'Angela's Ashes'' author Frank McCourt dead at 78
Tributes pour in from Irish America as celebrated writer dies
When McCourt’s memoir first appeared in hardcover in 1996 it became a literary sensation, a testament to its authors narrative gifts.
It was the sheer force and clarity of McCourt’s voice that jolted the reader, setting his book apart from almost all others of that decade.
Speaking of his childhood in Limerick, McCourt wrote: “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
The truth telling, the disarming directness, two of McCourt’s particular gifts, were an affront to some Irish readers but – more often – a source of delight and recognition to the majority. McCourt himself was in no doubt about the hive of controversy his unforgettable memoir had created.
In an interview in 2007 McCourt said: “When the book was published in Ireland, I was denounced from hill, pulpit, and barstool. Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother's name, and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost.”
At 78, McCourt came from a generation of conservative Irish Catholics who had experienced first hand the many abuses of the insular, defensive and frequently philistine Irish Catholic Republic of the 1930’s through the 1960’s, and his book will certainly be remembered as a fierce rejoinder to its self-regard and outward piety.
Angela’s Ashes tells a distressing story of spiritual, physical and emotional privation, but there’s a drollery in the authors tone, a gently satirizing impulse that lifts the veil on hardship as it beguiles the reader to follow.
McCourt’s family, we discover, are evicted from their home after Frank takes a hatchet to the beams to burn for winter heat and the ceiling collapses in on them. Relatives treat them poorly; Church authorities often send them away empty-handed. This is hardly an advertisement for the Irish Tourist Board.
Considering that he was recounting his own lived experience as accurately as he knew how, the strength of the resentment directed at McCourt from some quarters was remarkable to behold.
In 2000 fellow Limerick man and award winning actor Richard Harris took him to task in a scathing article attacking McCourt for his perceived bitterness: “There are stories about Limerick in Angela’s Ashes that just don’t make sense. Of course I knew that the poverty was going on but I also knew many people with difficult lives who grew up on the lanes of Limerick but yet, even to this day, there isn’t one ounce of bitterness in them.”
But it’s neither fair nor accurate to call Angela’s Ashes a “bitter” book. In fact its tone is descriptive and consistently dispassionate, in a style that is often reminiscent of James Joyce.
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