"Scatter my ashes on the Shannon." That was the last request from Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Angela’s Ashes."
McCourt died at a Manhattan hospice today surrounded by family and friends who had been keeping vigil with his wife Ellen over the past week.
McCourt had recently been treated for melanoma but became gravely ill with meningitis last week.
NIall O'Dowd, the publisher of IrishCentral.com said "The greatest tribute I can pay Frank McCourt is that he never lost the run of himself.
In May 2009 a publicist for McCourt first confirmed to the press that he had cancer.
McCourt was being treated for melanoma, said his agent Molly Friedrich, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Although the sad news was greeted with shock today in the Irish community, in May McCourt’s well-known brother Malachy initially sought to calm nerves by telling the press the reports were “exaggerated” and that his brother was “a hearty fellow and he’s survived worse than this.”
On hearing of his death today critics have begun the task of assessing McCourt’s legacy.
It would be hard to understate his achievements.
As the author of “Angela’s Ashes,” a searing and unforgettable account of his impoverished Irish upbringing in Limerick - that spent a remarkable 117 weeks on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list - McCourt has assured his place in the august company of great Irish writers.
Despite the poverty, abuse, and countless sorrows of his deprived Irish Catholic upbringing, “Angela’s Ashes” has a wry tone that has the power to make the reader laugh out loud on almost every page.
No Irish writer since Jonathan Swift has had McCourt’s skill to address and implicate the reader in the tale he is telling.
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.
McCourt knows that he is trafficking in holy cows but he consistently gives them their due: motherhood, Catholicism, poverty, nationalism, regional pride, all are acknowledged and addressed.
For a man of his particular background, age and era it was considered treasonous to venture an opinion at variance from long established Irish traditions: whatever else don’t knock the Church, the nation, your Mammy But he had a tale to tell – his own, in fact - and for this McCourt paid a steep price, being relentlessly and personally attacked on the airwaves and in the national press.
He stood his ground, he could do no other. It was his truth after all, eloquently expressed. That’s why his book will outlast its critics. And the truth is, it already has.