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Limerick, Rising From 'Ashes'
A bittersweet memoir is luring people to this once-grim Irish city. They're in for a surprise.

By K.C. Summers
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page E01
   


Limerick's Windmill Street is a postman's nightmare. Its small, two-story stucco row houses are numbered 25, 2, 41, 1, 42 . . . there are three No. 1's alone. But the house I'm looking for doesn't seem to have a number at all. Painted pale yellow with a green door, its only distinctive feature is a stuffed Garfield the Cat stuck in the upstairs window.

It's an ordinary house in an ordinary city, so unexceptional that no one would give it a second glance. Yet millions of people know it intimately, because it's one of the places Frank McCourt, author of the best-selling memoir "Angela's Ashes," lived when he was growing up poor and desperate in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, during the 1930s and '40s. This is what it was like on the McCourts' first night in this house:

Dad and Mam lay at the head of the bed, Malachy and I at the bottom, the twins wherever they could find comfort . . . Then Eugene sat up, screaming, tearing at himself . . . when Dad leaped from the bed and turned on the gaslight we saw the fleas, leaping, jumping, fastened to our flesh. We slapped at them and slapped but they hopped from body to body, hopping, biting. We tore at the bites till they bled. We jumped from the bed, the twins crying, Mam moaning, Oh, Jesus, will we have no rest!

It's hard to reconcile the misery depicted in McCourt's book with that Garfield up in the window. But in a way, the stuffed cat says it all. The terrible days of life in Limerick that McCourt wrote about so eloquently are gone, and good riddance to them. Yet it's a measure of how moving his book is -- and how much things have changed in Ireland -- that people are coming back to Limerick to see how it was.

Frank McCourt, with his evocative, funny-sad memoir, has done the unimaginable: He's turned Limerick into a hot tourist destination. This is a bit like drawing tourists to the United States to spend a week in Toledo. Unfairly or not, Ireland's fourth-largest city has long had a reputation as a gritty, somewhat grim place, with few attractions for visitors beyond its proximity to Shannon International Airport. People tended to use it as a starting and ending point when they visited Ireland, but few spent any time there.

It's easy to see why. This isn't the Ireland of leprechauns and blarney stones; it's a working city -- computers, manufacturing -- without the slick trappings of tourism. Which is precisely why it's worth visiting. It hasn't been Disneyfied. There are no Frank McCourt T-shirt shops. The little yellow house on Windmill Street hasn't been turned into an Angela's Ashes B&B; Yet.

"Angela's Ashes" long ago went from being merely popular to something of a cult object. It's been widely praised for its luminous prose, selling close to 2 million copies in little over a year, and topping the bestseller lists since its publication. It's won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was voted Book of the Year for 1997 by the American Booksellers Association.

The book is not for the squeamish. In fact, as McCourt says, it's a wonder that he survived to tell the tale. He was born in New York of immigrant parents who moved the family back to Ireland when he was 4. Big mistake. They had already lost one child in New York, and two more would die in Limerick. The father drank away his wages (when he worked at all), the mother begged for charity and the children mostly fended for themselves as the family moved from one squalid, flea-ridden flat to another. A number of villains emerge: members of the Catholic clergy, sadistic schoolmasters, callous social workers and -- not the least -- "the gray city of Limerick and the river that kills."

It sounds horrible, depressing, nothing you'd willingly want to read about -- much less visit. But people are. "Throngs of them," sighs the bartender at the venerable W.J. South pub, newly famous as the favorite watering hole of Frank McCourt's father. "Busloads of them."

"Oh yes indeed, it's been quite popular," says Breda Bourke, supervisor of the Limerick tourist information office. "It started off with Americans and now we're getting a lot of inquiries from the Germans and the Japanese. It's very, very popular. It's bringing people to the city that we might not otherwise have."

Liam O'Hanlon, chairman of the Limerick Tourist Trade Association, has led walking tours of the city for years. Until recently, his routine was unvarying: King John's Castle, St. Mary's Cathedral and other highlights of Limerick's medieval district. "It was the historical things that people were interested in," he says. "Now, suddenly they're walking in with `Angela's Ashes,' wanting to know where the lanes are. They expect to see what Frank McCourt has written about -- but what he's written about no longer exists."

Well, not exactly. In addition to South's pub, quite a few sites from the book remain, including the Leamy National School, the People's Park, a slew of exquisite old churches where the young Frank frequently sought refuge, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society town house where his mother, Angela, queued up for charity. But as O'Hanlon emphasizes to visitors, the slums McCourt described so unflinchingly are gone, cleared away during the 1950s and '60s.

The Irish economy is booming, thanks in part to the recent influx of European Union funds, and Limerick is no exception. An urban renewal project begun in the 1980s has had dramatic results. Construction is everywhere -- hotels, apartment blocks, pubs, restaurants. Blocks of once-elegant, 19th-century Georgian row houses are being lovingly restored. There's an undeniable air of prosperity. On a bright fall weekend, the downtown streets are jammed, the shops and restaurants packed.

Down by Arthur's Quay on the banks of the Shannon, there are posh stores, antiques shops and a gleaming new tourist information center. The prestigious Hunt Museum, with an impressive collection of antiquities, recently moved here from its former digs on the outskirts of the city. Lovely old churches abound, and they're not even locked, should you be seized by a sudden desire to confess your sins.

When the walls of Limerick were torn down and the city was rebuilt in the mid-18th century, this area became the city's focal point. By the time Frank McCourt was knocking around town, the elegant Victorian buildings had become tenements and Arthur's Quay was known as a desperate place.

Everyone in Limerick knows these houses are old and might fall down at any minute. Mam often says, I don't want any of ye going down to Arthur's Quay and if I find ye there I'll break yeer faces. The people down there are wild and ye could get robbed and killed.

Now the pendulum has swung again, and the upscale shopping mall there is full of Nike-clad teenagers and their equally well-dressed elders. You can buy a boombox, or a bottle of fine wine, or a hand-knit sweater to die for. In Quinnsworth's, a supermarket as bright and garish as any Giant or Safeway, I wandered down aisles stocked with 12 different kinds of marmalade and more brands of chocolate than I even knew existed. There I bought a bag of Odlums flour, which a local had recommended to me as "quite brilliant" ("brilliant" being the Irish word for anything great). I was hoping to re-create the taste of Irish bread when I returned home.

Ah. Irish bread. I'd become be sotted with it during my stay. Truth to tell, I'd been pleasantly surprised by Irish food in general. Of course, a "full Irish breakfast" can be a somewhat alarming sight first thing in the morning, with lots of fried everything. But many places serve fresh ingredients now, and the seafood, especially, is delicious. At dinner that night, I headed back to Arthur's Quay and feasted on fillet of sea bream with crispy leeks and a smoked salmon butter sauce at a cool neighborhood restaurant called the Green Onion. Not all my meals in Limerick were as memorable as that one, but it's safe to say that Irish dining has successfully made it into the '90s.

It wasn't just the food and the shops that drew me back to the narrow streets of Arthur's Quay again and again. It was the history. Limerick is oozing with it. You can be walking down the street, thinking about that hand-knit sweater you just tried on, then look up to find yourself passing a 13th-century castle. England's King John ordered this fortress built in 1212 to guard the entrance to the city. Today, you can climb the tower's steep stone staircase, peer through the narrow slitted windows and imagine yourself shooting arrows at the passersby below. (Hard to get a good angle!) When you finally reach the top, you can stride across the battlements for commanding views of the city, and scan the approaching traffic on the Thomond Bridge. Except instead of varlets on horseback, there are cars whizzing by, and people on bicycles.

From the castle, it's a short walk to St. Mary's Cathedral, Limerick's oldest surviving building. Built in 1172, it's famous for its 15th-century choir stalls, made of dark oak with fanciful carvings. Outside, there are towering old trees, a wonderful, atmospheric cemetery with crumbling Irish crosses, and a bench where you can ponder your puny existence.

As a backdrop to all this, the River Shannon is a constant -- and increasingly lovely -- presence. For years the city turned its back on the river, and has only recently rediscovered it. Now there are waterfront parks and benches and monuments, and rowing sculls and boathouses. It's a delightful scene on a quiet Sunday morning, with people riding by on bicycles, and strolling couples admiring the swans -- yes, swans -- gliding on the river.

Above all, there are kids. Most adults of childbearing age seem to have at least two or three children attached to them. The streets of Limerick are clogged with rosy babies in strollers, pudgy toddlers, freckle-faced grade-school kids in parochial school uniforms, exuberant packs of teenagers.

It's a far cry from the vision of the city summoned by Frank McCourt. And still . . . Remnants of his Limerick remain, in mute testimony to harder times.

Tour guide O'Hanlon is used to getting a bit of flak from the residents of Limerick. The first time he visited the former McCourt house on Windmill Street, he says, a woman came out of her house with her hands on her hips. "She saw that I had the book and she asked if I'd read it. I said I had. `Isn't it filth?' she asked." He shrugs. You run into that kind of attitude a lot on the "Angela's Ashes" circuit.

Just a few blocks away on Hartstonge Street, past rows of Georgian town houses and offices and something called the Victoria Club Leisure Complex, is a somewhat forbidding, Gothic-looking red-brick building with a crenellated roof. This was Leamy's National School, home to cruel and/or demented schoolmasters and legions of barefoot, underfed students.

There are seven masters in Leamy's National School, and they all have leather straps, canes, blackthorn sticks. They hit you with the sticks on the shoulders, the back, the legs, and, especially, the hands. If they hit you on the hands it's called a slap. They hit you if you're late, if you have a leaky nib on your pen, if you laugh, if you talk, and if you don't know things.

They hit you if you don't know why God made the world, if you don't know the patron saint of Limerick, if you can't recite the Apostles' Creed, if you can't add 19 to 47, if you can't subtract 19 from 47, if you don't know the chief towns and products of the 32 counties of Ireland, if you can't find Bulgaria on the wall map . . .

The school houses offices now -- a tailor shop, a brass plaque company. Inside, it's carpeted and renovated, with not a trace of a classroom remaining. A man with a tape measure around his neck comes out of the tailor's, sees us and rolls his eyes. Have there been a lot of "Angela's Ashes" pilgrims poking around? "There have." Has he read the book? "I haven't." (Nobody in Ireland says "yes" or "no.") "A lot of people in Limerick are a bit sour over it," he explains, adding, "The book's got it all wrong. 'Twasn't like that. Not atall."

Right next door is another "Ashes" landmark: the four-story, red-brick town house of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where Frank's mother, Angela, queued up for charity.

Mam goes to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to see if there's any chance of getting furniture. The man says he'll give us a docket for a table, two chairs, and two beds . . . She wipes her eyes on her sleeves and asks the man if the beds we're getting are secondhand. He says of course they are, and she says she's very worried about sleeping in beds someone might have died in, especially if they had the consumption. The man says, I'm very sorry, but beggars can't be choosers.

The society is still a source of clothing and furniture for Limerick's poor, but "it's much more user-friendly today," says O'Hanlon. "You don't find people queuing up outside anymore."

Onward, to the People's Park, where Frank took his small brothers to distract them from their hunger. Even on a rainy day it's inviting, with well-tended rose gardens, a fanciful Victorian drinking fountain and the greenest grass I've ever seen. I end up coming back here several times during my stay -- it's such an appealing place, full of all manner of kids, guys kicking soccer balls, dog-walkers, mums with prams, people on benches. On the facing Pery Square, a row of striking Georgian row houses with elaborate fanlights is being renovated.

Down Barrington Street, past doctors' and solicitors' offices with lovely painted doors -- Limerick has great doors -- is Barrack Hill, site of another McCourt residence.

We move to Roden Lane on top of a place called Barrack Hill. There are six houses on one side of the lane, one on the opposite side. The houses are called two up, two down, two rooms on the top, two on the bottom. Our house is at the end of the lane, the last of the six. Next to our door is a small shed, a lavatory, and next to that a stable.

Roden Lane, where the McCourts shared that single lavatory with the rest of the block, is gone now, but St. Joseph's Church, where the young Frank received his First Communion and Confirmation, is a looming presence. That's where Frank applied to be an altar boy, and there, visible through the white wrought-iron fence, is the door that was slammed in his face.

Perhaps Frank found more comfort in the massive, century-old Redemptorist Church on South Circular Road, a dark and beautiful refuge, with flickering votive candles, an intricate mosaic-tiled floor and eye-popping, elaborately gilded alcoves. Farther north, on Henry Street, is the huge Franciscan Church where Frank prayed to his patron saint, Francis of Assisi. With its huge pillared front it looks more like the Supreme Court than a place of worship, but inside it has the same welcoming feeling and lovely smell of incense and candle wax. Old women click their rosary beads as shoppers pop in, genuflect and say a quick prayer. Anyone raised on modern ecclesiastical architecture and streamlined statuary will never want to leave.

You can't escape "Angela's Ashes" in Limerick. Everyone has an opinion about the book, and is only too eager to share it. Store clerks, waitresses, taxi drivers, people in pubs -- if they aren't related to someone in the book, they went to school with them or, at the very least, know one of the characters.

Sabine Sheehan, a desk clerk at Jurys Inn on Lower Mallow Street, in the dockside area where the young Frank once scrounged for bits of coal, watches all the "Ashes" hubbub with amusement. She's a descendant of Ab Sheehan, Angela's brother, and her stepmother is related to one of the masters at Leamy School. "The book's prompted a lot of peoples' memories," Sheehan says. "People say he has no right to dredge all this up, but I wouldn't agree. That's the way 'twas, and that's the way 'twas."

What people think of the book depends on their age, says Liam O'Hanlon. "Younger people have no personal knowledge, and accept the book as one person's recollections of his childhood as he remembers it. What he's writing about is just another part of Limerick history. But there are a lot of people in Limerick in their late sixties who see the book as a challenge to a way of life that they remember with rose-tinted glasses. He's confronting them with what they don't want to hear."

Indeed, while opinion about the book is divided, the naysayers may have the edge in Limerick. When McCourt comes back to the city for book tours, irate residents are there to meet him, challenging his memory and questioning his anecdotes. "Every time he comes to Limerick and puts his head above the parapet, there's someone firing at him," says O'Hanlon.

"There's a lot of begrudgery about it in the home town," agrees Eddie Daly, a clerk in O'Mahony's bookstore on O'Connell Street, where a table in front is piled high with something called "Ashes," a copycat memoir by Gerard Hannan. "That book was written as a retort to `Angela's Ashes,' " Daly says, "but it doesn't have the same feeling. Hannan has an ax to grind."

While "Angela's Ashes" continues to sell well, Daly says, "it's probably selling better on a nationwide basis. A lot of people in Limerick are still a bit tender. But that's the Irish -- we're a nation of begrudgers. You see one of your own doing well, you want to give him some slag."

But even if you can't look at "Angela's Ashes" objectively, Daly adds, "you still have to admire it as a fine piece of work. Times were hard, but such was the situation for the vast majority of people in Limerick at the time. I'm a native myself, and I really enjoyed it. The humor is amazing. He's a great storyteller."

If the bone-crushing poverty of Frank McCourt's Limerick is gone, certain things in Ireland are eternal. On a rainy fall afternoon, waves of mist roll in from the River Shannon, down the Dock Road and through the streets and lanes. It's a perfect day to wander into South's pub and curl up with a pint.

South's seems ageless with its ancient mahogany wood, marble bar, etched-glass partitions and cozy alcoves called "snugs," but "Och, 'tis changed," says a guy nursing a Guinness. In McCourt's day, he says, it was a third of the size. " 'Tis an old establishment. There were terrible characters from the docks, before. It's all different now."

But it doesn't take long to find someone who grew up with Frank McCourt.

"The lanes were full of rats," Jerry, a South's regular, is saying. "Full of rats they were. We'd wait for the full moon to come out. We'd put our boots on and tuck our pants legs in our boots, and a gang of us would go out. I'd kill about 80 on a good night -- hit 'em with a stick. That was our entertainment."

Has he read "Angela's Ashes"? Big grin. "I'm waiting for someone to give it to me."

George, over on the next stool, went to school with Frank's brother Malachy -- they had the same master, "Hoppy" O'Halloran. "You'd be frightened for your life," he said. "He'd run after you with a big stick. He'd bring you up and give you six slaps. Really hard, now. He'd leave Malachy in charge when he went away. Now Malachy, he was a very clever fellow . . ."

Times were tough, they say, but happy. "You could leave your door open," Jerry says. "There were very good people in the lanes -- very neighborly. Everyone looked after one another. They were grand people. You could always get food from someone. You could get a bun and a bit of tripe . . ."

"I didn't like what Frank said about where we were living," George says. "It's not true. We weren't that badly off. I wish him luck, but I don't agree with the stuff he put in that book. But he's got his money now."

"Frank's a decent enough fellow," Jerry says. "I don't begrudge him his success. He survived, and that's it in a nutshell, isn't it?"

'Tis.

Details : Limerick, Ireland

GETTING THERE: Limerick is 15 miles east of Shannon International Airport. Aer Lingus flies to Shannon from New York's JFK airport and is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $976 (including Washington add-on), with restrictions.

WHERE TO STAY: Limerick has a variety of hotels and B&Bs; Jurys Hotel (Ennis Road, Limerick, telephone 011-353-61-327777), just across Sarsfield Bridge from the historic district, has several restaurants, an indoor pool, a gym and a tennis court. Rooms start at about $174 double. Its downtown counterpart, Jurys Inn (Lower Mallow Street, 011-353-61-207000), is less luxurious, but ideally located for "Angela's Ashes" pilgrims -- just blocks from Windmill Street, South's pub and other sites. Rooms start at $75 double.

Or check out nearby Adare Manor (Adare, County Limerick, 011-353-61-396566), with antique-filled rooms, riding stables, fishing, fox hunting and an 18-hole golf course. Special winter weekend rates (excluding Christmas and New Year's) are about $202 per person double for two nights' bed and breakfast plus one evening meal.

WHERE TO EAT: The Green Onion (3 Ellen St.) near Arthur's Quay serves up modern Irish cuisine in a funky, artsy atmosphere. Dinner runs about $40 for two. Other restaurants worth a visit are Freddy's (Theatre Lane, off Lower Glent-worth Street) and Quenelle's (Lower Mallow and Henry streets), known for innovative dishes. Bewley's Restaurant on Cruises Street is good for a quick breakfast or lunch, with sumptuous baked goods. If you drive into nearby County Clare, try the delicious seafood and brown bread at Monk's restaurant in the fishing village of Ballyvaughan -- or just have an Irish coffee by the turf fire.

"ANGELA'S ASHES" SITES: The Limerick tourist office hopes to have maps and brochures locating "Angela's Ashes" sites available by next spring. Mean-while, walking tours of "Ashes" sites are available from tour guide Liam O'Hanlon; contact him at 011-353-62-301587 or through the Limerick tourist office (see below). Sites include:

- Leamy National School, Hartstonge and Catherine streets.

- St. Vincent de Paul Society, Hartstonge and Catherine streets.

- People's Park, off Pery Square at Upper Mallow Street.

- W.J. South pub, O'Connell Street near the Crescent.

- Redemptorist Church, South Circular Road at Quin Street.

- St. Joseph's Church, O'Connell Street at St. Joseph Street.

- Franciscan Church, Henry Street.

SIDE TRIPS: Limerick is an ideal base for exploring Ireland's west coast. Drive an hour and a half from Limerick and you can be at the Cliffs of Moher, with a sheer 700-foot drop to the Atlantic. Drive another half an hour and you're in the Burren, a rocky, otherworldly landscape. On the way, you can ogle the beautiful Irish countryside with its thatched-roof cottages, ancient burial sites, the odd ruined castle (there are more than 400 castles in County Clare alone), charming coastal restaurants and endless quaint towns.

INFORMATION: Irish Tourist Board, 345 Park Ave., 17th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10154, 1-800-223-6470 or 212-418-0800, http://www.ireland.travel.ie; or Limerick Tourist Information Center, Arthur's Quay, Limerick, Ireland, telephone 011-353-61-317522.

-- K.C. Summers

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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