A simmering rage and a sense of justice lay at the heart of McCourt's writing

Tue, Jul 21, 2009, 01:00

EVEN IN the mind-boggling world of overnight literary sensations Frank McCourt’s candid memoir took some beating. Anger was the motivation; a simmering rage combined with McCourt’s abiding sense of justice and graphic recall did the rest. Long years of teaching high school in New York left him with a passion for seeing lives begun well. His hadn’t.

Never a cynic, kindly, gentle McCourt was a realist from the beginning – he had had no choice. He considered Angela’s Ashes, the story of his childhood, as a cautionary tale. For others it is a valuable piece of Irish social history, a history that in Ireland with its litany of abuse, secrecy and poverty invariably sits closer to horror than romance.

There was nothing romantic about his book which took two years and all his life to write. Nostalgia did not encourage him to sit down in his 60s. It was his old familiar anger that provided the pressure. When I first met him in 1996 he was still in shock at the idea of international publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair having days earlier been out-shouting each other, frantic to secure the rights of what some observers had categorised as yet another miserable childhood. McCourt would grow into a public personality; he enjoyed talking and could tell a good story. His initial bewilderment settled into a sense of having righted wrongs. If the wrongs were committed against him, his siblings and his mother, he never saw his father as a villain, merely a victim of his drinking, an addiction that destroyed him and hurt his children.

McCourt was an outsider; not quite Irish, not quite American – more of a New Yorker, the city he loved. His parents, both Irish, had met there and married. Their marriage was destroyed by McCourt senior’s unreliability and relentless drinking. Frank McCourt had been born there and was brought to Ireland when he was four years old. His Catholic, despairing mother had given birth to six children, including twins, in five and a half years. The poverty the family knew in New York was very different from the hardship they discovered in Limerick. The twins died within six months of each other.

On arrival in Ireland the children met their Catholic maternal grandmother who was not pleased with the demands about to be made on her. McCourt remembered having “Yank” spat at him like a curse. Poverty was seen as shameful, a form of failure. Sitting in that Dublin hotel, high on the success of his book and long years before the recent publication of the Ryan report, McCourt was true to himself, calmly announcing with due regard to the historians he mentioned “the worst things that happened to Ireland was the coming of the Catholic Church and the incredible power it was to enjoy for such a long time”.

“All the lives it ruined with its bullying. It left a legacy of retarded sexuality. You can’t forgive damage like that”.

By age 13 his education was over, and he began moving through a succession of jobs including, ironically, writing threatening letters on behalf of a debt collector. When he was 19 he returned to New York and appeared destined to continue a haphazard pattern of employment. The Korean war intervened. He was stationed in Germany where he was in charge of army dogs. Being in the services proved lucky for him as he was able to avail of the GI Bill and finally had the education he had always wanted. More irony, a constant in his life, in common with Hardy’s Jude, McCourt’s idealism continued to be tested. McCourt entered university in New York to discover academics more interested in discussing the books they wanted to write than in teaching students, particularly students such as McCourt who was anxious to be inspired.

He studied English and a world opened up. He was to teach for 27 years. He learned as much as the students did. Above all, McCourt learned how to hold an audience. Having written Angela’s Ashesin a non-literary style, McCourt made no secret that he was not aspiring towards Joycean prose. His conversational, emphatic voice was far closer to that of Gorky. For all the darkness there was much black humour. McCourt felt his father, a former IRA man whose favourite book was John Mitchell’s Jail Journal, regretted not dying for Ireland and tended, when drunk, to quiz his sons on the question of their aspiring to political martyrdom.

Balancing the drunken rages was the extravagant affection McCourt senior displayed. Kindliness and warmth are qualities McCourt always noticed: “Even as a kid,” he remarked to me in that 1996 interview, “I noticed the differences. The Italians and Jews in New York were warmer, they were not inhibited. The Irish were hard, tough, there was no affection being handed around.” At 40 he became a father. At 50 he took up running. At 60 he began writing.

Frank McCourt enjoyed the life of a writer, he always liked offering an opinion. The citizens of Limerick were none too pleased about the image which emerged of their city. Would Dubliners have reacted differently? After all, prior to McCourt’s internationally celebrated memoir, Limerick’s strongest literary portrait had been provided by Kate O’Brien’s astute studies of the aspiring middle classes. Frank McCourt was an observer, a witness and most of all, a truth teller who having examined his anger over many years, drew on it to dramatic and lasting effect.