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Frank McCourt, the teacher

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By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / July 20, 2009

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A few hours after Frank McCourt learned he had won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes," I went to see him at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, where he was staying.

In what turned out to be one of his last moments of anonymity, he was sitting in a corner booth in one of the hotel lounges with his wife Ellen, who used to work at WGBH, less than a mile away.

"Well," he said laconically, "I suppose I'm the Mick of the moment." Material success always puzzled Frank McCourt. He did not go through life courting it. Hell, if he did, he wouldn't have been a teacher. Because while everybody today mourns Frank McCourt the writer, he always thought of himself as Frank McCourt the teacher.

Don't get me wrong. Frank loved the fact that the wild success of "Angela's Ashes" meant that he and Ellen could leave their small apartment in Lower Manhattan for Midtown, not to mention the country estate in Connecticut. He loved all the travel.

"The best part," he confided, "is that they pay all your expenses." But acclaim and financial success came late to Frank McCourt, so he saw it as an exclamation mark to his life, not its narrative arc.

Over a pint in Tiernan's, the late, lamented pub in Boston's Financial District that was run by Liam Tiernan, his brother Malachy's former son-in-law, Frank casually mentioned he was finishing up his second book, about his life as an adult in the United States, and was trying to settle on a title.

"How about 'Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man?' " I suggested.

Frank didn't miss a beat.

"Too long," he said.

Of course, "Angela's Ashes" was more than a book. It was a phenomenon.

It always bothered Frank when some people dismissed "Angela's Ashes" as an Irish book, or more specifically a stereotypically sentimental, woe-is-me Irish book. Because it wasn't really an Irish story, though of course most of it was set in Ireland and almost all of the characters Irish.

His father, Malachy McCourt, was forced to marry Angela Sheehan in 1930 because she was pregnant with Frank, a condition that Limerick lane boys called "up the pole." Lane was an Irish euphemism for slum. Being born short of the prerequisite nine months of Holy Incubation marked Frank as an outsider, a loner, from the start.

In the first page of his book, McCourt laid it all out. His father was a shiftless, loquacious alcoholic, his mother pious and defeated. His immigrant parents met and married in New York but moved back to Ireland after his sister died as an infant. In less than six years, his mother had six children, and three of them died. A seventh child would follow.

McCourt called his first page "the disclaimer," because his characters seem like walking Irish stereotypes. In less skilled hands, they would be. And yet, while the first few paragraphs of the book give the impression of an "Irish" story, what made "Angela's Ashes" appeal to such a broad audience is its universal themes and richly drawn characters.

"Angela's Ashes" is not exclusively an Irish story. It is about being poor, about being humiliated and battered down by a society that insists all people are equal in the afterlife, but you'd better shut your gob and take whatever God and country give you in this one.

Mostly, it was about being poor.

Long before he was famous, Frank McCourt would be up late, watching TV, unable to sleep, and one of those "Feed the Children" commercials would come on and he would weep uncontrollably.

"I weep," he told me, "because I know that gnawing." Hunger, both physical and emotional, gnawed at Frank McCourt as a child, first in Brooklyn, then in Limerick, where the mist and despair rose up from the River Shannon. Hunger, with its accomplices, poverty and ignorance, stole away his twin brothers, Eugene and Oliver, and just as surely the same conditions conspired to kill his infant sister, Margaret, in New York a few years before.

Even with all his success, there was a melancholy to Frank McCourt that never really went away. In his voice, in his eyes, those sad, tortured eyes that saw so much as a boy. It took him nearly 30 years to revise his first draft into "Angela's Ashes." It took him three marriages to find one that worked. There was always this gnawing sense, like the hunger, that so much time was wasted finding himself, finding his muse, that there were so many other books, so many other words, that couldn't get out because he had to first confront and put down on paper the past that informed his present and future.

He was a teacher for 27 years. He was his hardest student. He struggled for decades, trying to find his voice. He found it as a teacher by listening to himself, and he found it as a writer, finally, by listening to the voice of his then 1-year-old granddaughter.

One day, as "Angela's Ashes" was climbing the bestseller list, we were in the back of the Old Town, a turn-of-the-century tavern on East 18th Street near Broadway, not far from the cramped one-bedroom apartment he and Ellen would soon leave, I asked Frank why it took such an obviously talented writer so long to write his first book.

"Because," he said, gazing at the elaborate tin ceiling, "that's how long it took me to grow up." While recalling his treatment at the hands of brutal teachers, callous priests, vicious nuns, and others who treated poor children and their families with disdain, McCourt could make you laugh and cry in the same paragraph. The book ends with him coming to America when he was 19. He took any job he could find, in hotels, on the docks. He tended canaries and, when some of the birds died inexplicably, he glued them to their perches, practicing the kind of con he perfected to survive as a Limerick lane boy.

Then he got drafted.

The Korean War was as responsible as anything for the making of Frank McCourt the writer. In the 1930s and 1940s, poor children in Ireland did not aspire to anything beyond elementary education. Like many of his peers, McCourt left school at 13, because the few bob he made as a delivery boy put food on his family's table. After a stint in the Army, he took advantage of the GI Bill and studied English at New York University. He got a master's degree at Brooklyn College, read John Cheever, and wondered if Cheever's world of white picket fences and white neighbors was what he wanted.

While McCourt's intellectual life prospered, his personal life was, as he put it, a mess. His first marriage was troubled from the outset, even though it lasted in law for 18 years. It was an Irish thing, he suggested.

"I didn't know how to relate to women. We didn't know how to talk to women," he says.

He moved to Dublin, to Trinity College, to start a doctorate on the Irish-American literary renaissance. He had separated from his first wife, but the couple reconciled and had a daughter. They named her after Frank's dead sister, Margaret. They came to regard having a child as a noble but futile attempt to save a marriage that had ended long ago. They split for good when Maggie was 8.

McCourt traveled America vicariously, through Maggie, who became a Dead Head. From wherever the Grateful Dead played, McCourt would get a call late at night: Dad, I need money. Dad, I'm in jail. Dad . . .

Maggie grew up in more ways than one, and she unwittingly gave her father his most significant muse: her daughter Chiara.

For years, he had been playing around with a manuscript. He called it "If You Live in a Lane," and it was deadly serious and self-righteous, the literary equivalent of Sinead O'Connor ripping up a picture of the pope on "Saturday Night Live." But then, when Chiara was still a toddler, McCourt spent a lot of time babysitting her. He listened to her sparse, economical use of language, her pragmatic approach to life's essentials.

"It was just when I was beginning the book, and I had this extraordinary illumination, or epiphany. Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world. They want to survive, they need food, they need drink, and they need to learn. But they're not emotional. They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book." The voice he had been looking for was the voice of a child.

"It was never, in the earlier drafts, the voice of a child. It was always the past tense, the imitative derivative of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway. But one day in 1994 I wrote this sentence: 'I'm four and I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn.' And it was, Jesus, I suddenly felt very comfortable with it."

Frank McCourt kept a copy of the first draft he wrote, in 1968, "to keep myself humble." But humility was never a problem for Frank. He cast a cold eye on success, as Yeats did life and death.

The Catholic Church confused and confounded Frank. He knew there were many good priests and nuns. He just didn't meet many of them. He bristled at orthodoxy. Once, we were sitting in his Dublin hotel, and he started going on about how the Church had just decided there was no limbo.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," said the avowed agnostic, "what about all the people in limbo? What about the babies who died before they were baptized? Where are they supposed to go? Hoboken?" He was furious about the relaxation of the rule forbidding the eating of meat on Fridays.

"People went to Hell because they ate meat on Fridays," he said. "What's gonna happen to them?"

All good questions. And that was what you got from Frank. Better questions than answers. He was always thinking.

He hated hypocrisy.

"All the priests I knew told us there was no shame in being poor, but none of them were," he said.

His brothers went into the bar business, and it hurt them in one way or the other. Frank studiously avoided working in a bar.

"I always knew there were doors in America, and you just had to find the right door," he said. "The door wasn't in a pub."

The smartest thing he ever did, he said, was join the Army. He trained German shepherds, which he said, only half jokingly, was perfect preparation for teaching high school in New York.

More importantly, he was able to go to college and get a job with some security and, for him, a challenge.

"Nothing I did was harder, or mattered more, than teaching kids," he said to me once.

He loved Beckett, but wouldn't read him. And, he swore, it wasn't because Beckett was a Prod.

"There's something about him that's so wicked and tremendously funny," he said. "I can read other people, but I can't read Beckett."

He was too modest to put himself in the same class of writer, but he was outspoken about the fact that so many great Irish writers - Joyce, Beckett, Shaw - had to leave Ireland to succeed. The Ireland that suffocated them suffocated him.

New York liberated him, but no one paid much attention until he was 66 years old. There were too many rules. Rules had defined everything he did. From Leamy School in Limerick to the US Army to the New York public schools, he had to follow rules, and those rules crushed him. Then, one day, he figured out, if no one sees you breaking rules, you're not really breaking rules.

"I had the kids sing on a Thursday," he said. "Just for the hell of it." He ignored the curriculum and went off on tangents.

And the kids sat up and noticed. And suddenly he was the greatest teacher in the world.

"Once the kids realized I was loving what I was doing, they paid attention," he said.

And so Frank McCourt's classroom became this sort of free-association, vocabulary building scene from Finnegan's Wake, where language was anything you wanted it to be. As long as you could spell it correctly.

For all the spoils of success, for all the embraces from the literary establishment, Frank took most pleasure from the letters he got from former students, many of them poor kids who had to make their way in life while enduring disadvantages at home and humiliation in a society that often views being poor as a character flaw.

"I know what that feels like," Frank said.

Later, after he wrote his third and final book, "Teacher Man," he got similar letters from teachers, who recognized their struggles in his struggles, their small victories in the classroom in his. A few years ago, after Frank and I had a conversation about Ireland as part of a forum at the Kennedy Library, Frank was surrounded by teachers from in and around Boston who had come to hear him speak. They all had copies of "Teacher Man," and he seemed more comfortable with them than with any of the high-falutin' literary types that he often found himself in the company of.

If there was one thing that bothered Frank McCourt, it was accusations from some that he traded his family's most intimate secrets for financial gain. He struggled mightily about how explicit to be about his family's dysfunction. He was quite frank that if his mother had still been alive, he would not have written the book, especially the part about her trading sex for a roof over their heads after his father abandoned them. McCourt seriously considered not including the part about how his mother slept with a cousin, Laman Griffin, a brutal man who beat McCourt, then a young teenager, over an inconsequential dispute. In the summer of 1995, he and his brother Malachy were walking in Manhattan when he mentioned excluding that part.

"Malachy said I had to write about it. That's what it's all about. That's why I left the house in the first place. That is what tormented us, all these years. If I hadn't written about that, the rest of the book wouldn't have had the tone or ambiance or texture that it did. The demon had to be appeased."

In later life, he grew to accept what had happened, though at the time it was the most traumatic event of his life.

"She was 32 years old. She was very young. So there he was. He was drunk most of the time. So she'd climb up into that little loft. How do you judge something unless you know something else? I felt somehow it was wrong, because my mother was married to my father. But more than that, I felt she had betrayed me, when Laman beat me, and she went up there anyway. That was the last straw. If he hadn't beat me, they could have gone up there and I wouldn't have cared. But she chose him over me, and that hurt."

In 1959, Angela McCourt visited her son, the schoolteacher, in New York for what was supposed to be a three-week vacation. She never left. In 1963, her husband arrived, talking about a reconciliation. But he returned to form, got drunk all over Brooklyn, and fled when Angela called the cops after he tried to renew their sexual relationship.

Angela McCourt died in 1981. She was 73 years old.

If Frank McCourt could have had anything in this life, it would have been a closer relationship with his father. He eventually came to accept that his father was incapable of providing for any children, let alone the seven he brought into this world, if only because of chronic alcoholism. He wonders if his father was bipolar, or merely beaten down by being a foreigner in his own country, a northerner in southern Ireland. His father claimed to have fought in the old Irish Republican Army against the British. But the southerners who obtained their freedom on the backs of volunteers like him treated him with nothing but contempt. His accent invited disdain and killed job prospects.

McCourt would laugh at the irony that his uncle, the warm and loving Pa Keating, gassed in World War I while in the British Army, couldn't have children, while his father was irrepressibly virile but hopelessly irresponsible.

"Pa Keating would have been the best father in the world," he told me once. "Everybody loved him. He had a great sense of humor. He drank his pint. But he would go home."

After years of running away from home, life and responsibility, Frank McCourt's father went home, to Belfast. Father and son had limited contact over the years.

"I went up there in 1971. It was the worst year of the Troubles," Frank McCourt said. "He was smoking, but he wasn't drinking. Belfast was going up in flames, but there he was in his little apartment in Andersonstown. And he'd drink his tea, and the ladies in Andersonstown brought him his tea and his sandwiches."

One indelible image of "Angela's Ashes" is Malachy McCourt, drunk on the family's food money, rousing his sleeping sons with rebel songs, making them promise to die for Ireland. But by the time he died in Belfast at 85, he was apathetic about the cause that once had been his only passion.

"Angela's Ashes" had the unintended effect of bringing the four McCourt brothers together in a way that was unexpected and wonderful. While Frank and Malachy, an actor who was a regular on the soap opera "One Life to Live," were always close, Alfie and Mike had not spoken for years. The four went back to Limerick to promote the book. The McCourt brothers took their mother's ashes to Limerick, scattering them over the graves of their bitter grandmother, their sour aunt Aggie, their beloved Uncle Pa.

In 1997, I was based in Dublin for the Globe, and Frank invited me to join him and his brothers at the University of Limerick, where he was given an honorary degree and installed as a writer-in-residence.

"Are all the brothers coming?" I asked Frank over the phone.

"Hey, this is Limerick," he replied. "I've got to watch my back."

He wasn't kidding. There were some people in Limerick who didn't take kindly to his portrayal of their city. Limerick's bad reputation went well beyond Frank McCourt's memory. By the 1980s, its reputation for violence led to the nickname "Stab City," and to this day it has a level of gangland violence wildly disproportionate to its population.

It wouldn't be Irish if there wasn't a split, and the split in Limerick was between those who saw "Angela's Ashes" as an exaggerated, mean-spirited attack on the city and its people, and those who embrace the book's art, humanity, and the attention, good or bad, it brought Limerick.

A few hours before Frank got his degree, I was in the lounge of the Castletroy Park Hotel chatting to Alfie and Mike McCourt when I got a tap on the shoulder.

"Are ye the fella from The Boston Globe?" a man with a thick Limerick accent asked.

His name was Gerard Hannan, and he had written what he calls "the other side of the story," an account of those who grew up as poor and as disadvantaged as McCourt but who look back on those days fondly. Hannan claimed McCourt embellished much of the misery contained in "Angela's Ashes." His self-published literary retort to McCourt is called "Ashes," a title that he claimed, with something less than conviction, was coincidence.

For the better part of an hour, Hannan made an unpersuasive case about how wonderful it was to grow up poor in Limerick.

Later, I told Frank about the encounter. Far from being angry, he smiled.

"Begrudgers," he said. "What would Ireland be without them?"

The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, made the disparaging of Frank a regular feature. The edition that greeted the arrival of the McCourts in Limerick contained a half-page of pictures showing Frank in a Boy Scout uniform, with a headline asking, "Is this the picture of misery?"

Frank was alternately annoyed and amused by all the begrudgery.

"Some people are running around town saying I made all this suffering up," he said. "I wish I did. I would have had a nicer life. My sister and two brothers wouldn't have died as children."

When we arrived on campus, I told University of Limerick president Edward Walsh about the encounter at the hotel and he didn't smile. He said the university had gotten telephone threats after it was announced Frank would receive a degree.

It was a nice event, and Frank spoke well, as usual, moving people and making them laugh.

Later, we retired to Ed Walsh's exquisite residence for dinner and a singsong. The former took an hour; the latter went on all night. At some point, well after midnight, Ed Walsh said his goodbyes and went up to bed.

But the McCourts and the rest of the crowd barely noticed. The room was full of characters from the book: the Souths, the Costellos, Eric Lynch, and Frank's best friend growing up, Billy Campbell. Earlier that night, Billy Campbell had pressed into Frank's hand a piece of pavement taken from the street in front of Mrs. O'Connell's shop, the shop where young Frank McCourt begged for food, the shop that has been razed like much of the Limerick that Frank McCourt has preserved for posterity.

The sun was coming up when Frank finished singing, "Limerick, You're a Lady."

The next day, we were standing in a bookshop in Limerick, and Frank gave a reading, and some Limerickman came up to him, and there was steam coming out of his ears and he said, barely able to contain his rage, "You made us look like a Third World country."

And Frank turned to him, calm as can be, and said, "We were."

Frank knew, more than most, that sometimes the truth hurts. But all we have are our truths.

He always said he wanted his ashes spread over the Shannon.

"To pollute it," he said.

Kevin Cullen, a Globe columnist, knew Frank McCourt for more than 20 years. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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