Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 19, 1930, to Irish immigrant parents. His father, Malachy McCourt, was born in Northern Ireland. Although the consumption of alcohol was prohibited at the time, New York’s illegal but widely tolerated speakeasies became the focus of Malachy’s life. By any measurement he was an alcoholic, liable to abandon work and family at any time for a drink, or several.
Frank McCourt’s mother, Angela Sheehan, was from the city of Limerick in western Ireland and grew up in a slum. Her father had abandoned the family just weeks before she was born. She immigrated to New York in November, 1929, just after the crash of the U.S. stock market, and met Malachy shortly after her arrival. Attracted to each other in spite of the objections of Angela’s cousins, who did not trust the Northern Irish, Angela became pregnant. Her family forced Malachy to marry Angela, and the two wed in March, 1930. Frank, their first son, was born in August and was named after Saint Francis of Assisi. A year later, a second son, Malachy, was born to the McCourts, followed two years later by twins, Eugene and Oliver, and then a daughter, Margaret, who died in infancy. Michael was born six years after Frank, and a last child, Alfie, was born about 1940. Malachy, Sr., could not find or hold employment, and the family returned to Ireland.
Life in a Limerick slum during the 1930’s was even worse than that in a Brooklyn flat. Malachy continued to drink, and the burden of feeding and clothing her children fell on Angela, who unhappily relied on charity. The McCourts shared with a dozen other families an outdoor privy, which was situated just outside the McCourts’ door; the stench was overpowering. In the winter the ground floor of their...
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Frank McCourt initially hoped that if Angela’s Ashes was published it would get a brief review, but it became instead a runaway best seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and made into a successful film. ’Tis also became a best seller, although most critics did not find that it had the compelling qualities of its predecessor.
In addition to his storytelling abilities and narrative technique, McCourt can also credit his success to the fact that his memoirs are in the tradition of the Horatio Alger novels of the nineteenth century, where the hero overcame any obstacle through luck and pluck. Of course, McCourt’s work is much more brutally realistic than most earlier accounts of poverty, and his explicit description of sexual repression, the corrupting power of the clergy, and widespread alcoholism do not reflect the writings of the Victorian era.
Francis (Frank) McCourt was a retired high school writing teacher who rose to prominence in the 1990’s after writing about his childhood in the squalid slums of Limerick, Ireland. His first book, Angela’s Ashes, won several awards, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1996, spending more than one hundred weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. The memoir received the Pulitzer Prize in literature in 1997. McCourt came to the United States a naïve nineteen-year-old without a high school education. The son of an Irish laborer, who functionally abandoned Frank and his family in Limerick, realized a childhood dream. He was recognized as a writer.
Born in Brooklyn to Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt, Frank was a child of poverty who grew into privilege through his hard work and tenacious spirit. The eldest of seven children, he and three brothers lived to adulthood. His brother Malachy was born in 1931. Following the death of their baby sister, the family returned to Ireland. There they lived in abject poverty, with minimal assistance from relatives or the Catholic Church. Their young twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, would die within months of each other from disease and lack of proper nutrition. Two other brothers, Michael and then the youngest McCourt, Alphonsus Joseph, would die in childhood as well.
McCourt begins Angela’s Ashes with a commentary on his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” and yet it is through that very childhood that he finds his voice as a writer. His life in Limerick is a saga of simple survival, serving as a crucible for his creative vision. There is pathos and humor, even as young Frank burns the beams of their apartment in attempt to heat the place. He survives rejection by the Church and his harsh education at the Leamy School. He survives serious illness, his father’s abandonment, and his mother’s despair at her plight. He works odd jobs and delivers telegrams throughout Limerick, eventually earning (and...
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