry, and then they are discovered, and separated. Ten-year-olds, committing the terrible sin of speaking poetry. The girl dies, of course, on a forbidden trip to the lavatory.
There is much more: working, begging, stealing. In the filthy precincts of the lanes, Frank contracts conjunctivitis and just escapes blindness. He discovers sex, soccer, friendships, movies — and yearns for the America he’d left behind. His father goes off to England to find war work; he sends no money home and the children scream from hunger. He comes home once, full of whiskey and bullshit, then returns to England for good. Finally the destitute McCourts are evicted from the verminous house on Roden Lane and move to the home of a cousin. His grandmother dies of pneumonia, his uncle and aunt die of consumption. When, at 13, he discovers that his mother is all too human, Frank leaves the cousin’s home to live with an uncle.
“He says there’s no food in the house, not a scrap of bread, and when he falls asleep, I take the greasy newspaper from the floor. I lick the front page, which is all advertisements for films and dances in the city. I lick the headlines. I lick the great attacks of Patton and Montgomery in France and Germany. I lick the war in the Pacific. I lick the obituaries and the sad memorial poems, the sports pages, the market prices of eggs, butter and bacon. I suck the paper till there isn’t a smidgen of grease.”
Delivering telegrams for a living, he falls in love with a young woman named Theresa. They make love. Over and over again, affirming life. But she has consumption too, and then she dies. Filled with guilt, believing that he has sent her to damnation, Frank slinks into the graveyard and waits until the mourners leave.
“Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can’t understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left, I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again…”
Evelyn Waugh once said that there were only two destinations available to the Irish: Hell or the United States. Frank chose to return to the land of his birth. He went to work at 14, delivering those telegrams, worked at Eason’s, saved, stole a bit, and by the time he was 19, had the fare. Then he was gone, leaving behind the rain, the rats, the stink of shit, the corrupting hypocrisies, the invincible delusions, the wormy sentimentalities. A familiar story, except for the details. And the details are everything.
Frank McCourt doesn’t tell us what he found in America. Or when his marvelous brother, Malachy, followed him to the golden shore. But it is clear from this book that as Faulkner said somewhere, the past is not the past, it hasn’t even passed. It is with us always because we are what we were. One function of autobiography is to find some meaning in one’s own life. When practiced by politicians and generals, it is almost always a brief for the defense, an advertisement for the self, a blathering exercise in publicity. But in the hands of an artist equipped with a ruthless memory, the remembering is the meaning, a defiant blow against the general amnesia of modern life.
Frank McCourt has examined his ferocious childhood, walked around it, relived it, and with skill and care and generosity of heart, has transformed it into a triumphant work of art. This book will be read when all of us are gone.