Friday 26 August 2016

Letters: 'Angela's Ashes' author Frank McCourt was an inspiration

Published 16/07/2014 | 02:30

Frank McCourt with his memoir
Frank McCourt with his memoir "Tis"

My hero, Frank McCourt, died five years ago this week, an event that prompted sorrow mixed with the guilty suspicion that I wasn't really entitled to any. We were strangers, after all, but McCourt was important to me in the unknowing way heroes often are.

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On a spring day in 2007, I took the train from Poughkeepsie to New York City to see McCourt and Calvin Trillin at the 92nd Street Y. The event was part of a reading and performance series, but was more like eavesdropping on the men as they chatted in the living room.

The men sat in club chairs flanking a low table and talked about favourite books, about pretentious restaurants and about the ham-fisted response to the massive snowstorms that crippled New York City in the 1970s. "There are still huge piles of snow out in Queens left over from the Lindsey administration," said McCourt.

From my seat in the darkened auditorium I laughed along with the men, enjoying their sharp wit and the easy warmth of their exchange. Following a brief Q&A, the men took seats at folding tables. I stood in McCourt's line and watched him smile and chat. I extended my hand as I approached the table.

"Hello, Mr McCourt, I left your books at home this morning, it seemed a little tacky to haul them all down here for your autograph." McCourt smiled and waved his hand: "Och, that's what these things are for."

"Well, I enjoyed hearing you and Mr Trillin speak," I said, "but I really came here today to tell you that something you said in a radio interview years ago really resonated with me and it inspired me to write my own story about my Irish Catholic childhood in Broad Channel, and about my search for the three-year-old who went missing from our family."

McCourt folded his hands and tilted his head to one side, waiting.

"The interviewer asked you why, at age 66 and after 30 years in the classroom, you'd decided to write 'Angela's Ashes'. You said, 'Because if I hadn't, I'd have gone howling to my grave'."

McCourt's facial expression said he didn't recall the words exactly, but he certainly agreed with the sentiment. "That's pretty good," he said with a chuckle.

"When I finish my manuscript I'd like to send it to you with a note reminding you about this conversation. Perhaps you'd let me take you to lunch?"

He squinted at my card before slipping it into his shirt pocket. "Okay," he said clutching my hand a second time. "Maybe we can do some howling!"

I learned of his illness when his brother Malachy told the press: "Frank is not expected to live." The slim possibility of that lunch still remained: a spring meeting at an outdoor cafe or perhaps an hour or two in the autumn, sharing a pot of tea.

The night McCourt lay dying, a torrential summer storm blew through the Hudson Valley. I imagined him in his bed an hour to the south, tended by family while thunder cracked and the lights flickered. I feel certain he did not howl.





I'm not sure if it was a graduated response or a misjudged offering on behalf of the inevitable culchie land invasion of Dublin, but the man himself offered to swim, fly or beg to make five in a row happen, and every shop or store owner on both sides of the Liffey, with container-loads of authentic looking cowboy hats and boots from China, will be praying like they never prayed before to every version of god out there, so that it does happen.

Whoever could have foreseen the countrywide tremor, or the turmoil, a cowboy hat-wearing country singer named Garth Brooks would cause?

Even the unfortunate story of over a dozen beached whales up here in Donegal had to suffer the indignity of having to take a back seat to the unfolding saga of will he/won't he.

To say that it went from a fiasco to a farce on every radio and TV station in the country and abroad would be an understatement for want of a more appropriate description.

Even the busy Mexican ambassador had offered his services as a peace negotiator amid calls for US President Barack Obama to forget the conflicts in the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear programme that's causing him headaches, and get directly involved because if our problem implodes, it will turn an ace card for Enda into a joker amid an upturn in consumer spending.

We have 450,000 of the population jobless, unemployed, on the breadline, call it whatever you like and they cannot grab the attention of the Taoiseach, media and world leaders like the 400,000 who bought tickets in their quest to do the hokey pokey with the Stetson-wearing messiah of country and western music, Garth Brooks?

God save us from all harm, but isn't there something peculiarly weird about this whole hip-whacking, butt-shaking, line-dancing scenario?





The blame for the Garth Brooks concert debacle lies squarely with the promoters and Brooks himself. They have a legal obligation to the ticketholders to provide the three authorised concerts.

If they refuse I suggest that a group of ticketholders should get together and take a class action against them.

I must compliment the city manager, who having made the difficult decision had the courage to stick by it despite the silly posturing of politicians in Government Buildings and the Mansion House.





Only an eejit would build a house without planning permission as you can be made to tear it down. This was no different. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail so people have a lot to answer for.

Having said that it is shameful that a resolution could not have been found with say the surplus of concerts over the agreed amount held in Croker this year triggering an equivalent reduction in the number to be held next year. Everybody has lost out now so there are lessons to be learned... expensive ones.





I refer to an Irish Independent editorial "Onus on State to ensure integrity of job scheme" and article by Tom Molloy "The scheme is working and getting vital experience for jobseekers" published on July 15.

An extraordinary phenomenon of an age personified by the genius of technology which has changed practically all aspects of life in recent decades is persistence with employment discussion without any reference whatsoever to the impact of that technology on work and jobs.

Dependence on human labour is being eliminated on a truly massive scale; automation is rampant and improving and yet an absurd government policy pursues job creation as if we were still in previous centuries.

Every conceivable guise is used to make job figures look good.

We collude in dubious taxavoidance which eventually will brand us pariahs on the international scene and refuse absolutely to heed numerous wake-up calls of what is really happening on the jobs/work front. No explanation or even discussion has yet emerged on the significance of one investment of €3.6bn without a promise of a single job.

Automation allows the world to produce everything in abundance without dependence on human labour; this is a reality we ignore at our peril.

It really is tragic to see respected journalism assist such monumental self-deception.



Irish Independent

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