Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 75 (August/September 1997): 68-70.
Angela’s Ashes. By Frank McCourt. Scribner. 364 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Christopher Shannon
Early last November, high in the Catskills, I attended a celebration of Irish music and dance, the Green Linnet Twentieth Anniversary Festival. Green Linnet is a surprisingly successful record company and organized the event to promote the sale of its tapes and CDs, advertising the weekend in the spirit of secular ecumenism that gladly welcomes the credit cards of every race, creed, and color. But they forgot, perhaps, that this was an Irish party, and nothing Irish ever happens without some kind of fight. The culture war that America has exported to Ireland played itself out quietly in two talks delivered on the margins of the music and dancing: one by the writer Frank McCourt, the other by the priest Father Charlie Coen.
A first-time author at the age of sixty-six, Frank McCourt earned a spot on the Green Linnet roster thanks to the astonishing success of Angela’s Ashes, a memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn and Limerick that has spent months on the best-seller lists and recently won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. McCourt has spent most of his unpublished adult life living in the shadow of his brother Malachy, a New York celebrity known as a hard-drinking, Irish literary raconteur, a modernist stage-Irish act of the type perfected by Brendan Behan. McCourt’s own public statements, and the initial critical reception of the book, seemed to place it firmly within the tradition of Irish modernist anti-Catholicism. The Irish masses have traditionally not taken kindly to Irish modernism’s take on Ireland: the plays of John Synge and Sean O’Casey occasionally met with public riots when they premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theater. In the spirit of riots past, a resident of Limerick is reported to have informed the McCourt brothers, "There are people in this town who would joyfully slit yer effin’ throats."
In fact, despite the pious proclamations of the Irish Tourist Board, modern Irish writing remains where it has always been: a long, long way from the spirit of traditional Irish music. I was curious as to how McCourt’s anti-Irish Irishman act would play at a weekend devoted to the celebration of Irish culture. McCourt’s reading began with a laundry list of Irish pathologies: the drunken father, the helpless mother, the pompous priest, the bullying schoolmaster. As he continued, however, it oddly began to appear that the real blame for his miserable Irish Catholic childhood lay with the weather: "Above all—we were wet." The rain "created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges." I had not read the book, and nothing in the reviews prepared me for McCourt’s reading. A friend who had read the book was equally surprised. What she, and many reviewers, had thought of as a serious expression of "raw pain" now sounded more like a comic defiance of death.
Having attended McCourt’s reading, I can only conclude that the critical reception of Angela’s Ashes says more about the expectations of "serious" Irish writing than about the book itself. Serious Irish writing must involve a solitary hero coming to self-consciousness, throwing off the dead weight of tradition (especially Catholicism), and having sex happily ever after. Critics have mistakenly read the book through the lenses of modernist sociology and psychology. Tough-guy New York newspaperman Pete Hamill praised the book as a scathing indictment of the "culture of poverty" (yes, he really uses this phrase) fostered by "Eamon de Valera’s Ireland," while the literary critic Denis Donoghue, writing in the New York Times, presented the book in much the same way (though he clearly lacks Hamill’s enthusiasm for the story).
It is true that McCourt refuses no gruesome detail in his account of the poverty he experienced as a child in Limerick. But I nonetheless found Angela’s Ashes to be the most refreshingly unsociological account of poverty I have ever read. Like pre-modern folk tales, McCourt’s stories present extreme suffering more as a fact of life than a problem to be solved. The childlike voice of the narrator invests poverty with an almost natural quality akin to the weather. People certainly complain about the weather, but they do not criticize it.
I think Hamill, Donoghue, and nearly every other of the American critics who praised Angela’s Ashes have equally misread the book as a chronicle of a young man’s liberation from a "smothering Irish parochialism." In what is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, the narrator never really shows psychological development. Young Frank discovers Swift and Shakespeare, but reading plays almost no part in the story. Young Frank discovers sex, but sexual awakening appears simply as an awakening to sex, not to some salvific knowledge. In a world where nothing is hidden, nothing can be revealed. The book does conclude with a pseudo-Joycean sexual epiphany, but it appears slapped on as a matter of convention---as that which is expected of an Irish writer. Refreshingly, the book offers not another Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but a fascinating and straightforward Portrait of the Young Man as a Young Man.
This strength is also its weakness. Angela’s Ashes leaves one with a sense of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. The book offers a lively sampling of urban folk stories held together only by a sentimental rejection of all things Irish. In this way, it stands as a kind of evil twin to Green Linnet Records, which offers a lively sampling of great musical stories held together only by a sentimental affirmation of all things Irish. Angela’s Ashes and Green Linnet Records both speak of a culture still alive with stories but lacking a story. For most of the twentieth century, Ireland has had a story---a cultural story of tradition against modernity; a political story of nationalism and agrarian republicanism against colonialism; and above all a religious story of Catholicism against Protestantism. These three dimensions of Ireland’s story came together in the symbolic politics of the Easter Rising of 1916, which offered to the Irish a link between Ireland’s secular struggle for independence and the sacred story of Jesus Christ. I held little hope of hearing this story in the Catskills. And then I went to Mass on Sunday.
Even the most secular Irish festival has to have a Mass, if only for the old-timers. Presiding was Fr. Charlie Coen, a Galway native who has served as a parish priest in the greater New York area since his ordination in 1968. Fr. Coen also happens to be a world-class concertina player, with several recordings released through Green Linnet Records. As a Green Linnet artist, Fr. Coen was a natural choice to say the Mass. As a priest, he could not have been further from the spirit of Green Linnet Records.
Fr. Coen is an Irish storyteller who dares to tell the Story. He began his sermon with some good-natured sarcasm concerning the medieval kitsch of the Friar Tuck Inn in which the festival was held. He then placed himself in the role of court chaplain. In medieval times, he told us, a king would often have a personal chaplain for his court. The court chaplain had to be careful---if he said anything to offend the king, he might lose his job. Fr. Coen then proceeded to give a sermon that would have cost a court chaplain not only his job, but his life.
I cannot do justice to the grace and humor with which Fr. Coen delivered his hard message. I can only summarize the content of his sermon: "No one enjoys playing a tune or singing a song more than I. We should all be grateful to Green Linnet Records for providing the opportunity for us to come together in celebration of Irish music and dance. I fear, however, that Irish culture is in great danger. Irish people have turned away from the faith that sustained them through centuries of oppression. Yes, priests and nuns have done many bad things, but they have done much good as well. When I was a boy in Ireland, people were poor, but they were happy. Today’s affluent generation in Ireland and America gloat over the scandals that have rocked the Church and boast of their new-found freedom. This freedom has not brought happiness, only broken families and broken lives. This freedom leads to death, as witnessed most recently by President Clinton’s veto of the ban on partial-birth abortions."
I have never heard the battle lines of today’s culture war drawn so eloquently. Appropriately enough, Fr. Coen left the last word on this war to the language of song. In response to repeated requests, Fr. Coen consented to sing a song before he gave the final blessing at the end of the Mass. It began simply enough, a nice melody telling a story of lost love. It soon became clear, however, that the song was addressed from a father to a daughter: "One lovely year is all we had, until the sickness came / And stole the roses from her cheeks, my tears they fell like rain / For nine long months she carried you, but in the end she died / She chose to go that you might live / Long, long before your time."
The Irish-American press has been tripping all over itself with praise for Frank McCourt. I have not come across a single review of the Green Linnet weekend that even mentions Fr. Coen. For those who envision a brave new post-Christian Ireland, I offer the contrast of Coen and McCourt. Fr. Coen tells a story of death that affirms life; Frank McCourt tells a story of death that ultimately affirms only Frank McCourt.
Christopher Shannon is Assistant to the Curator of the Motion Picture Department at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and author of Conspicuous Consumption (Johns Hopkins University Press).