Frank McCourt was the Pulitzer Prize-winning best selling author of Angela's Ashes, but in his heart he was always a teacher. Those who knew him best know just how hard he worked to ignite the fire of creativity in his classroom, so news that a new creative writing summer school will be held in his honor at Glucksman Ireland House at NYU this summer is especially welcome.
“I work in the University in Limerick (as the Frank McCourt chair of creative writing) and I was thinking of a way we could commemorate him in this particular year, the 20th anniversary of the publication of Angela's Ashes,” novelist Joseph O'Connor, 52, tells the Irish Voice.
“I knew from having got to know him a little bit that teaching was really important to him. I think that in some sense Frank thought of himself as a teacher first and that the books were a form of teaching. So I wondered how we could combine the twin interests of his life.”
Since McCourt’s life is a tale of two cities, Limerick and New York, O'Connor thought the creative writing summer school should happen in his adopted home of New York.
“We put a course together with Glucksman Ireland House and NYU and this July 7-10 we're going to pilot it with 45 students. We're thrilled at the take up for it already. We think it's going to be a lovely three or four days of teaching and writing and creativity.”
The Irish think of McCourt as an Irish writer, which is why it's a surprise to many of us to hear him described as an American one. “I work at the University of Limerick now and my job is endowed by Frank's estate,” explains O'Connor.
“We had the great Richard Ford, the novelist, visiting us last September and he said, ‘It's fantastic that a university in Ireland would name its creative writing program after an American writer.’ He was talking about Frank. We think of him as one of our own but so many Americans and particularly New Yorkers think of him as a New Yorker.”
Before the summer school opens in July a star studded tribute night to McCourt will be held at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street on Sunday June 26, at 7 p.m. What was the thinking behind this event?
“When myself and my pals at the Irish Arts Center were putting the evening together and started reaching out for participants, people were falling over themselves to volunteer to remember Frank. There's just such a huge good will and generosity and love for Frank,” says O'Connor.
Artists scheduled to participate at the tribute include Gabriel Byrne, Maeve Higgins, Larry Kirwan, Paul Muldoon, Peter Quinn, Pierce Turner and the Irish Rep's Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly.
“He's a really important writer and a lot of writers who really do matter from the pantheon of 20th century Irish writing felt the same. Frank was able to be very truthful and very funny at the same time. Not everybody can do that.
“He had an innate storyteller’s sense of how powerful comedy really is as a means of unsettling the reader. Like all the great Irish writers, the really great ones, have been comedians going back to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw up through Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien and Roddy Doyle. I think Frank was in that grand tradition of knowing how to use laughter as a means of saying very powerful things.”
O'Connor, an acclaimed writer himself, recalls with fondness just how protective of emerging young Irish writers (visiting New York for the first time) McCourt could be.
“If you were doing a reading in some crummy bookstore on a rainy night on a Thursday in the arse end of Queens that no one was going to come to, in would shuffle this man in a mac who had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. He would come to all of our readings, he would take you out for dinner afterwards, and would chat to you and be such a gent.”
The born teacher's skill at remembering was apparent when McCourt would remember the names of O'Connor's children despite never having met them.
“He would ask, ‘How’s James, how’s Marcus?’ He took a really intense personal satisfaction and happiness out of the achievements of younger Irish writers when they did achieve anything in America. And when they didn't he offered great commiseration. I felt that he was a very avuncular, gentle man.”
O'Connor met McCourt for the first time when O’Connor’s play Red Roses and Petrol performed at the Irish Arts Center back in 2000.
“It would be 16 years ago now. It's a family drama, the father has died and left behind video tapes of himself which the family discover. So they find out things about the dad after the funeral when they're looking at these tapes.”
McCourt decided he would like to play the dad, so he recoded the video pieces for the play.
“On the opening night my flight was delayed so I arrived in the center after it had begun. I was standing in the shadows looking at the face of this great writer Frank McCourt on the screen speaking my lines when suddenly I feel a tap on the shoulder,” O’Connor recalled.
“I turned around and there he was standing behind me. It was a very powerful, dramatic way to meet someone who I had admired so much.”
Now the tribute night and the forthcoming summer school are a way to mark McCourt’s achievement and keep his name current.
“It represents a great coming together of Irish people involved with the arts and of New York-based Irish associations that Frank would have been involved with like the Irish Repertory Theatre, Glucksman Ireland House, the Irish Arts Center and the American Irish Historical Society,” O'Connor explains.
“I hope it will take root and we'll have the Frank McCourt Summer School every year in New York from now on and that students from Ireland and all over the U.S. will come to it too, which has happened, a very nice mix.”
On the field of culture Ireland plays and wins, O'Connor says.
“We achieve so much beyond our size and weight. Our current younger generation of Irish writers, the generation behind me is fantastic,” he says.
“Lisa McInerney just won the Bailey's Prize for Fiction in the U.K., a very prestigious prize. It's one of the ways that Ireland really presents itself to the world as a society that believes in excellence.”
O'Connor was speaking to the Irish Voice on Monday, the day of the Ireland vs. Sweden soccer match in the European Championship and the parallel is irresistible.
“If we get through the first round of this match we'll be thrilled. But in the field of culture someone like Colum McCann winning the National Book Award is the equivalent of winning the World Cup. I think we need to play to that strength and say that this is part of a very proud and vibrant tradition that was carried along by Frank.”
Irish Consul General Barbara Jones was instrumental in the tribute and summer school plans, as was Ellen McCourt, Frank's widow, O'Connor explains.
“And Loretta Brennan Glucksman just couldn't have been more helpful. When I went to New York a year ago to plan for the school she was supportive and really helpful in terms of making introductions,” he added.
“It's couldn't have been done without the huge goodwill for Frank that's out there and for this new creative writing summer school in New York. It's a very important thing that our course in Limerick and New York is named after him. He set a very high standard of writing and teaching and we're hoping to emulate that and build on it here.”
For more information about the Frank McCourt summer school visit frankmccourt.ulfoundation.com.