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.
It was a question that McCourt found difficult to answer. Perhaps his modesty was the residue of a tough upbringing and the neglect that came with it.
In Teacher Man, McCourt’s account of his years teaching, he revealed how for much of that time he considered himself a complete fraud. “Look at me: wandering late bloomer, floundering old fart, discovering in my forties what my students knew in their teens,” he wrote.
Some friends and associates remember McCourt’s occasional abrasiveness and willingness to stand his ground.
Broadcaster Adrian Flannelly, who knew McCourt for 50 years, told the Irish Voice: “I used to run Irish weekends up in the Catskill Mountains. Frank and his brother Malachy would be on the entertainment list with their show A Couple of Blaguards. They would play to generally mixed reviews -- these were generally conservative Irish audiences.
“They knew they were aggravating as many people as they were winning over in the Irish circle. They were amazing.”
Although Flannelly admits to having reservations about McCourt’s output, he refrains from making judgment.
“I’ve always accepted that if anyone has a grievance they should express it. I wouldn’t be up there clapping him on the back but I would be most accepting of it. There was no change in him from his earliest days to when he became a multimillionaire.
“Frank was Frank and that was it. He wanted to hold on to the reality from which he came.”
“He was a force among us and will be sorely missed,” said Loretta Brennan Glucksman, chairman of the American Ireland Fund. “Just shortly after we established Glucksman Ireland House Angela’s Ashes burst upon the scene, and one of my favorite memories was that we had the launch party.
“Of course it was too small to contain everyone who wanted to be there. It was just such an amazing outpouring of identification with all that Frank had put down.
“After a whole career of teaching others how to write I guess he figured he better sit down and do it himself. I also believe that Ellen had a lot to do with getting him to understand that he had something valuable to put out into the world.”
Brennan Glucksman has vivid memories of the remarkable success of the book and the public interest in created.
“I’ll never forget the first time I was in Limerick with Frank and Ellen. There was huge hoo-hah about this foul-mouthed fellow who had dumped on their town. Frank was giving a talk at the University of Limerick and there were picketers outside,” she recalls.
“Out he goes to them and asks what’s on their mind. They said they didn’t like his story and he replied, ‘Well write your own. This is my story. If you have another one more power to you. Go write it.’
“It diffused the tension and the picketers wound up coming in to listen to him. You’ve got to back and read the book again, even if you’ve read it 20 times, because the story is so brilliant.”
In a statement, the Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Collins expressed his sorrow on hearing of McCourt’s passing.
“I first met Frank in New York some 25 years ago and was privileged to have remained in contact with him through the years since then. Most recently, I was very honored and proud to introduce him in February at a literary event in Colombia, Maryland, which was thronged with enthusiastic devotees of Frank's work, at which he spoke about his book Teacher Man and his life as a teacher in New York.
“Frank was a gifted and gentle man whose appeal went way beyond the many people in the U.S. and Ireland who particularly appreciated his writings, his wit and the wonderful character that he was.
“I remember a particular occasion shortly after the publication of Angela's Ashes when I was living in Saudi Arabia and the local women's book club wanted additional insights into the book! We got in touch with Frank and he very generously obliged. The fact that the book appealed to diverse groups and nationalities, whether in Riyadh or New York, is a real testament to the universality of Frank's extraordinary literary talent.”
In a statement Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams expressed his sadness and extended his condolences to McCourt’s wife Ellen, his daughter Maggie and his brothers and family circle.
“Frank McCourt was an exceptional teacher and natural storyteller. He was a gifted and inspiring writer and his books revealed aspects of life in Ireland which touched the hearts of millions,” Adams said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that of all the great New York writers, few had captured the hearts of readers and the heart of the city like McCourt.
Said Bloomberg, “A year or two ago, Frank McCourt and I were speaking at Adrian Flannelly’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party when Frank said, ‘New York is such a lovely city. I was born here, and I’d like to die here too -- in about 30 years.’ Sadly, we lost Frank today, far too soon.”