July 25: Limerick connects, whatever the weather

Alphie McCourt, pictured at the unveiling of a plaque to honour his brother Frank McCourt in Souths Bar
A great meal often imposes its own burden of guilt, as in, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?” Last Friday morning, July 17, I inhaled the great buffet breakfast at the Strand Hotel in Limerick. For such a breakfast of eggs, black and white pudding, sausages, fruit, the delicious brown bread and the best of coffee, I must put the guilt in my back pocket and forget about it for a while. “Guilt,” I tell myself, “is only the salt and pepper on pleasure.” And leave it at that.

A great meal often imposes its own burden of guilt, as in, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?” Last Friday morning, July 17, I inhaled the great buffet breakfast at the Strand Hotel in Limerick. For such a breakfast of eggs, black and white pudding, sausages, fruit, the delicious brown bread and the best of coffee, I must put the guilt in my back pocket and forget about it for a while. “Guilt,” I tell myself, “is only the salt and pepper on pleasure.” And leave it at that.

By happy happenstance I shared a table with a young man from Kenya. He is in town on business for a span of two months. I have always believed that God invented weather so that strangers meeting on the street or at a party, in an elevator or at a table, could immediately find some common ground. And so I asked my new friend what he thought of the weather in Limerick.

“The weather,” he said, “I just wish it would stay the same for five minutes.” This was said with a smile, a good-natured shrug and a merry laugh to round it out.

I was to speak at the unveiling of a plaque in honour of my brother Frank, author of the memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The unveiling, under the auspices of the Limerick Writers’ Centre and the stewardship of Dominic Taylor, was to take place at South’s pub. As I crossed Sarsfield Bridge on my way into town I almost walked on some flower petals strewn on the pavement. I guessed that they had become detached from the giant flowerpots that hang from the parapets of the bridge. A good omen, I thought.

Armed with this rosy omen I continued on and up O’Connell Street to South’s where I was warmly greeted by, Mayor Jerry O’Dea, John Liddy, the brilliant poet of heart and soul and the gifted writer Donal Ryan.

Donal Thurlow was eloquent in introducing all of us, beginning with Dominic Taylor. Dominic spoke with passion of the power of great writing. Donal Ryan told of a hilarious near encounter with Frank McCourt. With spirit and contagious enthusiasm, Jared Nadin read a relevant passage from Angela’s Ashes.

Then it was my turn. I offered my remarks and then invited the audience to join in singing a favourite song of Frank’s. As a young man he loved this song. It expressed his yearning for freedom and self- expression. The song? Don’t Fence Me In. The audience, with smiles and laughter and great gusto, sang along. This was Limerick at her best, our city of singers and songs.

Later that day I thought back to my conversation of that morning with the young Kenyan. We had talked about Jomo Kenyatta, or Burning Spear, as he was known, the great hero of the Kenyan overthrow of the British, in the 1950s. We talked about the United States and the recent developments in Cuba, all of it serious business.

For me, the most serious question still hung in the air. I really wanted to ask him if, as an African, his background and his skin colour had caused him any problems in Limerick. (I live in New York City. When it comes to work, people of all races, colours and religions work together, with little or no difficulty. That’s how we get to know each other. But when it comes to housing, to living together, there is a bit of a separation.)

And so, with some hesitation, I asked him how he was getting along in the city. Had he been well received, had he made a connection with the people of Limerick? With a broad smile and without hesitation, he answered.

“The people?” he said. “The people make up for the weather.”

ALPHIE MCCOURT

NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES