Frank McCourt (1930-2009)

Frank McCourt spent his infant years in Brooklyn, his impoverished adolescence in Limerick, Ireland, and most of his adult life as a teacher in the United States. Though he never attended high school, McCourt spent more than thirty years teaching writing at Stuyvesant, a prestigious public high school in New York City. McCourt found his teaching career—which he has referred to as a “learning career”—fulfilling, but he never gave up his dream of becoming a writer. When he retired from teaching, McCourt and his brother Malachy began to perform a two-man show entitled A Couple of Blackguards, which featured many of the songs the McCourts sang together back in Ireland.

McCourt decided to pursue his dream of becoming a writer by telling his own story, in the present tense, more than four decades after he left behind Ireland and the bleak, painful upbringing that fills his memoir. Waiting decades before writing his autobiography gave McCourt the perspective to talk about his troubled childhood at a comfortable distance. He treats the subject of his own difficult life with evenhandedness and objectivity, showing none of the spite, regret, or rancor we might expect. Yet he never downplays the suffering from acute hunger and deprivation he endured throughout his youth. As he has said, Angela’s Ashes is “an epic of woe.”

Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and spent 117 weeks on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list. McCourt’s memoir and its sequel, ‘Tis (1999). which tells of his experiences as a young man in America, have become worldwide best-sellers translated into many languages. A film version of Angela’s Ashes directed by Alan Parker and with Emily Watson portraying Angela appeared in 1999. Both books vaulted McCourt from an unknown first-time writer in his late sixties to a world-renowned author deluged with thousands of fan letters and requests for speaking engagements. McCourt’s success was a testament to patience and perseverance. Angela’s Ashes serves as a living record of the strong moral values and healthy sense of humor McCourt maintained despite the suffering and woe he endured as a child.

McCourt was married and divorced twice before his third marriage to Ellen Frey in 1994. Friends credit Ellen with encouring McCourt’s to capture his memoirs, and Angela’s Ashes was begun shortly after their marriage and completed just over a year later. McCourt died in Manhattan in 2009 after being treated for melanoma.