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Saturday, 22 January, 2000, 11:48 GMT
Not from here anymore

boy standing in river Angela's Ashes: written by a man regarded by his critics as an outsider

By Kevin Connolly in the Republic of Ireland

Author Frank McCourt may have come from Limerick once, but he does not come from there anymore.

There was a stage in the peace process at which Tony Blair said that in Northern Ireland he felt the hand of history on his shoulder, in Limerick you hear its footsteps echoing yours as you walk the rainy streets.

Around here the past is not just a force that has shaped the present - it is itself a presence that will not go away. There are taxi companies and cafes named after the treaty of Limerick signed in 1691.

The local heritage industry is so efficient that a poster in my hotel even depicted an ancient tower just outside the town at which it recorded solemnly no event of any historical significance was known to have taken place.

Start a conversation with an English accent and the brutality of the black and tans or the agonies of the famine will soon work their way into the conversation while your face is scrutinised for any reaction that might betray an opinion.

History in these parts you sense is not something to be written or indeed commented on by outsiders.

And Frank McCourt for all that he grew up in Limerick is regarded by his critics as a blow-in - and never mind the fact that he blew in and stayed for more than a decade before blowing back out again.

National myths

All countries of course have national myths, self-images composed of carefully selected events and themes in the past which paint them in heroic or sympathetic lights.

The story of the second world war that I grew up with in the England of the 1960s and 70s would be unrecognisable to foreigners who had not enjoyed the benefit of the Dambusters, 633 Squadron or the Colditz story - many Germans have never heard of the Dams raid or the impregnability of Colditz Castle not because they want to forget the war but because they were simply one air raid and one prison camp among many.

Because Ireland though has endured the agonies of rebellion partition and civil war in this century the events of the past somehow seem that much closer here, their relationship with the present more immediate.

Elsewhere politics is usually about right and left. In Ireland it is still about right and wrong - the main political parties trace their roots not to the economic tensions between capital and labour but to the bitter row over partition that led to the civil war.

Factual inaccuracies

family The book throws light on poverty and misery
Frank McCourt's detractors in Limerick say they are angered by factual inaccuracies - 117 of them I was told - about the small details of the lives of real people, some of them still living.

But I could not help feeling that it is the larger truth he illuminated that they do not feel comfortable with.

Everyone knows about the poverty, bitterness and cultural domination by the Catholic Church that were the hallmark of Ireland in the 20s and 30s.

But the preferred version of this country's history dwells on what are seen as the glamorous acts that brought independence about, rather than the hardships which followed.

The rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising did not have much popular support in Dublin at the time but they are venerated now as founders of the state.

The relatively small number of people who died in the war of independence against the British here are remembered as national heroes where the much larger number of Irish soldiers who died fighting for the British in World War I tended until recently to be forgotten - they simply do not fit comfortably into history as most people instinctively remember it.

A book that throws light onto the poverty and misery of the early years of independence should be interpreted as a remarkable tribute to the creation of a stable civilised democracy so quickly from such unpromising beginnings.

But it is not, and that is not just because it is easier to write a folk song about an executed rebel than it is to compose one about the creation of a well-respected unarmed police force or an effective corruption-free civil service.

An outsider

It seems to me to have more to do with the fact that the book - which of course many people in Ireland love - has been written by a man regarded by his critics as an outsider.

Some people who shared Frank McCourt's experiences, but not his gift for turning them into literature seem piqued that lives very like their own have been explored so lucratively by a man who left Limerick behind - an attitude perilously close to the cast of mind known here as begrudgery.

Part of me wanted to tell the critics in Limerick that the story in the book is remarkably like the story of my own family forced by poverty to leave newly-independent Ireland to seek work in Britain.

I thought of my accent and decided against it - after all my family may have been from here once, but it's not from here anymore.

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12 Jan 00 |  Entertainment
Angela's Ashes premieres in UK

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