Frank McCourt died yesterday. This was written recently when news broke that he was ill.
I’m sorry to learn how unwell Frank McCourt is. He seems to be on the last lap, but at least he isn’t lingering, and that’s the way he’d have wanted it.
As he told the Limerick Leader a couple of years ago: I wouldn’t like to be incapacitated, or handicapped, or die of a slow disease. I don’t want to be beholden to anyone or have anyone wiping my mouth if I’m drooling. I’d just like to go. I don’t want funeral services or memorials. Let them scatter my ashes over the Shannon and pollute the river.
Hear hear, Frank.
When I read Angela’s Ashes, thirteen years ago, I was struck by its rawness. I didn’t recognise my home town of Limerick in it but perhaps that was because Frank came from an earlier generation. The tenements of Arthur’s Quay, so horribly described in the book, were no different to the tenements of north inner-city Dublin: Gardiner Street, Mountjoy Square and Summerhill.
Former Georgian palaces were abandoned by the boundlessly-wealthy British aristocracy and their liveried servants, only to be taken over by our own avaricious, red-nosed landlord class. Irish rack-renters with no scruples, no ethics and no morals.
The Limerick McCourt described was a society divided and an underclass crushed by the indifference of the elite. Priests, doctors and civil servants ruled the lives of poor people, herding them, robbing them, dismissing them. He offended people in this town, because his book named names and I often wondered why so many were upset, but as time goes by, I think I can see why.
It’s because the Irish people were fed a steady diet of propaganda, reminding them how virtous they were, how morally superior, and how free. Never mind that your children are starving and in rags. You’re free. They were fed a diet of prayers and dead patriots who gave their lives to create the demented little theocratic bubble that Ireland became in the Thirties and Forties. And when they saw their names in McCourt’s book, they couldn’t escape the fact that they were there. They knew about the insanity of the Arch-Confraternity. They knew about the lunatic religious fervour that overtook the country. They knew about the squalor. They knew about the cruelty man taking children from their homes. They may well have been victims of the appalling system that gripped the country, but they were still present, and while Frank McCourt might have fluffed some of the details in his memoir, he captured the essence of the times.
Poverty. Religious insanity. Intolerance. Disease. Abusive clergy. Mass emigration. Propaganda.
Was this the legacy of Irish independence?
Control of the people by a sexually disordered and avaricious church? Was this freedom?
Was it freedom that families lived in squalor in four-storeyed slums, starving and rat-infested, while children suffered rape and beatings in church-run child-prisons?
These are the questions that Frank McCourt’s book has prompted in my mind over the years, and by writing it, he’s done us all a great service — even those who hated what he wrote.
And today, is it the legacy of independence that an Irish government would hand over our natural resources to a multinational energy company for nothing?
Is it the legacy of independence that our new national children’s hospital will be given to the same institution that abused so many children in its control?
Is it the legacy of independence that in 2009 we have a new law making it a criminal offence to laugh at religious lunatics?
What a victory Patrick Pearse won in 1916 and what a wonderful breakthrough for human freedom we achieved in 1922.
Our people might have been starving, and our children might have been raped by priests and monks, but at least we were free of the old oppressor. Maybe we’re still under the control of religious maniacs, but at least we’re free. Isn’t freedom a wonderful thing?
Frank McCourt leaves this country as he found it: screwed.