R.F. Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2002)

This book is subtitled "Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland," and assays to examine, in the author's own words, "how the Irish have written, understood and misused their history over the past century."

For an Irish person to read that and swallow it is a tall order, but that is exactly what the book demands. The author, an Oxford Don, has written plentifully on Irish history before; the subject must delight and intrigue him, so prolific is his output. Like the German folk story of "Till Eulenspeigel," Foster proposes to hold up the mirror, that the humanity, bravery, and honesty of the Irish be laid bare. He takes on the usual literary figures; Yeats gets two chapters devoted to him, and Anthony Trollope also gets embroiled in this saga, as do Frank McCourt and Gerry Adams in the later stages. The latter combination initially made me flip pages to the chapter entitled "Selling Irish Childhoods: Frank McCourt and Gerry Adams." Certainly both people are high profile public figures for different reasons -- Gerry Adams for his role in helping broker the IRA Ceasefire and Frank McCourt for his memoir Angela’s Ashes. Both have written about their respective childhoods, Adams in Belfast and McCourt in Limerick. I have found Gerry Adams’ writing evocative and devoid of the misty-eyed approach favored by Alice Taylor, another Irish writer who has carved out a niche for her rosy cheeked reflections on a rural childhood in Co. Kerry.

However, it is with his assertions on Frank McCourt, and especially his mentions of Limerick, wherein lies my cause of disagreement with Mr. Foster. Foster says of the success of Angela’s Ashes that it been responsible for the name of more than one pub in Limerick. This prompts the question, has the author ever been to Limerick? If so, I would like to ask him where these so-called pubs are located, as no names or addresses are mentioned. Perhaps he is referring to "South’s" on Quinlan St., a noted port of call for Frank McCourt and his late father Malachy, where a selection of photos of Frank are on display, or "Angela Conway’s," which is the old name of "The Mall Bar" on the Sandmall. In the latter case, the pub was named after Angela Conway, one-time proprietor, long before Angela’s Ashes was written. In his efforts to lift the lid on the Irish self-mythologizing myth factory, Foster comes beautifully unstuck with classic gaffes like these.

As a native of Limerick, I feel somewhat qualified to comment thus and state that this is no idle case of sour grapes. Has the author -- if ever in Limerick -- taken the "Angela’s Ashes Walking Tour," organized by St. Mary’s A.I.D. (Area Integrated Development) Ltd?. These tours, given by Michael O’Donnell (who has recently received a commendation from Board Failte), have been highly successful and received the blessing and encouragement of Frank McCourt and his brothers. This is another aspect of the Angela’s Ashes phenomenon which the author fails to comment on.

For an outsider, this book may be both intriguing and challenging, and indeed lull the reader into feeling that the Irish do believe their own stories and are victims of their own self-mythologizing. Essentially, I cannot help but feel that the grand sway of Fosters’ arguments and the huge concept of the title are poor bedfellows. Call it overstepping the mark if you will, but the essential flaw lies with the execution of the concept -- or maybe I’m too close to the fire to see how deeply it burns the native psyche. In the immortal words of ex Limerick city councilor Michael Kelly, "You Tell Me!"

[John O'Regan]