An unmistakably Irish memorial service was held in upper Manhattan on Tuesday night when the life and work of the incomparable Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American writer, was commemorated in story and song.
McCourt, who passed away July 19 at age 78, was remembered at a spirited gathering at Symphony Space, where the author himself had passed many memorable evenings performing passages from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” each year at “Bloomsday on Broadway.”
McCourt, who taught in New York City’s school system for nearly 30 years, is best known for his unforgettable memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” his late in life masterpiece about growing up in poor and near destitute Limerick.
“When an Irishman’s book is favorably reviewed in The New York Times they usually say it is charming and lyrical,” McCourt’s younger brother Alphie told the audience. “Well, Frank give a good kick in the arse to charming and lyrical.”
Alphie McCourt added that neither he nor surviving brothers Malachy and Michael were there to ostentatiously mourn or celebrate their brother’s life. “Frank did a pretty good job of it himself,” Alphie said. “There’s lots I could say but it might just give way to an ocean of tears.”
Malachy McCourt, 76, the brother closest to Frank’s own age, recalled how he had warned his older brother to tell the truth and spare nothing during the writing of “Angela’s Ashes.” “There will be no spine in your book unless you tell the truth,” Malachy counseled, adding that its unexpected success had changed his life too. “I’m writing a new work now. It’s called, ‘I Read Your Brothers Book.’”
Malachy also remembered his mother Angela’s response to the two brothers’ first creative attempts to tell the story of their family and the hardships they’d endured. When she watched the brothers performing in the two-man show they wrote called “A Couple Of Blackguards” she stood up and shouted at them in the theatre.
“It’s all a pack of lies!” she told the audience, “It wasn’t that way at all!” When Frank and Malachy invited her up to the stage to give her version she declined, saying, “I will not. I have a reputation to uphold.”
Peter Quinn, the award winning Irish American novelist, spoke eloquently about McCourt’s life and achievements, telling the audience that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that there are no second acts in American life was a line that certainly did not apply to his famous friend. “Nobody ever had a happier second act,” Quinn suggested. Quinn also reflected on the immense debt Frank owed to his wife Ellen. “There would be no McCourt trilogy without her,” Quinn said.
The Irish Consul General Niall Burgess told the audience how he had first come to know Frank over 20 years ago in Chicago, and how Frank’s experience as an emigrant has helped shape him. “Frank was an emigrant. His book reflects the experiences of thousands of other emigrants. Frank described what it felt like to emigrate here in the middle of the last century.”
Ciaran O’Reilly of The Irish Repertory Theatre told the audience a story that reminded the audience of the droll sense of humor to be found in his books. “One night we passed a man on the street who was asking for $5 dollars to buy a bottle of wine. And how do I know, asked Frank, that you won’t use the money to buy soup?”
Charlotte Moore, The Irish Rep’s artistic director, told the audience that Frank’s favorite part of his own play “A Couple Of Blackguards” was a sequence where he really stuck it to the English. “The English conquered the world to escape their own cooking,” he wrote, and the words caused the Symphony Space audience to erupt with laughter.
“As a family we have had our ups and downs but we all gathered for Frank,” Malachy told the crowd. “He was dying and he knew it. And he died very softly, very quietly, and that kind of passing would be best for all of us.”