On this day in 2009, Frank McCourt, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, runaway best-seller “Angela’s Ashes,” a 1996 memoir about his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland, dies at age 78 in Manhattan from metastatic melanoma. McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes,” his first book, when he was in his mid-60s, after teaching in New York City’s public schools for nearly 30 years.
Francis McCourt was born on August 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of seven children of Irish immigrants Angela and Malachy McCourt. In the midst of the Great Depression, 4-year-old Frank McCourt and his destitute family returned to his mother’s native Limerick. There his drunken, irresponsible father squandered the money he earned from his occasional work as a laborer, while his family subsisted in squalid poverty in the slums of Limerick. Three of McCourt’s siblings died in early childhood. When McCourt was 11, his father abandoned the family; at 13, the younger McCourt dropped out of school to work. As he would later write in “Angela’s Ashes”: “When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
At age 19, McCourt moved to New York City, where he worked a series of manual-labor jobs. During the Korean War, he served in the U.S. Army, training German shepherds. Afterward, despite his lack of formal education, he attended New York University on the GI Bill, studying English and graduating in 1957. The following year, he embarked on a 30-year teaching career in New York City’s public high schools. A popular, unorthodox teacher, he shared with his students some of the stories about his childhood that would later appear in “Angela’s Ashes.” Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College.
In the 1970s, McCourt and his brother Malachy, an actor and bartender, wrote and performed an autobiographical two-man show in New York, “A Couple of Blaguards”; they later took their show on the road to other cities. After Frank McCourt retired from teaching in 1987, he decided to write his childhood memoirs.
When “Angela’s Ashes” was published in 1996, it received rave reviews from critics (who praised McCourt’s use of language and ability to write about his difficult childhood without bitterness) and went on to become a huge best-seller, with hardback sales alone topping 4 million copies. In 1997, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. “Angela’s Ashes” was less warmly received by some in Ireland, where McCourt was criticized for tarnishing the reputation of his mother, the city of Limerick and the Catholic Church, which he portrayed in his book as repressive and unsympathetic.
In 1999, “Angela’s Ashes” was made into a Hollywood movie. That same year, McCourt published his second memoir, “’Tis,” which picked up where “Angela’s Ashes” left off and described his years in America. His third book, “Teacher Man,” about his experiences as an educator, followed in 2005.