Page last updated at 06:54 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 07:54 UK

McCourt - woe became literary gold

Frank McCourt pictured in 1997
His memoir of an impoverished Irish childhood catapulted Frank McCourt into the spotlight

Frank McCourt, who died of cancer on 19 July, was a New York schoolteacher who achieved literary fame later in life with his "epic of woe" about his impoverished Irish childhood.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in August 1930, the eldest of seven children of Malachy and Angela McCourt.

It was a year after the Wall Street Crash and unable to find work in the depths of the Depression, the McCourts returned to their native Limerick, in 1934, where they sank deeper into poverty.

His father was a drinker and when McCourt was 11, he left to find work in the factories of wartime England.

He sent little money to the family, leaving Angela to raise four children - a baleful period, which would become the material of his best-selling work Angela's Ashes.

In the book, he describes an entire block of houses sharing a single outhouse, flooded by constant rain, and infested with rats and vermin.

Three of his seven siblings died, and he nearly perished from typhoid fever.

Aged 19, he left Ireland to return to the United States where, after a stint working in a hotel, he was drafted and sent to Germany. Upon his discharge from the army, he returned to New York where he held a series of jobs before enrolling in New York University.

After receiving a Masters degree from Brooklyn College in 1967, he taught English at McKee High School and Stuyvesant High School in New York City. His career as a teacher was to last 30 years.

Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood
Opening lines of Angela's Ashes

Until his mid-60s, McCourt was known primarily around New York as a creative writing teacher and a local character - the kind who might turn up in a New York novel - singing songs and telling stories with his younger brother and otherwise joining the crowds at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts.

But there was always a book or two being formed in his mind and the world would learn his name, and story, in 1996, after a friend helped him get an agent and his then-unfinished manuscript was quickly signed by Scribner.

"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," was how Angela's Ashes began.

"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."


With a first printing of just 25,000, Angela's Ashes became an instant favourite with critics and readers and perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.

He received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for the book, which was published in 25 languages and 30 countries then later made into a film.

He is also the author of 'Tis, which continued 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, published in 2005, detailed the challenges of being a young, uncertain teacher.

Author Peter Matthiessen, who became friendly with McCourt after Angela's Ashes came out, said he was "stunned" when he read it.

"I remember thinking, 'Where did this guy come from?" Matthiessen said. "His book was so good, and it came out of nowhere."

McCourt was married twice and had a daughter, Maggie McCourt, from his first marriage.

He told The Associated Press in 2005 he was not prepared for the fame his writing brought him.

"After teaching, I was getting all this attention," he said.

"They actually looked at me - people I had known for years - and they were friendly and they looked at me in a different way. And I was thinking, `All those years I was a teacher, why didn't you look at me like that then?'"

But the part of it he liked best, he said, was hearing "from all those kids who were in my classes".

"At least they knew that when I talked about writing I wasn't just talking through my hat," he said.

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