Frank McCourt honored by NYC teachers dedicated to Irish studies


I walked into the den of teachers. I was on their turf again. Teachers have a particular sense of smell that sniffs out the unprepared. I know this from my days at Bronx Science, the rival to Stuyvestant where Frank McCourt taught so many people to write and free themselves to write. My connection to Frank McCourt is tentative, except as a reader, and so I walked into the Teacher's Union where he was being honored by those that knew him, with the feeling like before a big exam. I immediately recognized the crowd as being teachers. Maybe it's they that emit a fermone. Maybe its the New York City teacher look, or the exhaustion. Whatever it was, I knew them right away, and I had a flight response to run out of the room.

Instead I bucked myself up, with the confidence a student must have. I had come to learn about Frank McCourt who was being memorialized by the Irish American Studies committee of New York teachers. I discovered that it was this group that had successfully up-dated the system-wide curriculum to teach the Irish famine in detail. It was apt, because Frank McCourt had written of his hungry childhood in a time when Ireland was proudly disassociating itself from poverty in the Celtic Tiger years. Irish Studies is at least about keeping that perspective of empathy while reading the past, no matter the circumstance in the present, to make of history something much more useful to the present.

Before the Committee's successes, the constituting Irish contributions to New York and American history were neglected in high school classes. I remember writing a letter to the Irish newspapers when I was a junior years ago, to draw attention to the wealth of information in my textbook on the crown jewels of England; and to contrast that to the glib "potato famine" summary made in one sentence in the same book. There was no offering to students like me who wanted to look at history from the perspective of those who were exploited. There was no history for Irish Americans who had to learn on their own how to empathize more deeply with other peoples by understanding their own history as coming from an Ireland controlled like any African colony, robbed of natural resources like food. Or as Frank McCourt described, a post-colonial Ireland as poor and troubled as Africa.

The Famine was also the cataclysmic event that provided the Catholic Church a moral weapon against the people. Frank McCourt gave the world his opening line in Angela's Ashes to remember that for all time: "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." Post-Famine, through the McCourts' generation, the Catholic hierarchy set about convincing the people that God would punish the Irish with hunger and misery if they continued the licentious Celtic impulses of the Irish Gaels. The priests believed "their sheep" were yet "wild" clinging to a lascivious culture--it's why Irish cultural renaissance was spear-headed by so many non-Catholics. It became the mission of the Catholic priests and nuns to re-educate the people, in a foreign language, from their British-enacted base in Maynooth, and remould Irishness into something they could control as deputies for the colonial authority. In some ways, as Frank McCourt speaks for so many teachers, he speaks for so many around the world, suffering in social systems created from the post-colonial condition.

Frank McCourt is survived by Ellen Frey McCourt who accepted an award for him with tearful grace and gratitude when she had to call the McCourt brothers to help her conclude. Malachy McCourt and Alphie McCourt--historical personages who appear in Frank McCourt's books, as he does in their own memoirs--stood together at the podium with Frank's image projected behind them. It was up to Malachy to start the song, with Alphie joining to sing "Oh! Boy, What Joy We Had In Barefoot Days." After all has been published and the immiseration is set down in the record forever, the McCourt brothers have a song to sing that keeps even the worst in joyful perspective.

The Irish memory ceremony is full with song and music. The organizers of the event--Doris Meyer and Tom Murphy--carefully timed it so that many key speakers would have the maximum time to bring together as many memories as could be fit into an entertaining and heart-felt evening. The duet Malachy McCourt and Alphie McCourt performed about barefoot days perfectly summarized the range of feelings Frank's life has meant. Gabriel Donoghue sang "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" to remind everyone of Frank McCourt's politics. Mick Moloney led a chorus of "H-A-R-R-I-G-A-N" the song about Ned Harrigan who was one of the Irish fathers of American popular entertainment in New York. The song was written by George M.Cohan, the Irish father of Broadway, who wrote the song in his predecessor's homage. Professor Moloney, an educator from Limerick, from a long-line of teachers, is as Frank McCourt was, and as Malachy McCourt today, an entertainer of wide reknown who represents Ireland as an unofficial cultural ambassador. Breandán Ó Caollaí the Leas Ard-Chonsal from the Irish consulate spoke of Frank McCourt's great example as teacher and writer.

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt is a book that has talismanic powers. It heals bad pedagogy, and inspires learning, almost upon site of Frank McCourt on the cover. His whole life and biography trumpeted education and the rights of poor people to the human dignity of a better life. The travesty of New York City public education is that the teacher is burdened and that the student is made feel tiny. Over-crowding alienates teacher from student in New York. And yet, Frank McCourt remembered students names he met years after they had left his classroom. On the street long after they had grown up, he remembered them. The statue of Father Duffy in the middle of Times Square--in the same plaza with George M.Cohan's--commemorates a man who was said to have made "a village of New York City." McCourt paid, and paid dearly in time and his creative energy as an artist, back to his students a level of respect that elevates the human being and gives everyone a sense of dignity and connectivity to something important. It's one reason a high school has been built and will open this fall in dedication to Frank McCourt.

There were many wonderful speakers at the event including authors Peter Quinn, Thomas Kelly and Larry Kirwain. Alphie McCourt has published a memoir, called A Long Stone's Throw. Taken together, the McCourts give us a unique library of memoir from those who have emerged from Irish poverty to become eloquent and exemplary people. Their contribution to Irish history and literature is entirely unique. Tom Deignan, Maura Mulligan, George Altomare and a former student--now award-winning teacher--honored Frank McCourt's memory also. The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra performed traditional Irish music for the occassion.

Around the time that Frank McCourt died, Malachy McCourt broke his leg. He mourned his brother in the time his bone healed. Malachy McCourt and Frank McCourt were central figures together in New York City's Irish cultural scene for decades before either man had published books. They wrote and performed a famous show together called A Couple of Blaguards that has become a classic telling of the Irish condition. When Frank's memoir was published, Malachy published his own New York Times bestseller called, A Monk Swimming with Hyperion Press. He followed that with seven more books, including the second volume of his memoir, Singing My Him Song.

Amidst all the laughter and tears, the stories and songs, there were the quiet thoughts and the private conversations between people that knew and loved and were missing Frank McCourt who left this world too soon, but with a legacy for others to pick up on and push forward as teachers and students, authors and readers, using education to propel civilization as something more humane and fair, especially to the poor.

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