Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846
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.
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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 stealing from an employer who dies of natural causes) enough money for his passage to the United States.
McCourt continues his story in ’Tis. A nineteen-year-old with little education, he reads anything he can find while working a number of menial jobs and living in various rooming houses in New York. The Korean War becomes his salvation of sorts. While in the Army he meets people of all races and beliefs and learns to type. Following the war, he returns to New York and goes to school under the G.I. Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University and later a master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College.
Encouraged by one of his teachers to pursue his writing, McCourt continued to work and write and teach. He accepted a teaching position in 1958 at Mt. McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island. In 1961 he wed Alberta “Mike” Small, a Protestant girl of means, in a civil ceremony. Through the 1960’s he taught in New York schools and at the New York Technical College in Brooklyn. ln 1971 their daughter, Maggie, was born, but the marriage would end just prior to the child’s eighth birthday.
Frank spent time in his brother Malachy’s bar and basking in the fame his brother had gained on television. They drank with the likes of the Clancy Brothers, Pete Hamill, and Jimmy Breslin. McCourt considered himself “only” a teacher in their midst. In 1972 he joined the faculty at Stuyvesant High School, teaching English and creative writing until his retirement from teaching in 1987. He credited his students at Stuyvesant and his young granddaughter, Chiara, with helping him to find his literary voice. The young tell the simple truth; through his experience with them, McCourt was able to give substance to his experiences in Ireland in Angela’s Ashes and his experiences in New York in ’Tis. His deft memoirs show him to be a man of two worlds that seem to be in conflict but truly complement each other through his gift for language.
McCourt credited his third wife, publicist Ellen Frey, with providing him with the peace and encouragement he needed to bring Angela’s Ashes to life. They married in 1994, setting up a home in New York. Only after the death of his parents, his mother in 1981 and his father in 1985, could he put his memoirs to print. Angela’s ashes were scattered in the family plot near Limerick in 1985. McCourt noted that he needed to grow and mature as an adult in order to understand the perspective of the child. That is what makes Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis so real. The reader is drawn into the drama, the grit, the conflicts, the naked truth of the McCourt clan and is carried along by the lyrical prose. The words bring tears of joy and anger as the reader relives McCourt’s struggles and triumphs. Angela’s Ashes was made into a motion picture by Paramount in 1999. McCourt died in New York City on July 19, 2009. He was 78.