Remembering Frank McCourt
Why we loved him
Tom Cahill, Colum McCann, Peter Quinn and others pay tribute to Frank McCourt
I saw Frank a couple of weeks before he passed. It was at the Irish Repertory Theatre gala fundraiser in June. He had just finished his last round of chemo. He looked fine. I spoke to him for a couple of minutes but I didn’t say anything that I wanted to say.Frank was my hero and I was in denial. And I didn’t want him to think that I thought he was going to die. I really wanted to believe he was going to beat melanoma the way he had overcome that “miserable childhood.” So instead of telling him how much he meant to me, I said something about Limerick – about driving through a couple of months ago and getting lost and ending up in a very poor area. It was early morning and the houses were
buttoned up (and some boarded up) against the rain on one side of the street – on the other there was a field with one miserable horse without the shelter of a tree.
“That would be Moycross,” Frank said with a thoughtful expression that said there are places that the Celtic Tiger never laid eyes on.
I felt like I had a special connection to Frank because I grew up 30 miles away and Limerick was my city too. But lots of others felt that connection also and now the others were lining up to say hello to him so I moved on.
I loved chatting with Frank. He understood what I was trying to say even when I was at my most inarticulate – a scar from growing up in a large family where we finished each other’s sentences with “I know, I know.”
Frank did know. Or at least I hope he knew how much I appreciated him. Here’s what I should have said: Dear Frank, Thanks for never turning me down when I asked you for a story and for showing up at our events and talking. Thanks for the quiet pat on the back that said “job well done” when I most needed it. Thanks for showing me that you can overcome anything. That impoverishment can soften a heart and that a sense of humor can overcome much. I will miss you. Miss calling your phone and hearing your voice say, “You have reached the McCourts. Leave your number and we will respond with alacrity.” You always did.
– Patricia Harty
Among the distinguishing characteristics of Irish Catholics – in America as much as Ireland – was our version of omertà: the code of silence. We never opened our mouths about the church outside the tribe. Most times we didn’t do it among ourselves.
The English might have rammed their language down our throats, sneered at our primitiveness and meager mental capabilities, decided that it was better to let us perish or depart for America than to end our starvation – but, we had the One True Faith. When it came to chastity, piety, and moral propriety, they were pigs and we were paragons.
Only we weren’t. But however corrupt, cynical, greedy, however imperfect our clergy, however distant and cruel our prelates, any criticism from within was collaboration with the enemy without – Protestants, atheists, nativists, Orangemen, King Billy, and the rest.
Frank McCourt, who died last month at seventy-eight, loathed the institutional church that he grew up in/under during the ultra-Catholic era of postcolonial Ireland, when Eamon de Valera and crew gave free reign to Eire’s ayatollahs. (In the end, it worked about as well in Ireland as it has in Iran.) Living in squalor and poverty, Frank experienced first-hand the scorn and condescension of the pillars of the Irish-Catholic establishment: Church, State, and the Respectable Classes. (“Respectability and not alcohol,” I once heard the novelist Maureen Howard say, “is the true ‘curse of the Irish”).
In Frank’s eyes, an independent Ireland, guided by Holy Mother Church, not only internalized the contempt its colonial masters had once shown for Paddy, Bridget, and their spawn, but cultivated and perfected it. Long before fame arrived, Frank railed against the cruelty visited on the poor and the weak, and the authoritarian brutality of Catholic religious orders and institutions in carrying it out.
With the publication of Angela’s Ashes, Frank demolished the old taboo. He hung out the dirty linen for the whole world to see. For this, he was accused by some of wild exaggerations and outright lies. Now he has been given official confirmation in the horror stories chronicled by the Irish government’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The commission itself, I believe, was in part a consequence of Frank’s revolutionary act of truth-telling.
But here’s where it gets complicated. Frank wasn’t contemptuous of believers in general or Catholics in particular. On a trip we took together to Ireland in 1998, he went to Mass with me on the Sunday morning we landed. He respected the fact that I had reached my own separate peace with the Catholic Church and returned to the sacraments. “It’s a good thing,” he told me, “you’re raising your kids in the Catholic faith. At least they’ll have a map to follow or throw away. In either case, they’ll know where they are.”
A fierce anticleric (and it got fiercer the higher you went on the ecclesiastical ladder), Frank admired priests and nuns who served among the weakest and the poor. I remember his special outrage at the murder of Sr. Ita Ford and the other American missionary women in El Salvador, in 1980.
Frank took the church at its word. He didn’t write off as incidental the Beatitudes or the command to serve the “least of our brethren,” the marginalized, the despised, the victimized, the stigmatized. When the church didn’t live up to its rhetoric, when it turned arrogant and pompous, when it grew fat and rich, when it spent most of its time nitpicking and excommunicating, when its clergy became the acolytes of power and privilege, Frank’s indignation turned savage.
But a part of Frank was always Catholic. He told me that the day he wrote the final pages of Angela’s Ashes was October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Frank always felt a special bond with Francis, a believer who lived the gospel as well as preached it. “But, you know,” Frank said, “it was a great season altogether for finishing things. October 8 is the feast of St. Bridget [the Swedish queen named after the Irish saint], and a week later, October 15, the feast of Teresa of Avila. A trifecta of a time!”
The last social affair I saw him at, Frank informed me that “today is the feast of St. Athanasius, bishop, confessor, and doctor.” How did he know such things? I don’t know. But I do know he had his own map and followed it as best he could. I have every confidence it guided him home.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, And let perpetual light shine upon him.
© Commonweal Foundation, reprinted with permission. For subscriptions: www.commonwealmagazine.com
IN THE MORNING ALL WILL BE FORGIVEN
It is difficult to tell a story about Frank McCourt since the probability is that there’s always someone else around who has a better story to tell – not least Frank himself who could, of course, shape a word better than anyone, and is in all likelihood, right now, making the audience laugh and cry in the vast upstairs.
But come song, anyway. Open the windows and whistle him alive a little. Speak, old ghosts. Tell us a story. Say something that has not been said before. Find the man in a sentence that opens other sentences. Search for what belongs. Say that it is our wonder that he was here at all. Say it is our gain that we have his stories. Say that he lit us up from within. Say the best teachers teach us more than they ever know. Say that he taught an intent for words. Say it is a wonder that he had the time to tell us that life has its beauties. Say the dead go with the living and that life rises again from what is gone. Say he wrote in praise of belonging. Say the days have grown quiet behind him and yet the days lean back into laughter.
I grew up in Ireland in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s, in the outskirts of Dublin, in a suburban four-bedroom house. My father, a journalist, left home in the early mornings and came back in the late afternoons, poured himself a glass of wine and walked out into his rose garden. My mother, in her spare time, delivered Meals on Wheels in a small yellow Mini Cooper with two black racing stripes. In the evening she sang while she cooked: The boys are all mad about Nelly, she’s the daughter of Officer Kelly. It was a good house, quiet and comfortably middle-class. The milk bottles clinked outside the door every morning. The heavy curtains stilled the draught. We had two fireplaces but we didn’t really use them: the white radiators ticked instead. I attended a Christian Brothers School and apart from a few belts from a leather strap, I escaped the more insidious aspects of the Catholic Church.
For all intents and purposes it was a happy childhood, hardly a good thing for a novelist to acquire, but there it was: nothing much different from what it must have been, I presume, for kids in Sydney, Kent, Ohio, or Stockholm.
Yet I always knew there was another sort of history that lurked not far beyond my own. Both my parents had grown up poor: my mother on a small dairy farm in Derry, my father the son of a coal-merchant in Dublin. They had known a different country to the one they opened up to me. Still, they seldom told stories about that particular past. It’s quite possible that they were too busy with the day-to-day of their lives, the paying of the mortgage, the rage of the ordinary. Or perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions. But there was also a quiet sense of reticence, and it wasn’t just in my home, but all around me, in the classroom, in the churches, in the media. In retrospect it was probably a national reticence, a little chain of unspoken memory dragging behind us. Like many Irish people who grew up in the early part of the 20th century, my parents’ generation just didn’t want to talk about the hard times. It could have stemmed from a fear that it all might happen again: More bread or I’ll appear.
It wasn’t so much that my parents were willfully silent – I think now that they were probably just lavishing upon us the possibility of the present. We moved on, riding the current, we didn’t look back – the past was another country.
Many years later I moved to the United States, then settled in New York, where I stayed, and became a writer. I came home often – I still to this day call Dublin “home” – and one winter afternoon I carried a present for my parents in my suitcase, a signed copy of Angela’s Ashes. To Sean and Sally, Best Wishes, Frank McCourt. They had already read the book of course (all of Ireland had read, picked through it, canonized it, gutted it, filleted it, sang it). My father was literary editor of the Evening Press, and his son coming home with a personalized copy of Frank McCourt’s memoir filled him with pride. While in New York, I was privileged to have spent time with Frank. I had shared stories with him. We had toured Germany together. We met at parties and charity events in the city. We had become friends. He and his wife Ellen had even written a letter recommending us for our co-op apartment board.
The signed copy of Angela’s Ashes went on the mahogany table in the living room. A vase of fresh garden roses sat beside it.
Later that same evening I sat outside in my father’s writing shed, at the side of the house, and asked him what he had thought of the controversy surrounding the book. There’d been a hullabaloo in Limerick and some snide British reviews (mostly from Irish critics). My father sat back in his chair and closed his eyes a moment. “Limerick had nothing on Foxrock,” he said, with just a touch of irony: Foxrock was the richest suburb of Ireland, but my father had grown up in a dilapidated two-room cottage. He allowed himself a silence and then he began to tell me more. I had heard many of the stories before, but never in such detail. Stories of my grandfather, and the coal business, and the horses at Leopardstown, and the greyhounds at Dalymount, and the broken windows in the house in Cornelscourt, and the thrown fists in the yard at Saint Brigid’s, and the empty bottles in the pub down at Cabinteely, and the emptier cupboards at home, and the chairs broken to feed the fire, and the rainy nights with Big Jack Doyle who came over to drink, and the gambling losses on the races at the Curragh, and the time the Black and Tans came with an arrest warrant for my grandfather, and the shouts, and the songs, and the silences, and the thousand everyday torments.
The beauty was in the details, and now the details lay in between what Frank McCourt’s book had brought us.
And so it was that Angela’s Ashes led me into the labyrinth of my own history. I picked it up again from the living room table. It was a third reading, but it still felt new and necessary. I could imagine my own father, the dew still on him, hauling himself along the laneways of Dublin, in shorts and torn shoes, the rain tamping him down, and the desire for his own success sharp in his mouth like salt.
Literature enables the ongoing life of memory. A story gives life to other stories. The world turns on the provision of details. Its domino effect connects us. John Berger once said: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”
On the plain surface, there was not a whole lot to Frank McCourt’s story. He was born in Brooklyn, was brought back to Ireland, where he had what he called his miserable Irish childhood. He returned to New York at the age of 19. Worked odd jobs. Became a celebrated teacher. He wanted to write more than anything else. Through his 30’s, he propped himself up with teaching and the idea that he might, one day, produce a book. By the time he was in his 40’s, he was hard-pushed to carve out time from the teaching life and was scared that, as a writer, he might be a fraud. By the time he was in his 50’s he wasn’t sure he had it anymore. He would sit in the Lion’s Head pub with other writers and he would fume at himself that he hadn’t taken the plunge. He loved literature, knew exactly what it meant, was worried that it had passed him by.
Then he met Ellen Frey, a public relations agent, and he fell in love with her, married her, his third and final marriage. Ellen knew that if he was to truly love her, he had to write. She also knew that for her to truly love him she must allow him to write.
So, he retired from teaching and, in October 1994, at the age of 63, he sat down to create. And like every writer he struggled. But somewhere in the mess of words and the tangle of language and the ruin of pages, his old voice popped up, a childhood voice that rose up from the laneways of Limerick. One can only imagine the process, sitting at his desk on East 18th Street, a board across his lap, writing longhand. The books strewn around the room. The throw of a word to catch another word. The discovery of the voice that lay inside. Hours of escape. The sliding of one paragraph down to the bottom of a page. The head-throw of laughter when he got something right. The fear that nobody at all would read it, that he was trampling on the memory of the dead. But the thing about the voice was that it was entirely honest and the honesty kept him going. It was his story and he was true to the texture of the time. He never felt he was a victim. To be a victim would have been a failure of intelligence. He had to achieve a native state. That native state included joy and terror and hunger. Frank McCourt became a scholar of what it meant to reconstitute dust.
On the day the book was finished he waited for Ellen to come home, so he could type the last lines in her presence: “Isn’t it a great country altogether?” And then: “‘Tis.” They popped a bottle of champagne together. He wasn’t quite sure what he had. But at least he had finished something. Then, much to his amazement, the agent Molly Friedrich came calling, and then Nan Graham, the publisher, and soon the book was sending off sparks. The reviews came in. The New York Times ran a profile. Millions of copies were sold. The awards flowed in, including the Pulitzer Prize. But, more importantly, people connected with the book. They understood. It was a moment of global intimacy.
Who would have known that the story of a young boy in Limerick and his Irish childhood would turn our hearts backwards so precisely? Who could have told that that story could have value? Who would have said that the greatest democracy of all was the ability to tell a story from a town that had largely been ignored and a life that could have been forgotten? The details were not only valuable in themselves, but as a form of memory.
Frank McCourt – much to his own surprise – was an alternative historian, and the history he had created was one of the previously anonymous, one where he created an inability to forget.
The freshest accomplishment of good writing is to make use of what others haven’t quite seen or fathomed yet. This is what Frank McCourt knew by instinct. He wrote Angela’s Ashes never expecting what would happen, but at heart he was writing the story that others found embarrassing, or avuncular, or just plain irretrievable. He was tilting the comfortable balance of Irish story-telling, venturing into the dusty corners where many of our writers hadn’t gone before. He was bearing witness.
When Angela’s Ashes hit the shelves in the late 1990’s, Ireland was a country at the threshold of the thoroughly modern. We were pleased with ourselves, comfortably European, enjoying the sound of our own chatter. Traffic jams on the flyovers. Wild salmon on the plates. The ticker tape parade of mortgage rates. The country was on the cusp of becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Frank’s book arrived like that long-lost relative who knocks on the door during a dinner party, his tie slightly askew and his hands shoved deep in the dark of his pockets. There was a sort of chain lightning to the book. He had another story to tell, and it was a bulwark against forgetting.
Angela’s Ashes was both new and old and wise and innocent, all at the same time. In many ways his story reached all the way back to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as a guide to the notion that whoever we are is whoever we once were.
His next book, ’Tis, continued the story. It made the bridge. He followed it with Teacherman, one of the most magnificently well-shaped memories of the teaching life and what it entails.
The best stories are those that don’t necessarily want to get told, and then – when they are told – we know that we will never quite hear things the same way again.
There adheres in all of Frank McCourt’s work a sense of astonished being. Nothing is written in abstraction. He was there at the moment when the thorn entered the skin. He waited for the good bread to come out of the oven. The language had energy and momentum. He could break your heart with a gentle word and then take your head off with the next. He reached into our bodies, touched the funny bone, but didn’t let us get away with simple laughter. There was anger there, too, and pride. And his greatness was a lack of fear.
And yet to Frank his own story was the only place he could go. It was entirely natural. There was nothing high-falutin’ about it at all. He was simply just telling himself that his own experience was valuable – not just the life of his mother, his father, his brothers, but the life of the bowsies, the drunks, the gurriers, the merchantmen, the down-and-outs, the toffees, the tinsmiths, the auld ones, the chisellers. He sought out their remembered texture. He brought the old streets alive, the raindrops on the roof. He wrote as if his life depended on it – and indeed it did.
Now that he is gone, we cannot just make a safe icon out of him. There’s a danger in putting manners on what Frank McCourt did, simply because he was successful. Success breeds an appearance of safety, but what Frank was doing was not safe. It should never be forgotten that he took a risk and that he succeeded at a time when other writers would have laid down their pens. He fought to create. It was all about stamina, desire, perseverance. He caught hold of the old Mark Twain truism that age is an issue of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
You could see him at a thousand charity gigs, always his head tilted back with laughter. He liked to break open a bottle of Bushmills and he didn’t mind seeing the bottom of it. He enjoyed a good Irish song, but he seemed more in tune with jazz. He sent an electricity through a room. He read well and widely. He pored through his Joyce and his Beckett and his Shaw, and he loved the words of the younger writers more than anything. He was generous to a fault. He joked about being a Mega-Mick or a Big-Ass Author, but he was never far from the understanding that literature had power. His name sold books. He wrote more blurbs than anyone else in publishing history. He realized the difficulty that went into creation. He could call upon, as the old joke goes, his 5,000 very most intimate friends. But with Frank it wasn’t actually a joke – he had at least that many. He never turned a request down. He and Ellen traveled widely, all over the world, gathering admirers as they went. There was always something boyish and playful about him. He worked hard, and ceaselessly, but he never forgot where he came from. He had regrets – he wished he had written earlier, that he had said certain things to Angela while she was alive, that he had written a novel – but these were never enough to stall him.
In his last couple of weeks, Frank was in a hospice on 2nd Avenue and 95th Street in New York. He had a room on the 16th floor, where the sunlight poured through the windows. There was a balcony outside where the sounds of the city seemed to hover in homage. All that brash beauty. The Second Avenue subway was being built below. The jackhammer jazz of the city, his city, his place.
His family and friends gathered close by. His body was disappearing on him. He could not hear anymore, the melanoma had ravaged him, his eyesight was going, and his speech was all but lost. He had brought a book with him – an old orange-covered Picador edition of James Joyce’s critical essays. He couldn’t read it anymore, but it was there, and that was enough.
Unable to chat, he wrote instead on a small white board with a black Magic Marker. He struggled to sit up in bed, propped the board in his lap and painstakingly wrote a few phrases out. There was still a shine to his eyes, and his mind was sharp. It was a lovely thing to see, even in all that wreckage. It took him a long time to put anything down on the white board, but he was able to tell his wife, Ellen, and his daughter, Maggie, and his brothers, Malachy, Alphie, Mike, what they meant to him. It was a great victory – the words would hang on no matter what. When asked what he would confess to, Frank positioned the white board on his lap, and the marker in his hand, and he slowly wrote: “Pride, springing from virtue.” A ripple went around the room. The humor of it, the raw sense of being alive, the little twinkle still in the prose.
With every new visitor, his heart moved for them: you could almost see it jump in his shirt. I asked him, on the board, where and when he would go dancing now, and he took ten minutes to write it down, but he said: “Every Sabbath.” In the outer room, we passed around the board and we laughed. There it was, the old McCourt. It would have been enough to think of him dancing every Sabbath, but then he picked up the pen again and wrote, very slowly: “Sabbath upstairs with the J.C. and the Mary M and the 12 hot boys.” And then he wrote: “In the morning all will be forgiven.”
A nurse came. Her name was Angela. It was almost enough: Angela. She hadn’t yet read his books, but she promised that she would. Frank sat back in the bed and he smiled. She adjusted his pillows and let him be.
There was Angela, going out the door once more. And Frank was watching her go.
HOW FRANK SAVED CIVILIZATION
The first time I met Frank I knew nothing of Angela’s Ashes. It hadn’t been published yet; and though many writers will regale you with disquisitions on their unpublished writings, Frank was not one of these. Our inauspicious encounter occurred in 1995, soon after the publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization. During a reception at Glucksman Ireland House, Frank – at that time a man known principally as the unassuming brother of the more celebrated Malachy – ambled up to me and said without preamble: “I didn’t know about the nipples. I never heard that before.”
I knew what he was referring to. In How the Irish I recount a story that Saint Patrick himself tells us in his brief autobiography, The Confession. The teenage Patrick, called Patricius by his family in Roman Britain, had been kidnapped and brought to Ireland in chains. But after six years, he escaped his slave master and fled to a port on the east coast, where the captain denied him passage on the boat he was hoping would bring him to freedom:
This was Patricius’s moment of greatest danger: recognized as a fugitive in a seaside settlement, he could not expect to remain at liberty many minutes more. “Hearing this response, I left them to go to the hut where I was staying, and on the way I began to pray and before I had finished my prayer I heard one of the sailors shouting after me: ‘Come quickly, they’re calling you!’ And right away I returned to them and they began to say to me: ‘Come on board, we’ll take you on trust.’” They even offered their nipples to be sucked, the ancient Irish version of “kiss and make up.” Patricius, too much the Roman for such outré goings-on, held back — he says “for fear of God,” but better minds than Patricius’s have succumbed to a confusion of Roman custom and Christian faith. The sailors shrugged: “You can make friends with us however you like.” Patricius jumped on board, and they sailed at once.
Frank, a connoisseur of Irish saints, had never heard about the nipples, because Patrick’s pious biographers regularly leave them out. But there they are in Patrick’s honest tale. We talked briefly that night about telling the truth, however odd or embarrassing it may be, and that that is the only point of being a writer of any kind.
Soon thereafter I received from an editor friend at Scribner a bound galley of Angela’s Ashes. A bound galley is an early copy of a new book, traditionally sent to those who might provide blurbs of advance praise to help sell the book to the reading public. Oh no, I thought, not another galley. But I opened it and was captivated by its opening four, now justly famous, paragraphs. I sat down then and there and found I could not stop reading till I had reached the end. I, far less generous than Frank (who has since written enough blurbs to be cited by Guinness), then wrote one of the few blurbs I have ever offered anyone:
“Angela’s Ashes is a chronicle of grown-ups at the mercy of life and children at the mercy of grown-ups, and it is such a marriage of pathos and humor that you never know whether to weep or roar – and find yourself doing both at once. Through each fresh horror of the narrative, you will be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter. . . .”
Except for the fact that blurbs must be brief, I would also have said that Angela’s Ashes is very nearly unique in the whole history of autobiography because it is the exquisitely told story of a very poor child and his family – and the poor seldom get the chance to leave their experiences for the instruction and edification of the rest of us. Ordinarily, because education is denied them, they never even get their hands on the levers of literary power, which is very much a middle-class operation.
But the most important thing I could have said is that Frank told the truth. In doing so, he unsettled many, angered not a few, and earned the lasting gratitude of all who read and care about books. He did the one thing a writer must do. Because of this, the shelf that holds his writing will never grow dusty. And it is such shelves that, when all is said and done, constitute civilization.
Thomas Cahill is the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Volume I in his Hinges of History series.