Being Frank

Frank McCourt, the man whose memoirs of Irish poverty captivated the world, is remembered by The National reporter who wrote about him.

McCourt reads from his book Teacher Man during the second day of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February.
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Frank McCourt never quite got used to being famous. He would joke about how he wrote a book about his miserable childhood and suddenly everybody wanted to shake his hand. His searing memoir of life in the grim slums of Limerick, Ireland, Angela's Ashes, published in 1996, brought him literary respect as well as wealth and fame.

It won him the Pulitzer Prize for literature and was turned into a successful film directed by Alan Parker. But the legacy of those years took a toll on his health. As a child, he suffered from severe conjunctivitis and he nearly died at the age of 10 when he contracted typhoid. His mother, Angela, was told to prepare herself for his death as a priest administered the last rites. On Sunday, aged 78, he finally died of meningitis in his adopted city of New York having battled melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, since April.

Just two months before that, he was one of the biggest draws for literary fans at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai, where he charmed everybody with his particular brand of self-deprecating humour. "After winning the prize I felt like I had an extension to my name. For ever after I was known as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt," he joked. Both on and off stage he regaled us with anecdotes about his life as a successful author, marvelling at the fact that he was invited to spend a year as a writer in residence at the Savoy Hotel in London. It amused him when I remarked that he was not wearing socks, having spent his early years running barefoot through the streets of Limerick.

I last heard from him on April 22 when he replied to an e-mail I wrote after discovering that he would have been at Trinity College, Dublin, as a mature student at the same time as I arrived as a gauche young fresher in 1970. I gave him a taste of those carefree years in the e-mail and he wrote back encouraging me to carry on writing. He wrote: "Your [e-mail] could serve as synopsis for a memoir of your misspent days at Trinity. My typing here might seem erratic: I just spent weeks in hospital after a 'brain seizure' due to melanoma. That's why I have to wait a few days to send you a proper reply. Forgive this abruptness. Frank."

Knowing how sick he was, I was touched and saddened by the e-mail that I realised was a struggle for him to write, and I suspect he spent hours replying to former students sending similar messages of support to him during his last illness. I wrote back many times, telling him anecdotes about people we both knew that I hoped would enliven the boredom of what I hoped would be his convalescence, but it was not to be.

McCourt was actually born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Malachy McCourt, a charismatic but shiftless Belfast man who spent most of his wages on alcohol, leaving his wife, Angela, to bring up their brood of four sons (they lost a baby daughter and twin boys in their infancy). As work dried up in the Depression of the 1930s, the family returned to the poorest part of Limerick in the west of Ireland, where they lived in a filthy, damp tenement in the area known as The Lanes.

Even as a child, Frank had an ability to tell a story. This was noticed by a teacher, who pronounced: "You're a literary genius" - much to the embarrassment of the young Frank, who managed to shrug off much teasing in the playground. Nevertheless, he left school at 13 to find work to support the family and did a variety of jobs as he saved to buy his ticket on the Liverpool boat to England and freedom.

He said that the "smell of poverty" never left him and he would recognise it in the far-flung corners of the world when he was able to travel in five-star luxury. "I smelled it again in India and I just fell apart. I carry the images with me and it gets to me," he told me quietly. "When we saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire my wife asked me if it reminded me of anywhere and I said: 'No because India is warm'.

"You don't see barefoot kids in Ireland any more. In a class of 30 there would be 10 barefoot kids. We always had shoes and Mother would put cardboard in them. It was awful in freezing Limerick in the winter. It's hard to convey what it was like for people without hope." McCourt returned to New York in 1949, taking a job as a doorman at the Biltmore Hotel. He says being drafted into the US Army was the best thing that ever happened to him, as he was able to get the education he hungered for afterwards thanks to the GI Bill.

At New York University, a lecturer spotted McCourt's raw natural talent when he wrote an essay about the bed he and his brothers occupied in Limerick. "It had a mattress that collapsed in the middle and we tried to keep it together with strings but they rotted. People would be disgusted at how sodden it was and there were fleas. We got in and pulled these overcoats over ourselves but there were no sheets. We had a bolster which never had a cover on it so the feathers came out and we went to school in the morning looking like Apaches.

"The teacher wanted me to read it to the class but I was too shy. I didn't want the girls in the class to know the squalor of my childhood but I noticed that after that they looked at me differently." McCourt spent 30 years teaching English at McKee High School and Stuyvesant High School in New York before starting to write Angela's Ashes at the age of 64. He was an inspiring and unconventional teacher who quickly realised that the tough New York youngsters were not interested in Shakespeare. He would entertain them with stories of his childhood and encourage them to write about their own.

Those early days in the classroom were chronicled in two other memoirs, 'Tis and Teacher Man. A children's book published two years ago, Angela and the Baby Jesus, was based on a story his mother told him, and he was working on another memoir when he became ill. The searing reality of Angela's Ashes, which sold 10 million copies worldwide, spawned a new literary genre but it caused controversy among some of the people McCourt grew up with.

"It was stirred up by a few individuals, what they called in Ireland the begrudgers. The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, turned against me and the actor Richard Harris, also from Limerick, denounced me and a lot of them jumped on the bandwagon then. "But the night I went to sign books in Limerick to O'Mahony's book shop the people were lined up down O'Connell Street and round the corner - people from my past, people on the verge of dying, people who were in my class. It was a very emotional evening with people crying and talking about my mother," he said.

He and his wife, Ellen, lived in an apartment in the fashionable Upper West Side of New York. They also had a country retreat in Connecticut, where their nearest neighbours were the actress Mia Farrow, the author Philip Roth and, until he died in 2005, the playwright Arthur Miller. In Dubai in February, McCourt mused in an eerily prophetic way about getting his affairs in order and providing for his family. He told me he had set up trust funds and made his will to ensure a comfortable future for his daughter, Maggie, from his first marriage and three grandchildren. "Like everybody else I see the stock market sinking but I'm not too concerned about it. I've done my bit for the kids," he said.

He was thoroughly happy with Ellen, whom he met 20 years ago and credited her with his release from "Catholic guilt". "We were twisted when we were growing up in Limerick. Everything was a sin including the whole business of girls because the only model we had was the Virgin Mary. When I met Ellen, who has such a cheerful and open attitude towards everything with no sense of guilt or shame, I had to adjust to it.

"Today I put all the religions out on a buffet and I take out what want. Somebody once called me a cafeteria Catholic." McCourt always harboured ambitions to be a novelist and attempted one novel but it was never published and he described it as "rubbish". Five months before his death he was still considering giving it another go. "There's a novel in the back of my mind but you never know. I may be too late."

Sadly, that was indeed the case.