The day Frank McCourt told me in a whisper – Yes, it's true. I lost Angela's ashes on a pub crawl John McEntee heard the story from wildman actor Richard Harris. Then he asked the author himself...
With Angela's Ashes the late Frank McCourt had the dubious distinction of initiating the modern literary phenomenon of the so-called 'misery memoir'. His hard-to-believe account of a deprived childhood in bleak 1930s Limerick city triggered a literary stampede of miserable soul-searching recollections which has, with the grace of God, now gone out of fashion.
Frank McCourt made his name and fortune with the book before he died in 2009. But he was not universally acclaimed. The actor Richard Harris was one Limerick contemporary who simply didn't believe Frank's account of his childhood.
The star of 'A Man Called Horse' and 'This Sporting Life', Harris conceded that McCourt's family was impoverished, but not as deprived as he made out in Angela's Ashes. Harris came from a more privileged background in the West of Ireland city on the banks of the Shannon; he knew McCourt slightly in Limerick but became more acquainted when he achieved fame and fortune and bought the rights to Alan Jay Lerner's 'Camelot'. Between movie commitments he made pots more money touring the musical across the US.
Frank and his younger brother Malachy were little-known Irish émigrés in New York. They had an amateur double act they presented in the Irish bars of Manhattan describing the grim details of their childhood in Limerick.
Sometimes, when they were in full spout mesmerising the Yanks about the lack of food and the grinding poverty, their mother Angela, who had emigrated with her sons to New York, would heckle from the floor. 'Not true,' she would plea. And then she died.
I must beg your indulgence for a moment and ask you to travel with me from the tap houses of Manhattan to the Coal Hole bar, which still nestles in front of London's Savoy Hotel.
Until he died in 2002, Richard Harris lived in a £2,000-a-week suite at the Savoy. After more than a decade of teetotalism he had resumed drinking and was a frequent customer at the old-fashioned pub on the Strand. Bored, he would sit sipping a foaming pint of Boddingtons, peering over his spectacles and engaging all and sundry in discussions about his beloved Munster rugby team.
It was here, at a corner table, that I encountered him a few years before he died. We'd had a misunderstanding over a libel action he'd won against me nearly 20 years before. We hadn't spoken since. He caught my eye. I was poised with a drink in hand going to sit elsewhere. I mumbled an apology. We shook hands.
He beamed. "Sit down, you fool. All water under the bridge." I did with alacrity. We talked rugby. Many pints vanished. Then he asked me to join him in his suite atop the Savoy where he was planning to watch his London love Chelsea play football on Sky TV in an evening game.
"I'm sorry Richard, I can't," I said. "I am going down the road to Penguin Books where they're having a party to celebrate the millionth copy of Angela's Ashes in paperback. Why don't you come?"
His demeanour changed dramatically.
"Angela's Ashes? Frank McCourt? Will he be there?"
"Of course," I replied. "He has flown in from New York specially."
Then he said, mischievously, "When you get there you ask McCourt what happened to his mother's ashes. I know he lost them! When his mother died he hadn't a bob to rub together and he wanted to ship her ashes to Limerick to be scattered over the family grave. I was touring in Camelot and helped him and Malachy with cash to pay for the shipping.
"Frank went to a cheap shipper in Queens and he lost his mother's ashes. He f***ing lost them. Mislaid! Gone! You ask him."
We finished our drinks and agreed to reconvene the following week at the Coal Hole. I meandered to the Penguin HQ, a short block up the Strand. Glass of wine in hand, I gravitated towards Planet Frank, who was being lionised by the usual circling asteroids of literary totty. They looked at him with unrequited adoration.
I introduced myself. He was charm itself. Then, tongue in cheek, I asked matter of factly: "Tell me, Frank, what, what, er, what happened to your mother's ashes?" The transformation was instant and extraordinary. His amiable demeanour vanished, his face darkened. He grabbed me by the throat and pushed me up against the nearby wall.
"Harris sent you,' he screamed. 'Richard Harris f***ing sent you. You tell Harris I found my mother's ashes. You go and tell him that."
Having upset the famous author I found myself surrounded by security staff, who briskly escorted me from the room.
A week later in the Coal Hole, over more pints of Boddingtons, the distinguished actor and I reconvened. I told him what had occurred. The account of McCourt's attempt to strangle me and his palpable antagonism towards Harris reduced him to helpless mirth. He couldn't stop laughing. I thought he was having a seizure. He removed his glasses, produced a handkerchief and chortled and chuckled for a full minute.
I was left in no doubt that he enjoyed my discomfiture and McCourt's annoyance even more.
Then Richard died. Five years ago I was invited to a reception at the Irish Embassy in Belgravia where Frank McCourt was reading an extract from his latest book, Teacher Man, about his time as a lecturer in New York (an earlier follow-up to 'Angela's Ashes' entitled 'Tis had been described by an Irish Times reviewer as 'T'isn't').
After the reading I proffered my hand and introduced myself. He remembered me and had the good grace to apologise for grabbing me by the throat when I had turned up as Harris' unwelcome emissary.
Then he admitted: "Yes, Harris was right. After our mother Angela died we did lose her ashes. Malachy and I had too much to drink in a Manhattan bar and we left the ashes behind. We had no idea where they were . . . But we did, eventually, retrieve them."
I hope Harris is giving his fellow Limerickman a good ribbing in Paradise