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 apartment flooded, and the family moved upstairs, to what they called Italy. With the senior McCourt frequently absent, Frank would steal food from shops and doorsteps. Local Catholic priests inspired fear in their young parishioners, in this life and for the next, rather than comfort and solace.
During his childhood, Frank almost lost his eyesight, and he suffered from typhoid. While hospitalized, he developed a love of literature. His escape from reality was through American films, but the McCourt brothers saw those films as reality, the American reality to which Frank longed to return.
Although one of his teachers urged him to attend a grammar school or high school, Frank was rejected because of his poverty. Instead, at the age of fourteen, he took a position at the post office delivering telegrams, a common means of communication in the 1930’s. Finally, after ruthlessly hoarding money, he returned to New York at the age of nineteen in 1949. With his limited education, McCourt could only obtain casual labor or menial jobs on the docks and in hotels. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he was drafted into the United States Army.
Qualifying for the G.I. Bill after his discharge, he enrolled at New York University. He had literary ambitions but was reluctant to write about his own background because of the shame he associated with it. After graduation, he became a teacher in the New York City public school system, first at the rough McKee Vocational High School on Staten Island, then at Seward Park High School in lower-east Manhattan, and finally for eighteen years at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. His brothers Malachy and Michael followed Frank to New York in the 1950’s, and Angela and Alfie, the youngest sibling, came in 1959. The senior McCourt remained in Northern Ireland, and Frank saw his father only twice before Malachy’s death in 1985. Angela died in 1981. She was cremated and her ashes taken back to Limerick.
McCourt began work on a novel in the 1960’s, titled “If You Live in the Lane,” but abandoned it. Through the years he jotted down his memories of his early life, remembrances that he used in writing Angela’s Ashes (1996), a surprise best...
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