During my junior year of college I took an Irish literature course. We read Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, James Joyce and others. When the semester ended I took with me a much better understanding of the Irish, their history, their movies, their religion, their weather, their cites and towns and their tension with England. Having the professor’s British husband audit the class benefited us all, as he often weighed in with his perspective on the Irish.
Two years later I read Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, and was absolutely sucked in by the telling of the story from a little boy’s perspective. When I read the first page, I was hooked:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
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 alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Above all – we were wet.
Angela’s Ashes was awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Award. McCourt later published ‘Tis and Teacher Man about his adult life in New York City. He stopped at Meredith College during his Teacher Man book tour in 2006.
That same year I watched the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes. I don’t think I will ever forget the scene where McCourt’s father carried a small coffin carrying the body of one of his children into a bar to rest his pint glass on while he indulges his desperate need for alcohol.
Frank McCourt died yesterday in New York. He was 78.