Frank McCourt opened his wildly successful memoir Angela’s Ashes with a passage that served as a sort of ironic disclaimer for the tale he was about to unfold:

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 years.

And that is as good a description as any of the three-hundred-and-fifty pages that follow, right smack in the tradition of Sean O’Casey’s warts-and-all autobiography. The only item on this list that doesn’t show up in Angela’s Ashes is the pompous priests; in fact the priests young Frank comes in contact with tend to be rather humane. They are made up for, though, by the...

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