All in the McCourt Family

Alphie McCourt, the youngest McCourt boy now aged 68, was the first of his famous family to graduate from high school. It's a measure of the deprivation and loss they all faced that the baby turned out to be the most exalted. It was an irony his older brothers Frank, Malachy and Michael never failed to remind him of too, with varying degrees of sincerity and satire. Alphonsus, or Alphie as he became known, grew up in the aftermath of disaster. His father had long since abandoned them, the older boys had moved away to America, the twins Eugene and Oliver and his sister Margaret had died, and most all of this had happened long before he was born. For Alphie, all that remained were the quiet streets of Limerick, an empty house and his mother's haunted face. It's no wonder he cleared out to the U.S. at the first opportunity. Starting out in New York at 19, the age difference between him and the older boys was, he says, very important, but it's diminished over the years. Nowadays he's very much his own man. "I don't have to listen to them any more," he tells the Irish Voice. "Frank insists I will listen to him though, especially when he delivers my eulogy." In "A Long Stone's Throw," McCourt's intimate and vivid new memoir, he starts his tale in Limerick, where he learned the traditional Irish songs that have stayed with him all his life. Limerick schooled his heart and he's retained all the lessons, writing with facility and real feeling about the sights and sounds of his youth. Not surprisingly it was the desire to tell his own story, just as he recalled it, that lies at the heart of his new memoir. He has read and greatly appreciated his brothers' celebrated works, first and foremost Frank's Pulitzer Prize winning "Angela's Ashes," but he was always conscious of his own unique tale. Says McCourt, "I'm the youngest, I'm the last of the line and of course we all want to have our own say. I wanted to add my own side to the story. People would always ask me when is your book coming out, and I'd always say next year, next year. So finally here it is." There are millions of people in the world who already have an unshakeable idea about who Angela McCourt was, and by extension, who her sons are. These days she's as much a literary character as she once was real. What emerges in Alphie McCourt's intimate telling is a whole new perspective on a much discussed figurehead. McCourt's understated way of describing the events of his own journey leave no doubt about what he was thinking and feeling. "Limerick in the fifties was very bleak. You couldn't occupy yourself. But school distracted me between studying and playing rugby," he recalls. "I also belonged to a pipe band and we used to run concerts and ceilis and stuff like that. In the end, though, you'd always go home to my mother, who was obviously so lonely because the others were gone and I was the last one left. It was a lonely house. There was only one way to go." McCourt had what he calls "the liability" of too much formal education when he was young, noting that his older brothers didn't. The result, in his opinion, is that they display much more freedom in their writing. "I went to the Christian Brothers secondary school and they never cease to remind me what an advantage it was," says McCourt. "That means I have to take the position that it was a disadvantage." In 1959, at the age of 19, Alphie McCourt first set foot in the U.S. Luckily his older brothers Frank and Malachy were already fairly established. In his first month in New York City Alphie met more people than in all the 19 years he had lived in Limerick. "I arrived just before Christmas so there was a huge round of festivities and parties. It was a very glamorous time because back then in the early sixties it was all happening in the Village," he says. "There were many artists and writers to meet, all the talk was of writers like Dylan Thomas and Virginia Woolf. The truth is I wouldn't have known Virginia Woolf if I'd tripped over her in Limerick." His mother Angela had been a great reader all her life and somehow - even with so little formal education - her lifelong interest in literature translated to each one of her sons. "We read everywhere, even at the dinner table, where she would remonstrate with us. She would call that bad manners. I don't know where our interest in reading came from except to say that it was always there. I won't take credit and I won't take the blame. It's just there." As a young immigrant fresh of the plane, it took McCourt many years to find his feet in the U.S. Like many people, he felt that he was actually doing and supposed to be doing were miles apart, which led to a certain detachment, both in his manner and in his life. Says McCourt, "It took me my whole life to find my feet. I think I grew up around 50, somewhere around there. If I were advising anyone now I'd refer to the story of the donkey and the two carrots. The donkey is standing in the middle of the field and there are two carrots at either side of him, both at the sane distance. But he can't decide which one to eat first, so he starves to death. There was some of that in my life." What he discovered, and what he outlines in the book, is that almost anyone can get through life pretty much with one hand. If you have some intelligence and some capability and some talent you really don't have to fret, he says. You can get away with a great deal without giving your full commitment to it. But sooner or later you'll have to reconcile who you are with whom you want to be. "Until I get into the restaurant business I passed along without conviction or commitment. In my life I suppose I've always felt as if I should be doing something creative," McCourt says. "But creativity requires discipline and hard work, and I didn't grasp that for a very long time. That realization comes later in life." McCourt spent more than a few dissolute years on both sides of the Atlantic searching for a focus and direction in his life, and privately coming to terms with the toll that drinking was having on it. He wasn't a drunk, but neither was he the most self-disciplined individual you could hope to meet. "I realized when I was 50 that I wanted to make changes. So I stopped drinking. I was never one to preach about that because I don't believe in being a zealot or seeking converts," he says. "It was just something I did for myself and I wouldn't say to anyone they have to make the same choices I did. If they're ready, they're ready. Being off booze strips away all the delusion, forces you to take responsibility for yourself." But McCourt is leery of any narrative involving the Irish and alcohol abuse, just as he is of any hint that his memoir might contain self-help tips from a wise soul, courtesy of a well-lived life. "A Long Stone's Throw" is first and foremost a vivid memoir of an Irish life, and it's a worthy and finely crafted addition to the already remarkable McCourt canon.

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