By Jody Moylan
Last week, in the course of tidying my house, two things occurred that may have been incidental; a simple coincidence and nothing more. In the first instance, I found behind my desk a print–out of an essay I’d written last year for an Irish history module on the value, or not, of first-hand accounts as historical sources. I remembered it being an assignment that had interested me, so I sat down to re-read it. Areas covered were those we’d been learning about, like Bureau of Military History statements and old newspaper reports. Also covered was the subject of memoirs, and how seriously we should take these books as evidence of what actually happened. Two books we’d looked at were Gerry Adams’ autobiography Before the Dawn and Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes. Reading the assignment reminded me again that I must pick up a copy of McCourt’s book; a tome I’d borrowed off my sister many years ago, had subsequently lost, and borrowed again off the library for the essay, only to have to return it.
When I went back to tidying up, I faced straightening out a book shelf I hadn’t touched in ages and, lo and behold, I found at the bottom, turned back-to-front, the same old copy of Angela’s Ashes I thought I’d already lost. Suitably surprised, I opened the book and began to read it, while also picking up the assignment to compare exactly how it had been criticised. The book began, sure enough, with all the ‘cliché’ that Roy Foster said it had (in a critical essay he’d written). Yes, McCourt does indeed tell us on page one that all you’ve heard before about Ireland was true in the case of himself, and his childhood: ‘… 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 years.’ Foster reminds us that this is how it is going to be, right the way through; enough sentimentality and cliché to sink a coffin ship. Interestingly, or tellingly, by the time ‘Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 it had been ‘flying off the shelves — especially in the US’. Perhaps it was the story of the Irish exodus to America, unfiltered, that struck a chord with so many descendents and ex-pats. Or perhaps, as Foster put it, it was a story distorted and doctored in all sorts of ways in order to appeal to hearts, minds and wallets.
Noted in the criticism is something that might seem unimportant at first glance: rain is incessant throughout McCourt’s memoir. Something I’d read before struck me about this. It was on the point of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could never figure out how Fitzgerald conveyed the atmosphere in his masterpiece. It seemed to me to have been a magical quality that arose with the accumulation of great text. At least I believed that until I read an essay about the book, an essay that pointed out a pattern that seemed incidental — a point of detail and no more; it was always raining in The Great Gatsby, important scene after important scene. It was a detail that was meant to go into the reader’s subconsciousness, but stick there, and shape your feeling towards the book and everything in it. In other words, it was a simple literary trick. Foster in his essay goes on to slice up more of these ‘truths’ in McCourt’s book.
There is, for instance ‘a scene straight out of [Joyce’s] Portrait of an Artist’. Another, of a doomed love affair ‘is reminiscent of Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s autobiography, All for Hecuba’. There are also ‘high-flown’ nods to Dostoevsky and Dickens, while the ‘notoriously unreliable’ autobiographies of Sean O’Casey are also reaped. It might be the truth that McCourt’s own bookshelves had heavily influenced his ‘memoir’, but it’s no crime; all a publisher wants is something that reads well and sells even better. Angela’s Ashes sold millions of copies off the back of all those readers believing every word of it. There is much truth to all those Irish clichés, after all. What critics like Roy Foster found so surprising was that each and every one of them could land so perfectly together on one rain–sodden tenement doorstep in Limerick, once-upon-a-time.
In a rave, celebratory review, on its release in 1996, Nuala O’Faolain said the book had given Ireland, in McCourt, ‘our first Dickens’. Though unintended, the comparison with the great fiction writer was, perhaps, apt. But maybe her sentiment was right, for even if the details were fabricated, incidental, and oddly coincidental, it may all have been done for the very worthy intention, lo and behold, of telling a good story.