Frank McCourt, who died Sunday at 78, wrote of the Jews he knew as a child in Brooklyn in his 1996 debut, Angela’s Ashes and its follow-up, ’Tis. But long before that, when McCourt was still in the midst of his James Joyce phase, he took a Bloomesque wander through Limerick, Ireland, where he was raised, searching for the grave of a Jewish princess he’d heard about from an old man in a pub. He wrote about it in the Village Voice. “On the Trail of a Jewish Princess,” published in the September 2, 1971, issue of the paper, opens with a quote from Ulysses, the line about Ireland never having persecuted Jews because she’d never let them in. McCourt goes on to give a complete history of anti-Semitism on “Erin’s Isle,” boiled down to a few self-conscious columns.
Limerick was the only town to have seen full-blown rioting against the Jews, in 1904—a fact McCourt writes he first learned at the New York Public Library. When his mother was a girl, he writes, the children used to press their noses against the window of the Jewish-owned sweet shop until “the oul’ woman would come out and scream at us ‘Vot ye vont?’ and we’d yell back ‘We vont noddings’ and run off laughin’ over the woman’s Yiddish accent.
By the time McCourt returns to Limerick, the same year the city’s mayor said the Jews deserved what they got in the riots, there was only one Jewish family left. The man in the pub tells him the princess was Polish, and that the Jews are clean, “a very clean class of people altogether, forever washing themselves dead or alive.” At the cemetery McCourt imagines the princess’ body being gently swabbed for burial. He trips and scrapes himself, “blood of a goy on a Jewish grave,” he writes, and takes it as a sign he should go. But first the thought strikes that “the cows here eat grass sprung from Jewish graves, Jewish flesh, and the people of Limerick consume the body and blood of the Chosen.”
Back in town, his English boots covered in Irish cow dung from a Jewish graveyard, he hears the princess may have been Russian, or Rumanian, or German. He wonders in any event why in the name of God the Jews chose Limerick after wandering for thousands of years and millions of miles. “Perhaps they felt at ease with a people whose sufferings were as intense though not as prolonged as their own, or was it the knowledge beyond words, an instinct, that told them the Irish are indeed one of the Lost Tribes of Israel?” McCourt writes. “But the fact shatters the myth sometimes, and I preferred the myth.”