In 1941, Flann O’Brien published one of Ireland’s great comic masterpieces, “An Béal Bocht,” or “The Poor Mouth,” a reference to an Irish expression: “an béal bocht a chur ort” (“to put on the poor mouth”). The expression is a pejorative and refers primarily to the paupers during the time of the Great Famine who would exaggerate their troubles and woes in order to evoke sympathy or charity: an Irish widow who might make the claim that nine of her children are dead from hunger and her husband dead from consumption (and would you please spare me a penny for my troubles) would be said to be putting on the poor mouth.
It’s a useful expression, particularly when applied to the pre-modernism movement in Irish literature (not to be confused with Anglicized Irish literature, such as that of Stoker or Wilde). The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the country’s influx of Irish Gaelic writing and much of it was devoted to chronicling death, the fazing out of the old ways, and of course the Famine (as well as more general hunger woes). Tomás Ó Criomhthain (or, O’Crohan) and his memoirs “The Islandman” is a principle writer of this genre, greatly admired by O’Brien who nevertheless used much of the book’s content and refrain: “for our likes will not be seen again” to fit his parody. A cruel twist of his country’s greatest disgrace and misfortune? Perhaps, though I consider it not so much a cruelty as it is a chastisement and a critique of Ireland’s backwards thinking and revenge mongering populous. One cannot properly get over the past until he can laugh at it. To do anything else would be to stifle any form of progress.
This past week has been cool, cloudy, and raining—proper Irish weather O’Brien might contend. I’ve spent much of it indoors reading Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” which my mother has been recommending me for over a year. To be honest, I’ve been purposefully neglecting it ever since it was first mentioned to me. Its status as a New York Times Bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner and its descriptions as “a joy to read” and “modern classic” made me hesitant. American readers and airport terminal bookstores distrust foreign writers unless they write genre fictions. What’s more, the memoirs of an unknown writer who doesn’t even profess a rags-to-riches story shouldn’t, by modern standards, be a national sensation (even if it was published in the nineties).
Rather than call “Angela’s Ashes” a literary anomaly, I would prefer ‘publishing anomaly’ because the literature, when we get down to it, isn’t all that great, nor is it unique.
Francis (Frank) McCourt, deceased as of 2009, was born in New York in August of 1930, the eldest of what would become five younger siblings, three of which died before the author turned five. His father, a riotous drunk and ex-IRA man, came from County Antrim in the north of Ireland (protestant and British-occupied) while his Roman Catholic mother came from the southern County Limerick. Shortly after Frank’s birth, the McCourts moved back to Limerick where Frank’s father failed to hold a job and ended up drinking his wages away from those he did find, instead of providing for his family. By the time Frank turned twelve, his father had gone to England ostensibly to earn better wages but in reality to drink more lavishly. While his mother begged for wages, Frank performed odd jobs until he turned nineteen, when he left Ireland for good and returned to New York. The memoirs end with a “’Tis” from Frank, affirming a comment that America was a “great country altogether.”
This is all the book gives in terms of plot, though it’d hardly be fair to judge McCourt’s life in such banal standards. McCourt excels in chronicling the small events of his life, both tragic and comic, and the people and family responsible for them. The people and relatives are many (what else could one expect from Irish Catholic families?) and similar more often than not, yet each one appears like a character or a family member we have met in our own lifetimes. There are the catty aunts, the gossipy neighbors, the simple and lovable uncle, and the grumpy, traditionalist grandmother, who inspires this memorable exchange on Frank’s First Communion Day:
“Come here till I comb your hair, said Grandma. Look at that mop, it won’t lie down. You didn’t get that hair from my side of the family. That’s that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That’s the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper Limerickman you wouldn’t have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.
She spat twice on my head.
Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head?
If you have anything to say, shut up. A little spit won’t kill you. Come on, we’ll be late for Mass.”
Most of McCourt’s family either spurn his mother’s pleas for help or else grudgingly bestow what little they have: pennies, stale bread, a place to sleep. Frank is far from ignorant of his family’s condition, yet his memory filters everything through the simple yet perceptive lenses of childhood. Here is the author recalling his schoolboy days:
“They (schoolmasters) hit you if you can’t say your name in Irish, if you can’t say the Hail Mary in Irish, if you can’t ask for the lavatory pass in Irish…
One master will hit you if you don’t know that Eamon De Valera is the greatest man that ever lived. Another master will hit you if you don’t know that Michael Collins was the greatest man that ever lived.
Mr. Benson hates America and you have to remember to hate America or he’ll hit you.
Mr. O’Dea hates England and you have to remember to hate England or he’ll hit you.
If you ever say anything good about Oliver Cromwell they’ll all hit you.”
Those familiar with Irish history can perhaps sympathize with the schoolmasters’ prejudices. Less than 100 years prior the Famine killed the country; fifty years prior and Ireland’s shining home rule leader was killed by politicians and hell raising Fathers; twenty years prior and Ireland killed herself in the Civil War.
For the better, most historical references escape McCourt as he works to capture what moments and atmospheres from his childhood he can. There are no direct references or angry dinner conversations over or about Parnell or home rule. There are no remembrances of nights spent hovering over the radio listening for news about the Allied Invasion or the bombings in England (the author lets his reader know that his family didn’t have a radio). Those references to De Valera and Michael Collins are pretty much the only ones in the book, excluding the rare passing comment by a drunk or a family member (often both). McCourt’s life is situated solely on its own concerns.
This would be a problem for most other memoirs. The act of remembering an earlier life is about more than just the singular life: it is a process that begs examination into the culture and politics of the times in order to discover how the life was made. We the readers connect with characters based on relatable, relative details: a character in a modern novel will elicit a certain response from most readers if his political alignment is conservative Republican or liberal Democrat. Historical relevance and how (and if) the author makes use of it is also one of the ways a critic gauges whether or not the book is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Much of the greatness of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” lies in how the novel chronicles the years 1805 through the 1820’s, though the author himself said that it was “not a novel, even less…a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Joyce’s “Ulysses” takes a much more specific historical approach in giving the majority of the book’s action in one day: June 16, 1904. If we were to look at modern literary memoirs and their handling of current times, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part “My Struggle” affect a Joycean and Proustian influence: an ordinary man writing about an ordinary life and ordinary times combined with a hypnotic, magnetic prose, both parts digressive and concentrative, incredibly real and sometimes unnatural.
McCourt succeeds by leaving unsaid the historical details that need not be restated, focusing his energies instead on the idiosyncrasies of his life as an Irish pauper. The residents are his supreme achievement: equal parts jingoistic, patriotic, mournful, and drunk. McCourt’s humor is best when he simply lets them speak for themselves, whether it be about pests and how to contain them:
“A man on a bicycle stopped and wanted to know why Dad was beating on that mattress. Mother o’God, he said, I never heard such a cure for fleas. Do you know that if a man could jump like a flea one leap would take him halfway to the moon? The thing to do is this, when you go back inside with that mattress stick it on the bed upside down and that will confuse the little buggers. They won’t know where they are and they’ll be biting the mattress or each other, which is the best cure of all. After they bite the human being they have the frenzy, you know, for there are other fleas around them that also bit the human being and the smell of the blood is too much for them and they go out of their minds. They’re a right bloody torment an’ I should know for didn’t I grow up in Limerick, down in the Irishtown, an’ the fleas there were so plentiful an’ forward they’d sit on the toe of your boot an’ discuss Ireland’s woeful history with you. It is said there were no fleas in ancient Ireland, that they were brought in be the English to drive us out of our wits entirely, an’ I wouldn’t put it pas the English. An’ isn’t it a very curious thing that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland an’ the English brought in the fleas. For centuries Ireland was a lovely peaceful place, snakes gone, not a fela to be found. You coul stroll the four green fields of Ireland without fear of snakes an’ have a good night’s sleep with no fleas ot bother you. Them snakes were doin’ no harm, they wouldn’t bother you unless you cornered them an’ they lived off other creatures that move under bushes an’ such places, whereas the flea suks the blood from you mornin’ noon an’ night for that’s his nature an’ he can’t help himself…Good luck yo you. I have to be careful standin’ here for if one of them gets on my clothes I might as well invite his whole family home. They multiply faster than Hindus.”
Or about politics:
“The men in the pub are talking about the terrible state of the world and how in God’s name Hermann Goering escaped the hangman an hour before the hanging. The Yanks are over there in Nuremberg declaring they don’t know how the Nazi bastard hid that pill. Was it in his ear? Up his nostril? Up his arse? Surely the Yanks looked in every hole and cranny of every Nazi they captured and still Hermann wiped their eye. There you are. It shows you can sail across the Atlantic, land in Normandy, bomb Germany off the face of the earth, but when all’s said and done they can’t find a little pill planted in the far reaches of Goering’s fat arse.”
With jewels like these, it’s easy for the reader to get carried away in his praise of McCourt’s book, and yet these jewels are hardly anything more than common pub talk on Ireland’s woeful history, expertly reported but unoriginal in the long run. Most Irish writers have wits equally sharp, if not sharper. O’Brien does it better and more concisely in “The Poor Mouth,” which was, coincidentally, published in English the same year as “Angela’s Ashes.”
Little has been said about how McCourt handles his tragedy. Little need be said. His story of immigrating to America is shared by hundreds of thousands who underwent, or whose ancestors underwent, something similar. The Irish diaspora shares the contrastive qualities of being the single most alienating and uniting event in recent history. Citizens in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Central America celebrate a culture shared by virtue of (mostly) one calamity in the years 1845-1852. It is the most adopted culture in America (Irish pubs, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Celtic musicians from Bono to the Dropkick Murphys on radio top hits) and one of the few cultures with a steadily rising interest. All of this is good for the writer who wishes to reach a wide audience, yet it makes his task of originality more difficult. Popularity only breeds more popularity. One is far more likely to find a Famine book in Barnes & Noble (Mary Pat Kelly, Elizabeth Byrd, and Patricia Falvey are just some authors that come to mind) than, say, a novel about an indigenous American during the colonization of the early seventeenth century.
Though “Angela’s Ashes” is certainly not a Famine book, this does not preclude it from sounding like one.
“The shirt I wore to bed is the shirt I wear to school,” writes McCourt. “I wear it day in and day out. It’s the shirt for football, for climbing walls, for robbing orchards. I go to Mass and the Confraternity in that shirt and people sniff the air and move away. If Mam gets a docket for a new one at the St. Vincent de Paul the old shirt is promoted to towel and hangs damp on the chair for months.”
This is subtle tragedy—the lack of basic human resources—and adequately written, but it details a picture that fails to shock readers, most of whom have grown used to pictures of starvation and depravation. An hour of watching CNN or any other news network is able to elicit more horrific images than any book. One would be better satisfied in turning to an earlier Irish writer like Tomas O’Crohan should he want original though similar details. “The Islandman” is one of Ireland’s least known classics and also one of it’s most beautiful. Writing from the Gaelic (or Irish)-speaking Great Blasket Island at the end of the nineteenth century, O’Crohan’s memoirs chronicles a life spent during the transition from ancient living to modern living. What makes the book tragic is the reader’s knowledge that O’Crohan’s mean way of living, beautiful in its simplicity, is fading away even as he writes, never to return and unlikely to be remembered. It’s hardly an easy life, granted: O’Crohan is twin parts amazed and skeptical when he receives his first pair of shoes, yet it’s authentic in what it knows and couldn’t care less about what it doesn’t (English, for one. O’Crohan’s story was translated by Doctor Robin Flower, who wrote his own account of days spent on the Great Blasket, called “The Western Island.”) By historical rights, it belongs in a museum; instead, it rests on a bookshelf.
With writers like O’Crohan and O’Brien, and a considerable amount of Famine and diaspora literature, we don’t really need “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt’s story deserves to be told, the same as everyone else’s, yet much of its praise is unwarranted and superfluous. It will make you laugh; it probably won’t make you cry. It is, like all things, just one more story.