Frank McCourt, R.I.P.

Frank McCourt, the treasured autobiographer who painted for us the most stunning portrait of a man rising from boyhood misery to a life worth reading about, has passed away due to meningitis at the age of 78. Firecracker and I had just spoken about him; to hear a reading, or attend a book signing, or see his play A Couple of Blaguards. The next day his brother Malachy, an enjoyable writer in his own right, shared that Frank was not well, and wasn’t expected to last long. Frank’s legacy is written in his memoirs Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man.

The first was made into a well-known film that could only hope to capture the brutal poetry of the book. The thing was, the McCourts’ childhood wasn’t unique for the time. Fathers were prone to drink, and both worked and spoke with their hands. His was hardly there at all. His mother worked like mad just to keep them fed. What was unique was that Frank and Malachy not only survived such a childhood but transcended it, and became men who elevated not only their own kin, but all of us with their storytelling and lives as teachers and politicians. I recently finished Malachy’s History of Ireland, which is told through its people. Though not as detailed, it captured in short order what a huge historical tome I’ve struggled with was trying to do- give the history of Ireland from long before the Troubles to its current stage as the “Celtic Tiger,” clawing for footholds in our economic crisis. They are modern Irish bards, and we’re honored by their tales.

I haven’t read ‘Tis or the rest due to my own neurotic reading habits; I have a library’s worth of book backlog and I try not to read the same author too often. I have to read 3 books before I let myself buy a new one, and I’m still up to my neck in them. But I’ll make an exception for Mr. McCourt. My grandfather came from Bray in County Wicklow, and I visited the ancestral home a few years back. I consider myself plain old American but I’m grateful for my Irish heritage, which reading Angela’s Ashes made me want to explore. So thank you Frank, not only for sharing your own life, but making me respect those of my forebears, and the struggles they made in getting here to make me.

A 5th century cross on a skellig island off County Kerry

I thought of your book recently when Firecracker and I visited the Irish Hunger Memorial near Battery Park in New York. I remember you saying that as young children, you laughed at the idea of eating grass, like they did during the Famine; it’s part of the absurdity of poverty. It leads people to do things you can only consider absurd, and poverty is especially absurd in its own right when it exists only so that others can live in luxury beyond imagination. Malachy ran as the Green party candidate for Governor of New York, so the McCourts continue to give back to us more than they ever got. Here’s saying thanks one more time.

I raise this beer to you, Frank McCourt; we knew you were in heaven an hour before the devil knew you were dead.

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