The world loves Frank McCourt. His memoir "Angela's Ashes" sold 4 million copies, camped on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks, won a Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into 20 languages and is now a Hollywood movie, which opens in Washington on Friday.
But here, in the city of his childhood and the setting of his book, his tales have been attacked as mean-spirited fiction and cruel exaggeration. The host of a late-night radio show has turned McCourt-bashing into a personal hobby.
At one local book signing, Paddy Malone, a former classmate of McCourt's, tore a copy of the book to shreds in front of the author.
"He named names. He insulted people," said Malone, 70. "Most of the people are dead. But the families have to suffer and live with the consequences."
The controversy was born with the publication of "Angela's Ashes" in 1996. And the release of the movie this month has locals chewing over the issue afresh.
There are those, mostly younger residents, who feel that McCourt is something of a hometown hero, a brilliant author who gave readers an honest portrayal of the grinding poverty of 1930s Limerick and who has brought international attention to a city that guidebooks have recommended bypassing.
But others, mostly older residents, feel McCourt spent 426 pages exercising a grudge against Limerick. They say the book is rife with factual errors, exaggerates the poverty in Limerick and, most important, humiliates his contemporaries by branding them with various sexual transgressions and other sins.
And over the past three years people on both sides of the issue have been hurling Irish invectives back and forth: "louser," "begrudger," "eejit."
The basic geography of the city has changed little since McCourt, who was born in Brooklyn, moved here with his family at the age of 4. The powerful River Shannon splits the city into three sections that are tied together by a series of bridges. Georgian brick buildings line the neatly gridded downtown streets.
But to someone from 1930s Limerick, the character of the city today would be almost unrecognizable. McCourt's Limerick was poor, wet, malnourished, filthy and miserable. He lived with his parents and three surviving brothers in "the lanes," the city's crowded slum district. Consumption and fleas were rampant, and the communal toilets overflowed with waste.
An economic boom in Ireland, fueled by subsidies from the European Union and growth in the high-tech sector, has radically altered the fortunes of the city. Now Limerick's economy is thriving. The city's residents, many of whom are employed at a Dell computer plant, are confident and prosperous. O'Connell Street, the main retail thoroughfare downtown, bustles with pedestrians and traffic. The tenements have been torn down, and locals love to tell visitors that when the movie was made the filmmakers had to travel to Cork to find slums.
McCourt, who couldn't be reached for comment, has defended the authenticity of his family history, and his brother Malachy, now 68 and living in Woodstock, N.Y., backs him up. He says his brother's detractors are motivated by shame and a desire to bury the past.
The offices of Radio Limerick 1, just off O'Connell Street, are the closest thing in town to a headquarters for McCourt's detractors. From a dingy studio with peeling soundproofing, soft-spoken Gerry Hannan's voice spills into the night. His late-night talk show attracts mainly listeners over 50, regulars who call in to complain about poor hospital care or play a song on "the gramophone."
In the three years of what Hannan calls the McCourt Campaign he has lambasted the author on his radio program and faced him on a television talk show. Hannan, 40, who owns a used bookstore called Browsers, has also published two titles of his own in response to "Angela's Ashes" and its sequel set in America, " 'Tis": "Ashes" and " 'Tis in Me Ass," which offer an alternative view of Limerick.
"My objective as a writer, as a broadcaster, as a journalist, as a Limerickman, but most importantly as a human being, is to let the world, who have embraced this man, know that 'Angela's Ashes' is a provable work of fiction," he says, noting that with the help of his listeners he's already tallied 117 inconsistencies in the book.
Hannan has tapped into a deep sense of betrayal and hurt among some of his listeners who grew up in Limerick but don't recognize the city of their childhood on the pages of "Angela's Ashes." Many knew the McCourt family; they went to Frank's school, or lived in the house on Roden Lane before he moved in or played bingo with his aunt. Although it is the third largest city in Ireland, its population today is only 52,000, about half the size of Alexandria. And it is reacting to the book more like a close-knit small town than an anonymous big city.
Foremost on the list of people whose names were sullied, critics say, is McCourt's own mother, Angela. In the book the writer says that she has "the excitement" with her cousin so that he will continue to let her family live with him rent-free. For many older residents, even the suggestion of such a thing is, as Angela might have phrased it, "beyond the beyonds."
"For a man to write what he wrote about his mother is unforgivable," said Frank Prendergast, who grew up near McCourt. A former Limerick mayor, Prendergast said on Hannan's talk show that he thought "Angela's Ashes" was "one of the most beautifully written books I ever read. But what I do resent very strongly as a Limerickman is that someone comes in and traduces the people and institutions who are very dear to the people of Limerick."
Angela herself once stood up in a New York theater where the two McCourt brothers were spinning stories of their childhood and said, "It didn't happen that way! It's all a pack of lies!"
Malachy remembers the words of his mother, who died in 1981, well: "It's something that happens to the Irish when they come to America. They began to get amnesia about the circumstances that they're from.
"My mother thought it was shameful to be talking about lavatories and buckets you would use for bodily functions, about poverty and being poor."
In the book, Frank McCourt also takes on the Catholic Church and the charitable St. Vincent de Paul Society, making it appear patronizing and arrogant.
Jim Cantwell, director of the Catholic Church's press office in Ireland, says, "Personally, I found that some of the portrayals of priests in the film were a bit of a caricature, and this was even more pronounced in the case of the St. Vincent de Paul Society."
The movie, he said, "is as much a celebration of America as it is a denigration of Ireland. It will go down big in Middle America."
Other detractors argue that McCourt exaggerated the poverty around him, leaving out details that would make his childhood seem less painful, like the trips he took as a member of the Boy Scouts.
"When they look back on their childhood they didn't see themselves as miserable Irish Catholics," Hannan said of McCourt's contemporaries.
But McCourt is not without supporters here, and many are upset that Hannan has received so much attention. Last week McCourt enthusiasts gathered for the Irish premiere of the film (or, as the Irish say, "filum"). The event was originally scheduled for Dublin, but mayor of Limerick campaigned for a local premiere and filmmakers offered him a simultaneous screening. The 700 tickets to the event, at a shopping mall in suburban Dooradoyle, sold out. And the casually dressed crowd was buzzing with praise for McCourt.
"It's been assumed that all Limerick people have a negative attitude to Frank and to his book, and nothing could be further from the truth," said Deirdre Hayes, chairperson of the Friends of Limerick Club, which has made McCourt an honorary member. "He's greatly admired here. We're very proud of him."
Although it was mostly a middle-age crowd, scattered within it were a few of McCourt's contemporaries who are fans of the book.
"When he was speaking about himself I thought he might as well be speaking about me," said Cornelius Cleary, 66, a cigarette between his fingers.
His friend Gerry Linnis, 73, said he read the book three times. He has no patience with McCourt's critics. "It's just begrudgery," he says. "The only people who are against it are Limerick people because they don't want to admit it was like that."
CAPTION: Writer Frank McCourt, left, tells of the Limerick of his childhood in "Angela's Ashes." But a vocal band of critics maintain that the real Limerick, seen in 1937, above, is unlike the memoir and its movie version, top right.
CAPTION: Frank McCourt's book paints a picture of Limerick that has the city up in arms.