When Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes, his memoir of growing up in Limerick city during the 1930s and 1940s, he can’t have imagined what he was starting.
Not only did his account of brutal poverty start a genre in the book publishing world for what became known as "misery-lit", but it divided readers between those who loved the book and those who felt that he had unforgivably maligned the city and its people.
Whatever else it did, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book certainly put Limerick city on the map.
A city transformed
Fortunately for fans of the book and film, there is still plenty to see, although mercifully the slums are long gone. And something else has changed, too, according to Andrew Bennett, whose gravelly tones provided the voiceover to the film, starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson.
“I grew up just outside the city and it’s a much friendlier, kinder place now,” says Bennett. “Limerick always had a reputation for sporting prowess, which gave it a sort of stern, He-Man feeling. But when the university opened, suddenly there were people from all over the place. And lots of girls.”
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From school to museum
Girls were a different species to the young McCourt, who attended the all-boys Leamy’s School on Hartstonge Street, which has now been turned into the Frank McCourt Museum.
Young Frank mentions another school, the posh Crescent, which had Richard Harris and Terry Wogan as pupils. Bennett went, too, but by then it was co-ed and had relocated to the edge of the city.
“I absolutely loved it,” says Bennett. “But I remember people telling me the atmosphere was very different to that of the old school.”
A tour to remember
Most of the city is proud of its illustrious son. You can take an official Angela’s Ashes Walk, which starts at the tourist office and winds through the streets to places featured in the book.
And it seems to be very popular with visitors. “First class. He knew his stuff,” said a visitor from Britain about the guide. “A delightful experience,” reports another from New York.
There are plenty of other things to enjoy in McCourt’s city, too. The world-famous Hunt Museum in the splendid setting of the Custom House is a must. And the city itself has been brilliantly remodelled. "For a while," says Bennett, “Limerick turned its back on the Shannon – you couldn’t get near it. Now they’ve built paths and cafés and it’s back where it should be, at the heart of the city.
“It’s a great place to go out,” continues Bennett. “I have friends who tour in shows round the country, and if they’re on at the Belltable Arts Centre, say, or the university, they always say they had the best night ever.”
Wonder what Frank McCourt would think of his childhood home now?