Death of Frank McCourt

 

FAME CAME late to Frank McCourt. At the age of 66, he became a literary phenomenon when he took two of life’s most potent ingredients — tragedy and humour — and turned them into a best-selling memoir-novel that caught the public imagination and brought its author international recognition that reached its height with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

With its focus on a bygone Ireland, Angela’s Ashesdid for the Limerick of his working-class childhood what O’Casey had done for Dublin and its tenements — but without the ideological polemic. Like O’Casey, he was first and foremost a storyteller who could hold and transport his legions of devotees. With his intense love of language, he had what was once described as “the perfect Irish brogue: lyrical but penetrable”.

As a memoirist he can be credited with the re-creation of a genre — misery lit — that went on to have a succession of lesser imitators. His more significant legacy, however, is that he took into the realm of book-reading a new audience which might otherwise not have discovered the value and pleasure of literature.

While McCourt became synonymous with Limerick, it came as little surprise that his autobiographical account of poverty and squalor did not initially receive a similarly enthusiastic reception in the city where the book was set. McCourt himself recalled his “epic of woe” as having been “denounced from hill, pulpit and bar stool”.

Posterity, as always, will be the final arbiter on McCourt’s literary merits, but as a record of a time and a place and the grim circumstances of a past generation — even with its hints of literary embellishment and tinted perspective — Angela’s Asheswill endure as a significant and evocative social document.

But it should not be forgotten that his subsequent books — ‘Tisand Teacher Man— are worthy additions to the literature of emigration; his personal life straddled the Irish-American experience and was a wonderful triumph of the human spirit overcoming the adversities handed to him in his Limerick youth while his family’s return to the United States opened to him the possibilities of the American dream which he embraced with the determination of a true survivor to become not only an accomplished writer but also an inspirational teacher in New York. As well as his charm and wit, perhaps McCourt’s most endearing characteristic was reflected in the New York Timesreview of Angela’s Asheswhen it noted that he looked back on his tough formative experiences “with no trace of bitterness”.