by William H. Benson
March 15, 2001
On St. Patrick’s Day we ordinarily think of green, an Emerald Island, shamrocks, four-leaf clovers, and leprechauns that dispense lucky charms. We understand that, except for the green, this is all largely a myth designed to cover over the actual desperate circumstances and the raw existence that many Irish experienced growing up.
A good example is Frank McCourt who wrote Angela’s Ashes, the story of his growing-up years. It not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Biography, but was on the best-seller list for two years. He tells a story of absolute deprivation and powerlessness as a child.
Born in New York City to Irish parents–Malachy and Angela McCourt, Frank was the oldest son of an ever-expanding family that soon included three brothers: Malachy Jr. and the twins–Eugene and Oliver, and also a sister–the baby Margaret.
The major problem with the family is that Dad is an alcoholic who refuses to ever hold a steady job and provide for his children. If he occasionally does get a paycheck, he spends it on his “pint” at the pub. Neither he nor Mam are prepared for family responsibilities.
One night the boys are awakened, and they soon realize that the baby Margaret has died during the night. Mam suffers a complete breakdown, and relatives back in Ireland send them enough money to return to Limerick, Ireland on the Shannon River.
Frank understands now that their return to Ireland was a big mistake. He begins his book with these words, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.”
In Ireland Dad continues his excessive drinking, singing foolish songs about the Irish patriots–Roddy McCorly and Kevin Barry, finding work and losing it days later, and going for long walks in the countryside. The family is forced to live in a deplorable home where water floods the house every winter. Sanitation is nonexistent, and typhoid and tuberculosis take a heavy toll.
Oliver, one of the twins, dies. The doctor explains to Dad and Mam that Oliver was sick and that he should have been in a hospital. They plead innocence that they did not know. And then weeks later the other twin, Eugene, also dies. Mam is devastated. Dad drinks himself into a stupor. Frankie, six-years-old, endures.
Two more boys are born into the family–Michael and Alphie.
Dad finally goes to England to work in the munitions factories with the promise that he will send money home every weekend. No money arrives, and the realization dawns that Dad has abandoned them. They are desperately hungry. Little Frankie understands that if he and Mam and his brothers are to avoid starving it is up to him, and this is the amazing point of the book. Even though he had such a poor role model for a dad, Frank bravely assumes the responsibility.
He drops out of school and gets a job delivering telegrams on a bike about the wet and slippery cobbled streets of Limerick. He also writes dunning letters for a loan shark, and he delivers newspapers for the protestant newspaper. Throughout his teen years he works and he saves, putting nickels and dimes into a savings account until at age nineteen, he has enough to buy a one-way ticket back to New York City. And so the book ends.
He puts those fifteen years growing up in Ireland into perspective. “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. 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. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version.”