"There's so much absurdity. Poverty is so absurd." -- Frank McCourt
Francis "Frank" McCourt (August 19, 1930 — July 19, 2009) was an Irish-American teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known as the author of Angela’s Ashes.
His brothers Malachy McCourt and Alphie McCourt are also autobiographical writers. In the mid-1980s Francis and Malachy created the stage play A Couple of Blaguards, a two-man show about their lives and experiences.
"Actually, my mother and Alfie came for three weeks' Christmas vacation and stayed for 21 years. I guess my mother never went back because she was lonely.""And, of course, they've always condemned dancing. You know, you might touch a member of the opposite sex. And you might get excited and you might do something natural.""First of all there is always that artistic challenge of creating something. Or the particular experience to take slum life in that period and make something out of it in the form of a book. And then I felt some kind of responsibility to my family.""Happiness is hard to recall. Its just a glow.""He came to the States in 1963, I think with a view to making up with my mother, but that didn't work. He came for three weeks, and drank his way all over Brooklyn. And went back... I went to his funeral in Belfast.""I admire certain priests and nuns who go off on their own and do God's work on their own, who help in the ghettos, but as far as the institution of the church is concerned, I think it is despicable.""I can't go too much into my domestic life because there are ex-wives ready to do me in.""I had no accomplishments except surviving. But that isn't enough in the community where I came from, because everybody was doing it. So I wasn't prepared for America, where everybody is glowing with good teeth and good clothes and food.""I had to get rid of any idea of hell or any idea of the afterlife. That's what held me, kept me down. So now I just have nothing but contempt for the institution of the church.""I just have to proceed as usual. No matter what happens, nothing helps with the writing of the next book.""I think I settled on the title before I ever wrote the book.""I'm more interested in writing than in performing.""I'm not one of those James Joyce intellectuals who can stand back and look at the whole edifice... It was a slow process for me to just crawl out of it, like a snake leaving his skin behind.""I've been writing in notebooks for 40 years or so.""My childhood here... was very limited. So it was a long, long time before I actually went out to Brooklyn.""The main thing I am interested in is my experience as a teacher.""The sky is the limit. You never have the same experience twice.""They all went into the bar business. Which was a mistake, because they began to sip at the merchandise and it set them back, set us all back. Well, them more than I.""We never really had any kind of a Christmas. This is one part where my memory fails me completely.""You feel a sense of urgency, especially at my advanced age, when you're staring into the grave."
Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York on 19 August 1930 to Irish Catholic parents, Malachy McCourt (1901—1986) and Angela Sheehan (1908—1981). Frank McCourt lived in New York with his parents and four younger siblings: Malachy, born in 1931; twins Oliver and Eugene, born in 1932; and a younger sister, Margaret, who died just a few weeks after birth, in 1935. Following this first tragedy, his family moved back to Ireland, where the twin brothers died within a year of the family's arrival and where Frank's youngest brothers, Michael (b. 1936) and Alphie (b. 1940), were born.
Unable to find steady work, in the depths of the depression, the McCourts returned to their mother's native Limerick, Ireland in 1934, where they sank deeper into poverty. McCourt's father, from Toome in County Antrim, was often without work, but drank with the little money he did earn. When McCourt was eleven, his father left with other Irishmen to find work in the factories of wartime Coventry in England. He sent little money to the family, leaving Frank's mother to raise four surviving children, often by begging. Frank's public education ended at age 13, when the Congregation of Christian Brothers rejected him, despite a recommendation from his teacher. Frank then held odd jobs and stole bread and milk in an effort to provide for his mother and three surviving brothers, Malachy, Michael (who now lives in San Francisco), and Alphonsus ("Alphie") (who lives in Manhattan); the other three siblings had died in infancy or early childhood in the squalor of the family circumstances. Frank McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten. In Angela's Ashes, McCourt described an entire block of houses sharing a single outhouse, flooded by constant rain, and infested with rats and vermin.
In October 1949 at the age of nineteen he left Ireland on the MS Irish Oak that was supposed to stop in New York City but instead went up to Albany, NY. He took a train into New York City with a priest he had met on the ship, who got him a room to stay in and his job at New York City's Biltmore Hotel making about $26 a week and sending $10 of it to his mother in Limerick. In 1951 he was drafted during the Korean War and was sent to Bavaria, Germany for two years training dogs. Upon his discharge from the US Army, he returned to New York City, where he held a series of jobs on docks, in warehouses, and in banks.
Using his GI Bill from the US Army, Frank talked his way into NYU by claiming he was intelligent and read a lot and was allowed in on one year's probation provided he maintained a B average. He graduated in 1957 from New York University with a Bachelor's degree in English. He taught at a range of six New York schools, including McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, New York Technical College in Brooklyn, Stuyvesant High School, Seward Park High School, Washington Irving High School, and the High School of Fashion Industries, all in Manhattan. In 1967, he earned his Master's degree at Brooklyn College and in the late 60's he spent 18 months at Trinity College in Dublin, failing to earn his PhD before returning to New York City.
In a 1997 NY Times Op-Ed essay, Mr. McCourt wrote about his experiences teaching immigrant mothers at New York Technical College in Brooklyn.
He received the Pulitzer Prize (1997) and National Book Critics Circle Award (1996) for his memoir Angela's Ashes (1996), which details his impoverished childhood in Limerick. He also authored Tis (1999), which continues the narrative of his life, picking up from the end of the previous book and focusing on life as a new immigrant in America. Teacher Man (2005) detailed the challenges of being a young, uncertain teacher.
McCourt was a member of the National Arts Club and was a recipient of the Award of Excellence from The International Center in New York. In 1998, McCourt was honored as the Irish American of the Year by Irish America magazine. In 2002 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario. Most recently, McCourt is referenced in the popular rock song, "John Lennon" by the Canadian Rock Band "The Arkells" found on the album "Jackson Square".
In October 2009, the New York City Department of Education, along with several partners from the community, founded The Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism, and Literature, a screened-admissions public high school. The school is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on West 84th Street. The Frank McCourt School is one of four small schools designated to fill the campus of the former Louis D. Brandeis High School. The Frank McCourt High School began classes September 2010. The first principal of the school is Danielle Salzbert, who previously served as acting principal at Khalil Gibran International Academy and as an assistant principal at Millennium High School . Among the many community partners of the Frank McCourt school are the Columbia Journalism School and Symphony Space.
Frank McCourt was married first, in August 1961 (div. 1979), to Alberta Small, with whom he had a daughter, Margaret. He married second, in August 1984 (div. 1985) to psychotherapist Cheryl Ford. He married his third wife, Ellen Frey McCourt, in August 1994, and they lived in New York City and Roxbury, Connecticut. He is survived by Ellen, his daughter Maggie, his granddaughter Chiara, grandsons Frank, Jack, and Avery, and his three brothers and their families.
In his free time, McCourt took up the casual sport of rowing. He once sank his Wintech recreational single scull on the Mohawk River in New York, and had to be rescued by a local rowing team.
It was announced in May 2009 that he had been treated for melanoma and that he was in remission, undergoing home chemotherapy. On July 19, 2009, he died from the cancer, with meningeal complications, at a hospice in Manhattan.