I love a bit of literary tourism. Whenever I leave Dublin I research wherever I’m visiting beforehand. I look for indie bookshops, museums, statues, libraries, tours etc. So for my husband’s birthday, I decided we should take a trip to Limerick. We hadn’t been in years and I’ve learned that everywhere in Ireland has something unique to offer if you do your research beforehand. So, to my surprise, on doing a little bit of googling, I discovered that there’s a Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick city centre.
Frank McCourt was a former resident of Limerick City and wrote the bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The book tells the story of his ‘miserable Catholic childhood’ which he spent in Limerick, having spent a small portion of it in Brooklyn during the depression. It’s a story of dire poverty and deprivation, but told with such skill, humour and hope that it doesn’t descend into misery-lit. The memoir has since been made into a movie and, surprisingly, a really successful musical. But I hadn’t heard of the museum until I decided to make my trip to Limerick.
I went to the museum on a Saturday afternoon. It’s in a beautiful 150-year-old Tudor-style building: Leamy House. Frank’s old school house. Alan, two Dutch tourists and I waited for 2 pm to come around and on the button, a smiling, harried lady appeared to let us in, apologising profusely, even though she was right on time. This was Una. The founder and curator of the museum. From the outset, she was friendly and chatty. Clearly passionate about her museum. Her ‘labour of love’. She led us upstairs for our tour and we were joined by two more Dutch tourists. The museum was only €4 each, which is a bargain for a thoroughly fascinating couple of hours, so I decided to buy a book after the tour because I felt €4 was too little.
On the first floor, we were led through recreations of the first living-room/kitchen of Frank’s childhood and then the bedroom: ‘Little Italy’ from the novel and finally to the schoolroom. In the living spaces, Una explained how Frank’s family had lived in the 1930’s and 1940’s. We learned about how they lived in cramped conditions. Washed their clothing in the same water they washed themselves in, used the baby’s pram as a ‘vehicle’ to transport coal, cooked over an open fire, slept on a flea-ridden bed with army surplus coats instead of blankets and hung their clothes to dry on a clothes-line running across the middle of the room because of the incessant rain.
Una’s family purchased Leamy House and turned the building into a garment factory. The second floor, where Frank when to school was to be the factory floor, so the internal walls were removed. Part of this huge room is set out as a schoolroom with desks and blakcboards, and the rest as a museum with cabinets and shelves full of Una’s collection of Frank McCourt related paraphernalia, including some of Angela’s ashes. While in this part of the museum she told us what life was like for children attending school in those days, and the brutal punishments meted out by the priests.
There was religious iconography all over the two floors, just as there would have been in Irish homes and schools at the time of the novel. As I wandered around the museum exhibits, I was struck most by Frank’s beautiful collection of rosary beads, one of which was given to him by the Pope. Throughout his adult life, Frank was extremely critical of the Catholic Church, describing it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland’. The collection of beads might seem to contradict his anti-church stance, but I can relate to it. I think he was a cultural Catholic, and I think a lot of us Irish are. We take comfort in the familiarity of the rituals, symbols and traditions of the church, and the superstitions we, as a nation, attached to those things. They make up our own particular, Irish brand of Catholicism. Those things aren’t precious because of their connection with the church, but because of their connection to our past. Saint Anthony finding lost items, or the Child of Prague bringing good weather for a wedding or Saint Brigid’s cross over your door to keep evil at bay. We associate them with protection, and safety and kindness, and they are separate and apart from the teachings of the church. I’d imagine there was a little of that in Frank. I’d imagine there was a wistfulness for those things he left behind when he left Ireland. Except for poverty. I’d imagine he was quite content to leave that firmly where it was.
One of my favourite things about the museum
Una herself is a fascinating person. A social historian but also an artist, and a talented painter, hoping to write her own book about the museum. She shared little anecdotes about the museum itself. For example how she can’t keep herself in plastic fleas due to the inexplicable fascination that visitors have with stealing them from the beds in ‘Little Italy’. She also told us that she once opened the museum to find a homeless man curled up on one of those same beds.
Una and I talked about how the Irish hid their poverty well when they suffered it, and out of pride never discussed it. But my mother remembers seeing it. My mother told me that she had seen terrible poverty as a child growing up in Clonmel. My grandmother owned a pub and served men like McCourt’s father, while mothers struggled to care for their many children. And though the pub is an important part of our cultural heritage, I’m glad so many are closing down and coffee shops are opening up in their place. Caffeine is an altogether less destructive drug.
Una is creating mosaics for the back wall of the schoolroom one of Frank (now completed) and one of Angela. Huge mosaics that visitors can paint a tile and contribute to. Before we left Alan and I painted two tiles to be added the mosaic of Angela that is slowly coming together I hope to visit again when it’s finished.
I highly recommend a trip to the Frank McCourt Museum. Not only is the museum a beautiful tribute to a very talented local writer, but it captures a little piece of social history. So often the stories of the poor are ignored. We walk around cities and marvel at the old, beautiful buildings commissioned by the wealthy: iconic architecture, ornate cathedrals, stately homes. We imagine how grand life would have been back then. Yet we forget about the lives of the majority. The majority who lived very different lives, but no less fascinating, and certainly, no less important. Thanks to Frank and Una and her helpers this little piece of Limerick’s history won’t be forgotten.
As I left the museum I reflected on the conditions that Frank and his family lived in. I thought ‘how horrible for a family to be crammed into one room. How terrible that they didn’t have proper cooking or laundry facilities. How awful that they moved from place to place because they couldn’t pay their rent’. And then I remembered: that entire families are living in hotel rooms in Dublin right now, moving regularly, because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents and there is no social housing available or being built. And I remembered Una’s story of the homeless man that broke into the museum and slept willingly on a bed in ‘Little Italy’ to escape the cold of Limerick’s streets. I realised: we think we have come so far since Frank’s time, but we haven’t. Many people were angry when Frank published his book. The fallout of the memoir (there almost always is a fallout when it comes to memoir), was that some people in Limerick took exception to his portrayal of their city. They denied the veracity of the story. And yet here we are, many years later, many years after the great depression. We are now apparently a very wealthy country, and yet people sleep on the streets. Entire families live in hotel rooms in our capital city. And again, many would be scandalised at the suggestion that Ireland was anything but a modern, compassionate, civilised nation. Have we changed that much?
Incredibly, despite the poverty that Frank grew up in, he and his two brothers, Malachy and Alphie, are all published writers. Not many rich families can claim that. Una believes that the poverty they grew up in forced them to dream of better things. To use their imaginations to picture a different life in ways that middle-class children didn’t need to. I think that poor children do dream, and hope to improve their lot in life. Not many will scale the heights of success that Frank McCourt did, and very few will, as he is, but there is hope. And that is why, despite Angela’s Ashes being very sad, its very existence makes it a book filled with the bright light of human potential.