“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. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.”
These words, written in the Pulitzer Prize winning tome Angela’s Ashes, recount the unhappy childhood of Frank McCourt. After surviving typhoid as a child, the severe poverty of Limerick’s lanes brought on by the drunkenness of his father and teaching in the New York City School system for years, McCourt’s voice was silenced (today) at the age of 78 after complications from meningitis.
I got to know Frank McCourt briefly during my radio career after working on his brother Malachy’s program. Malachy would tease him constantly and vice-versa.
Frank: So you’re a vegetarian now?
Malachy: I am. And I smell that rotting flesh on that sandwich that you have there.
Frank: So I’m to become a vegetarian now simply because you are.
Malachy: Are you too good to be a vegetarian, now, Mr. Big Pulitzer Prize star?
Frank: I’m not saying that and let’s not forget that YOU were a much bigger star for years, on the Tonight Show saying all kinds of malarkey for years. And anyway, you’ve written a book, riding on my coattails now which I’m all too happy to help you promote.
Malachy: And I’m working on a second one now, don’t you know? Ask me what the title is…
Frank: I know I’ll regret this but what’s the bloody title.
Malachy: I’m going to call it “I read your brother’s book.”
(Entire studio breaks up laughing)
Malachy: Sure to win a pulitzer! Don’t ya know?
Frank took his brother’s good natured ribbing in his more quiet and eloquent style. His book, written from the unbiased and uncensored viewpoint of a child’s experience within the dank poverty of Ireland held a similar kind of simple class. “Children tell it like it is.” he once told me, “and I had the thought that if I wrote about my experience as my own childlike thoughts, that it would allow me to tell the story in a way that I hadn’t been able to express it as an adult.”
That child’s voice also filled McCourt’s book with humor amidst the pain, which is what he always claimed kept him alive in the midst of poverty. Irish melancholy filled with a self-deprecating touch of “well, it wasn’t all bad” led him to write one of the most touching and yet aggravating portraits of Irish life. Many Irish resented the book because of its rawness–a bit too close to home for them perhaps. My own cousin, an Irish native, often said that the book was filled with exaggerations and outright “lies.” In truth, my thoughts often thought that McCourt had captured the Irish all too well and we often hate that which reveals what we most despise about ourselves.
His third book, Teacher Man, covered his years of teaching in New York City Schools including a Vocational High School in Staten Island and then later the more famous Styvesant where he was often noted as “the best teacher I ever had” by a plethora of students (12 of my friends from college went there and they all reported that McCourt had indeed captured their hearts and more importantly, their imaginations). McCourt often lamented that “I create too many lawyers” in his years as an English teacher but his lilting Irish brogue charmed the girls and allowed him to become one of the boys as he endured their taunts and fired back some of his own. On day one in Staten Island, a young man assumed that he wouldn’t be around on St Patrick’s Day because he’d be drunk in some gin mill. “I’ll be here,” McCourt retorted and never missed school on that day to honor his heritage as more than a bunch of drunks, the too-oft used stereotype. When one student hit him in the head with a sandwich in class, McCourt shockingly picked it up and ate it and began to tell stories of the days when he longed for a sandwich, embarrassing the assassin.
But in all those years of reclusiveness, his students often suggested that he write a book, that his stories needed to be compiled together and be told to the world. McCourt tried but nothing would come. Even hanging out in pubs with the likes of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin brought him no closer to penning a book and it wasn’t until the age of 66 after his mother had passed that he revealed the whole story of that miserable childhood. A childhood where his mother was a savior by sleeping with his cousin so they didn’t get thrown out into the streets–a more than embarrassing moment for her but one that kept him alive and healthy and a roof over their heads. Not surprisingly, the words came once his mother passed, and they spilled off the pages as a homage rather than a bit of inappropriate self-disclosure.
McCourt was no fan of the church to be sure, and when you read how poorly the church treated him you can hardly blame him. By the same token he also didn’t denigrate an individual’s practice of it either. When he found out I was Catholic he asked me about my favorite saint and when I replied that I had two, St Peter and St Ignatius he smiled and said, “Ya can never just have one favorite saint, can you? I read the Lives of the Saints all the time and still pray to my favorites. Lord knows we need lots of prayers.”
And now I firmly believe that McCourt walks amongst those saints that he considered friends. And I will include him as one of the newfound favorites to intercede for me.