Writing about his father’s death in 1985, Frank McCourt recalled a line by Emily Dickinson: “after great pain, a formal feeling comes.”
It is a measure of the man that Frank’s memorial in New York last week was marked by no formality, but by music and celebration of his life.
I first met Frank over 20 years ago in Chicago. I was working at the Consulate General of Ireland and Frank and his brother Malachy had come to town with their show “A Couple of Blackguards”.
I loved the show. But I really came to know Frank in a restaurant near the Wrigley Building where we met every Friday for lunch. The restaurant was decorated with murals that Frank described as being like "scenes from a demented stomach." But the food was good and the company even better and we laughed a great deal.
Frank’s brother Malachy once quipped that in times of great happiness, our sad songs help the Irish to endure. That’s another way of saying that in times of hardship, humor helps us endure. That is a key to Frank’s work.
Humor was needed in the Ireland Frank grew up in. And it was needed in the Irish communities in the US in the late 1980s. For thousands of undocumented Irish in Chicago, Frank’s humour - tempered in the hardship he had experienced - was a tonic.
Frank will be remembered for the accolades his writing received. And like many of our great writers, he will also be remembered for the controversy his writing generated.
Frank’s Ireland could sometimes be harsh. He described it as he experienced it. That took integrity. Frank was a man of tremendous integrity. That was recognized when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Limerick in 1997.
But I will remember him also for his generosity, especially to younger writers. We cannot afford to take it for granted that Ireland will always produce great writers. Frank knew that. He was a fierce champion of younger writers, nurturing talent where he found it. That was the teacher in him.
Of course, Frank’s greatest legacy is his writing. Ireland has produced many great writers who emigrated. But Frank was an emigrant who wrote. The path he took from Ireland to the US was taken by hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women of his generation.
Bill Clinton, speaking at a memorial for Frank last week, said that everyone has a story to tell and each story is unique and important. But few ever tell their story – and few tell it as well as Frank McCourt.
Frank came to the US in 1949, served in the US military and took a variety of jobs before settling into his chosen profession of teaching. His account of those experiences in his memoirs "‘Tis" and "Teacher Man" is even more important because it refects the experience of the thousands of others whose stories are untold.
Sean O Faolain’s story "The Silence of the Valley" records the passing of Tim Buckley of Gougane Barra, a man whose recorded words captured the experience of an earlier generation and a way of life that was passing.
Describing the mourners at Buckley’s funeral, O Faolain wrote: “they dispersed slowly, as if loath to admit that something final had happened to them all”.
There is a sense of finality too about Frank’s passing; a sense that we have lost the man who, better than any, described what it felt like to be an Irish emigrant to the United Stated in the middle years of the 20th century.
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”