Frank McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes," "'Tis," and "Teacher Man," died on this day, July 19, 2009. He was gone too soon and yet his legacy lives on.
The greatest tribute I can pay Frank McCourt is that he never lost the run of himself (that's Irish for getting too big for his boots).
Success came late to Frank when "Angela's Ashes" finally hit the big time. Given his background and his previous fondness for booze, it would have been easy for him to follow the fatal path that countless Irish writers like Brendan Behan and Shane Macgowan have - i.e. drinking himself to oblivion.
The fact that he didn't and that he shared his success so generously is a measure of the man - and indeed the influence of his wonderful wife Ellen.
I don't know how many struggling young writers received words of encouragement or book blurbs from Frank. I don't know how many charity events he supported or how much money he secretly slipped to writers in need. I suspect it is quite a lot. He would never say.
I know that he supported our publications, Irish America Magazine and Irish Voice, to the hilt. He showed up at our events, sang all our praises, accepted our awards, and put up with his fair share of overeager fans and followers and never once complained.
I knew Frank before he was wealthy or famous and he was a gent, and I can safely say he improved with success. How many people can we say that about?
I attended many Irish weekends where he and his madcap brother Malachy did their "Couple of Blagards" show about growing up in Limerick. Frank was always the quiet one, the butt of Malachy's jokes and humor. Offstage he was the quiet one too, but a sardonic wit and sense of the absurd made him the best company around.
When the book hit the big time, I think no one was more surprised than Frank. It didn't change him. I remember him telling me once that the most ridiculous thing about being famous was that people wanted his opinions, even on stuff he knew nothing about.
"I'm an expert on what I know and nothing else," he said simply. "I turn all that other stuff down."
In a world of blowhards and media maniacs, it was a refreshing insight. Frank knew to call both fame and failure impostors, that what mattered was not the outside world's perception but the person within that mattered.
He wrote a beautiful piece a few years ago in Rolling Stone, I believe, about reconciling with his daughter and his grandkids in California. That was the greatest gift that fame and success gave him -- his family back.
Typical of the man, he said when he died he wanted no fuss, just his ashes scattered on his beloved River Shannon that flows through his native city of Limerick.
Another great Irish American John F. Kennedy said he dreamed of "seeing old Shannon's face again" during his farewell speech when he left Ireland in the never-to-be-forgotten summer of 1963.
The Shannon is a weary river, Ireland's longest, that finally winds safely to sea not far from Limerick.
Frank too is ready for a homecoming.
* Originally published in 2011, updated in July 2023.