An excerpt from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: a happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Above all — we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it, sizzling, on the chest.

From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.

The rain drove us into the church — our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.

When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that. When I was thirteen my father’s mother told me a secret: as a wee lad your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident, he was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar…”

The approach is unflinching honesty and irreverence. It’s all on display with Frank McCourt. He is showing you what he muscled through. He doesn’t tip toe toward the hard stuff. He just sets it down in the center of the room and says have a gander. It is an approach that sees a lot of celebration in publication because of how matter-of-fact and unapologetic it is. When McCourt says: “It was, of course, a miserable childhood. A happy childhood is hardly worth your while” do you agree with him? Do you find memoirs from people who faced no hardships? People who have only joyous things to report? I myself have not. Writers (and really, artists period) seem to become what they are through the lens of survival. That’s not dogma. That’s just my interpretation. I am certain that if I had not had the experience of my stepfather I would not be a writer at all. All of my languaging is borne out of what I navigated and what I determined about myself, the world, black men, girls, women, violence, manipulation, family, secrets and secret-keeping while in that house. I was only there for four and a half years. I have had 44 other years on the planet and though he is long dead, very few things about me are…in his absence…if that makes sense. Anyway…