Frank McCourt’s late in life swansong was as unforgettable as it was sweet. Since its publication in 1996 Angela’s Ashes has become a bona fide modern classic, which even his few remaining critics have conceded. Cahir O'Doherty remembers the distinctive Irish (and Irish American) writer one year after his passing.
Pulitizer prize winning Irish writer Frank McCourt (1930-2009), who passed away on July 19, 2009, told his story better than anyone else ever could. The only thing you can add to Angela’s Ashes, his unforgettable memoir, is that since its debut in 1996 it has become a beloved modern classic.
Of course it wouldn’t have been an Irish story without substantial numbers of his countrymen lining up to take potshots at him first. How could McCourt write about his poor mother and Limerick, the city he grew up in (McCourt was actually born in Brooklyn) like that, they cried?
It helps if you go back and read his book. What’s striking about Angela’s Ashes is how richly remembered his past is, and how detailed and finely drawn.
“When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all,” Angela's Ashes begins. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”
Either you see the gently indulgent humor in those lines or you don’t, and it turned out that some of his Irish readers really didn’t, at least at first. One former schoolmate confronted McCourt at a book signing in Limerick and ripped a copy of his book in half.
Credible death threats forced Limerick University to step up their security when McCourt visited the college. Even the actor Richard Harris, a fellow Limerick man, wrote an incandescent letter to The Times of London denouncing him in theatrical terms.
It didn’t change a thing. McCourt won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and the 1996 National Book Critics Award. Angela’s Ashes became a New York Times bestseller, and even his most ardent critics had to give him his due.
In an irony McCourt would have laughed at, this year Limerick is set to benefit financially from his literary efforts. An organization called Books Abroad has scheduled a two-week Irish literary tour beginning in September.
The group will spend two nights in Limerick at a local hotel and will take part in a special literary walking tour of the city, dedicated to Angela’s Ashes. The cost of the two-week tour is a minimum of $5,850 per person, which would have been an unheard of sum in McCourt’s youth.
Further ironies abound. The Limerick Writers’ Center announced this summer that it’s beginning a two-year project to translate and publish Angela’s Ashes into the Irish language.
Dominic Taylor of the Writers’ Center told the press, “Our reasons for taking on this project are, first of all, that such a famous book, by an Irish author, should be available to read in Gaelic and secondly, as Frank McCourt was a proud Limerick man, we want to publish the book in Limerick as a tribute to him.”
The eldest of seven children, McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930, a year after the Wall Street crash, and the first year of the Great Depression. In the years that followed his sister Margaret died just a few weeks after her birth, in 1935.
Following that tragedy, McCourt’s devastated parents moved back to Ireland where his twin brothers died within a year of the family's arrival and where Frank’s youngest brothers, Michael and Alphie, were born.
In his books McCourt outlines what these experiences cost his family, but it took him a lifetime to deal with the cost to himself. No one was more surprised than he was that he had survived it all. In the end his hard journey led to an extraordinary late in life flowering, and a swan song that was as unexpected as it was sweet.
Angela’s Ashes became an international publishing sensation because it is brilliantly written and its subject matter is familiar to anyone raised in Ireland, no matter from which class or creed.
The rotten Irish Catholic childhood, with its shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father, and its pious defeated mother moaning by the fire -- let’s face it, these are things that aren’t exactly unheard of. McCourt lived through every hardship he wrote about, and his tale of triumph against the odds captivated millions.
The ironic thing is that it might never have happened. The grinding poverty McCourt grew up in could easily have shamed and silenced him like it did countless others.
It could have robbed of him of every last shred of his self- esteem and made the book seem pointless. The triumph of Angela’s Ashes is that it was written at all, and that’s worth remembering.
In the book, McCourt describes how the entire row of houses on his street in Limerick shared a single outhouse, which was flooded by constant rain, and infested with rats and vermin. But all of this is conveyed in the most buoyant prose, brimming with humor, irony and sometimes fury.
Three of his seven siblings died, and he nearly died himself from typhoid fever. He often dreamed, he tells us, of becoming a prison inmate so that he would be guaranteed three meals a day and a warm bed. That line makes you laugh until you realize its pathos.
When it finally debuted in 1996 Angela’s Ashes quickly became a major publishing event and soon everyone wanted a piece of it -- Irish societies, literary societies, book festivals, universities, even Irish pubs. The strain of all the promotional tours told on McCourt, who was 66 when it was published, but he said the royalty checks made up for it.
“Some people are running around town saying I made all this suffering up,” McCourt remarked soon after the book was published. “I wish I did. I would have had a nicer life. My sister and two brothers wouldn't have died as children.”
McCourt followed up Angela’s Ashes with ‘Tis, which begins where the first book leaves off, with him making his way to New York City, which would become his home for most of his life. Although neither it nor Teacher Man, the book that followed it, could achieve the same success of his breakout hit, each became bestsellers in their own right.
The theme that unites all three of his books is McCourt’s exploration of the effect that growing up in poverty has on a person, and the surprisingly difficult business of adjusting to better times when they finally arrive. His books make clear that McCourt suffered from a kind of post-traumatic stress that haunted him most of his life, and only toward the end did he begin to make his peace with it.
It’s moving to read of how often he was taken aback by the simple good-natured generosity of his American students, who could occasionally reduce him to tears with their everyday kindnesses. They ended up having important life lessons to impart to him too.
After all, it took him decades to unpack all that damage, and in believing in their talent he came to believe in his own at last.
Speaking about the reaction to his book to students at Bay Shore High School on Long Island in 1997, he said, “I learned the significance of my own insignificant life.”
McCourt’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1994 he married Ellen Frey McCourt who survives him, as do his brothers Malachy, Alphie and Mike.
“I think there’s something about the Irish experience, that we had to have a sense of humor or die,” McCourt told an interviewer about his outlook on life. “That’s what kept us going, a sense of absurdity, rather than humor.”