Sunday 18 February 2018

Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, dies aged 78

‘I don’t want a funeral, scatter my ashes over the Shannon’

Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt with his wife Ellen

John Spain and Kelly Fincham

FRANK McCourt, the celebrated author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his searing memoir ‘Angela's Ashes’, died last night in New York. He was 78.

McCourt died at a Manhattan hospice surrounded by family and friends who had been keeping vigil with his wife Ellen over the past week.

The author had recently been treated for melanoma but became gravely ill with meningitis last week.

During a revealing interview some years ago, Frank McCourt spoke about his feelings on mortality. “I wouldn't like to be incapacitated, or handicapped, or die of a slow disease,” he said. “I don't want to be beholden to anyone or have anyone wiping my mouth if I'm drooling. I'd just like to go. I don't want funeral services or memorials. Let them scatter my ashes over the Shannon and pollute the river.”

In one way, at least, he got his wish – his ending was swift. Although he had been battling skin cancer for several months, he had been responding well to treatment and just two weeks ago he was still fulfilling speaking engagements, including one at Yale University.

Meningitis

But then, earlier last week, his condition worsened dramatically and he was diagnosed with meningitis a result of his melanoma.

His last days were spent in an exclusive hospice in Manhattan and he knew the end was near. Unable to speak, he was communicating with his family by writing on a board.

Niall O'Dowd, the publisher of IrishCentral.com, said: “The greatest tribute I can pay Frank McCourt is that he never lost the run of himself.

“I don't know how many struggling young writers received words of encouragement or book blurbs from Frank. I don't know how many charity events he supported or how much money he secretly slipped to writers in need. I suspect it is quite a lot. He would never say.

“I know that he supported our publications, Irish America Magazine and Irish Voice to the hilt. He showed up at our events, sang all our praises, accepted our awards and put up with his fair share of overeager fans and followers and never once complained.

“I knew Frank before he was wealthy or famous and he was a gent, and I can safely say he improved with success. How many people can we say that about?”

‘Angela's Ashes’ began with this memorable phrase which will forever live on in Irish literature: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Until his mid-60s, Frank McCourt was known primarily around New York as a creative writing teacher and as 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 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.

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

The native of New York and Limerick was good company in the classroom and at the bar, but few had such a burden to unload.

His parents were so poor that they returned from America to their native Ireland when he was little and settled in the slums of Limerick.

Simply surviving his childhood was a tale: McCourt's father was an alcoholic who drank the little money his family had. Three of McCourt's seven siblings died and he nearly perished from typhoid fever.

The book was a long Irish wake, “an epic of woe,” McCourt called it, finding laughter and lyricism in life's very worst.

Although some complained that McCourt had revealed too much (and revealed a little too well), ‘Angela's Ashes’ became a million seller, won the Pulitzer and was made into a movie.

After ‘Angela's Ashes,’ McCourt continued his story, to strong but diminished sales and reviews, in ‘'Tis’, which told of his return to New York in the 1940s, and in ‘Teacher Man’.

McCourt also wrote a children's story, ‘Angela and the Baby Jesus’, released in 2007. McCourt was married twice and had a daughter, Maggie McCourt, from his first marriage.

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