While mourning the death of Irish author Frank McCourt on Sunday, his friends and relations were consoled by the knowledge that -- although taken too soon -- McCourt had lived a rich life and had achieved every goal he had set himself.
McCourt, who had been gravely ill with meningitis, died on Sunday afternoon in a Manhattan hospice at age 78 of metastatic melanoma.
To hear his close friends tell it, the celebrated author had enjoyed three lives in one -- first came his early years as the malnourished boy on the backstreets of Limerick; his second life began with a 30-year stint as a celebrated school teacher in New York; and his third life followed at the age of 66 as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of his memoir Angela’s Ashes.
But there was another, more private aspect of McCourt’s life that proved as rich and rewarding as the other three combined -- his late in life happy marriage to his third wife and soul mate Ellen Frey, who he wed in 1994. It’s still not generally known how instrumental she was in talking him into writing Angela’s Ashes, and then encouraging him to get it published. But there’s no question that she provided the support and encouragement he needed to complete the book.
McCourt’s wife, brothers and close friends gathered in Manhattan on Sunday to keep a vigil at his bedside, and its understood they talked and reminisced about the life and times of man who had brought them together.
Recognizing that McCourt had accomplished all the major goals he had set himself in life, the majority of his friends and relations were in a bittersweet mood reminiscing about their friend and mentor.
“He had a great life; he did everything he set out to do,” fellow author and friend Peter Quinn told the Irish Voice. “He had his say -- not everyone gets to have their say.”
Quinn, who knew McCourt for over 30 years, became close to McCourt when they attended the same Manhattan literary group.
“Years ago we had this group called the First Friday’s Club. That group was for people who wanted to be writers or talk about writing. That’s where I got to know Frank.
“One afternoon he told me this, ‘You know what you’ve got to do? You’ve got to live life thinking of your biographer. So just think of some poor graduate student who’s going to spend years in the library writing about you. You’ve got to make your life interesting. You’ve got to take all the risks you can, swing at the curve balls and don’t worry about it, so long as its interesting.’
“The thing that’s interesting about that in retrospect is that he ended up being his own biographer.”
Angela’s Ashes was first printed in 1996, with a round of just 25,000 copies (no one suspected it would become an international publishing phenomenon). The book launch was at the then newly opened Ireland House at New York University.
“I think Frank himself was surprised by the success of the book,” says Quinn. “He had been working with (brother) Malachy for years in the theatre show A Couple of Blaguards and he’d taken a couple of cracks at writing.
“But when I read Angela’s Ashes I thought it was brilliant. It’s one of those rare books that’s on the bestseller list and is also a literary classic. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
McCourt made no secret of his disdain for the Irish Catholic Church, and friends were not surprised to learn this week that there would be no Catholic funeral services for the celebrated Irish scribe.
“I don’t think Frank was an atheist,” says Quinn. “Frank was a very spiritual person. He was absolutely disillusioned to the point of bitter enmity with the Catholic Church, but he once told me that he handed in the manuscript of the last pages of Angela’s Ashes on the feast of St, Francis of Assisi -- and I know he had a great admiration for him.”
“He was anti-clerical and resented the influence of the Church in Ireland but I think there’s a spiritual dimension to his writing. There was the humor and the goodness and he was an incredibly generous person.”
Quinn traveled with McCourt and his wife in Ireland in 1999 when Angela’s Ashes was being filmed and he remembers meeting nuns and priests who would tell the author how much they loved his book.
“I recall how many people would approach him with tales of things that had happened in their own families and how his book had helped them deal with it. The sense I got in Ireland was that it had been a liberating book for people,” Quinn said.
“All the stuff that wasn’t told -- the sexual abuse, the abuse in the institutions, the pain of individual families, and all the pain that people ate for so long. All this crap that was inside us all, he helped get it out.”
In his own life McCourt spent 30 years in a role that seems to command little to no respect from the state, society and teenagers – as a high school teacher in New York. But McCourt was exceptional in the role; many of his own students often asked him why he was teaching them instead of living the life of a celebrated author.