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Frank McCourt (1930-2009): Late Author’s Younger Brother Malachy Remembers Childhood Poverty Depicted in “Angela’s Ashes”

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We remember the author Frank McCourt, who died Sunday at the age of seventy-eight. McCourt was best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes. The book chronicles McCourt’s poverty-ridden childhood in Brooklyn and Ireland, a childhood he said he felt lucky to have survived. McCourt published the book after a thirty-year career as a New York City schoolteacher, which he also chronicled in a later memoir, Teacher Man. We speak with Frank McCourt’s younger brother, actor and writer Malachy McCourt. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Danny Boy,” sung by Johnny Cash. Our next guest wrote the book Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad, Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who died this weekend at the age of seventy-eight. Frank McCourt was best known for his memoir Angela’s Ashes. The book chronicles McCourt’s poverty-ridden childhood in Brooklyn and Ireland, a childhood he said he felt lucky to have survived. McCourt published the book after a thirty-year career as a New York City schoolteacher, which he also chronicled in a later memoir, Teacher Man.

This is Frank McCourt speaking about growing up poor in a 1999 interview with the Academy of Achievement, of which he was a member.

    FRANK McCOURT: Even though we were poor, at the lowest level, below the lowest economic level, we were always excited. I was rich in the sense that we had a lot to look up to, to look forward to, a lot to aspire to, a lot to dream about. But in economic circumstance, it was desperate. It was Calcutta with rain. At least they’re warm in Calcutta. But it was desperate because of certain things, ingredients, like my father being an alcoholic, my mother having too many babies in too short a time, no work available in Ireland. And even though — even then when my father did get a job, he drank the wages. Then there was the harsh kind of schooling we had with school nurses who ruled with the stick. And then the overwhelming presence of the Church, which imbued us with fear all the time. So it was fear, dampness, poverty, alcoholism, fear of the Church, fear of the schoolmasters, fear in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank McCourt speaking in 1999.

We’re joined now by Frank McCourt’s younger brother, Malachy McCourt, a pioneer in talk radio, a producer at Pacifica station WBAI, has had a long career as an actor on stage, on screen, on television in soap operas. He’s the author of several books, as well, including his bestselling memoir, A Monk Swimming. In 2006, he ran as the Green Party candidate in the New York gubernatorial race, losing to Eliot Spitzer. Together, Malachy and Frank McCourt wrote the play A Couple of Blaguards, based on their life story. Malachy McCourt joins us now.

Our condolences to you, Malachy, and your whole family.

MALACHY McCOURT: Thank you, Amy. Thank you for remembering Frank and honoring him. He would be honored to know that we’re here talking about him today.

When he wrote Angela’s Ashes, people assumed, of course, that it was only him that went through all of this. And there were seven of us. And one reason we went to Ireland was because my sister died in Brooklyn, the only little girl, Margaret Mary, and my mother had a breakdown. My father went on a lifelong tear. And then we went to Ireland — Frank, myself, my parents and the twins, Eugene and Oliver. And in a very short time, they died. After — so my mother — three children died within a period of two years. Then two others were born, Michael and Alphie. They are the sort of forgotten brothers, in a sense. Mike works in San Francisco in a saloon called the Washbag, Washington Square Bar and Grill. He is a great storyteller, a wonderful character. My younger brother — youngest brother Alphie, who has written a lovely memoir, he’s a beautiful writer, a beautiful singer, called A Long Stone’s Throw. So, in all of this, they have been forgotten, and they are also grieving.

But at the same time, we have an attitude about death in Ireland. It’s not, as I often say, fatal; we keep people alive so much by — in song and in story. We mourn marriage and celebrate death, because it’s always heading off for somewhere else.

And Frank died of melanoma, and he had — I cannot stand that expression, “he battled.” Nobody battles cancer. I mean, you think about a bunch of patients in hospital gowns leaping around their rooms, battling cancer, microbes, or whatever the bloody hell, the cells and so on. I mean, you just simply have cancer, and somehow or another you get treated — badly, most of the time, because there’s a lot of bull rubbish about it. Alternative medicine is totally ignored, I think, as far as — and we could — and people, so many people get melanoma, like if you’re ignorant, you lie out in the sun and bake yourself and get melanoma. And people think just because you have light skin, you’re more — well, you are likely more to get it, but a lot of African American folks get melanoma on their feet. And that’s — so, if you do that, if you lie in the sun, you have a chance of getting melanoma. And that’s ignorance. Now, if you continue to do it after I say you shouldn’t do it, that’s stupidity. So, you’re stupid and ignorant, and you don’t — you won’t get away with it. So, I tell you, don’t lie out in the sun. It’s dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: You sound like your brother, the teacher, the teacher man.


AMY GOODMAN: But talk a little about how Frank ended up writing. I mean, you were writing, you were acting —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- you had a bar, Malachy’s Bar —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and which he would come to. And here was Frank, who first got lots of jobs in New York, then ultimately landed a teaching job. He was teaching at Stuyvesant?

MALACHY McCOURT: He taught at McKee High School in — a vocational school in Staten Island first, and then at Seward Park, Fashion Institute, and then he landed that lovely job at Stuyvesant. But people said Frank McCourt did not teach anything but Frank McCourt. That’s where he broke all the rules. He was — he despised orthodoxy, and he despised authority. And so, therefore, he —-

He had the advantage, like myself, of having no formal education. I left school when I was thirteen. He left school when he was thirteen. But we loved reading. And if -— obviously I haven’t missed too many dinners, but if you asked me would I rather a book or dinner, I will take the book. And we didn’t have many books. And that was it. The library came to Limerick, and we couldn’t get over the fact that it was a room full of books. My god! Magic! And we just devoured them. We ate them. We graduated from the children’s part right into the grown-up part very, very quickly.

And the librarians, of course, they were people who were recruited by their politicians, typical indoor job, and they would — and they would look, say, “Look at your hands! They’re filthy!” Well, we were filthy, because we didn’t have bathrooms. There was one lavatory outside our house, which served sixteen families. And people would come down and throw their buckets of crap and so forth in there, and the stink was horrendous. And we called that lavatory Bucketham Palace.

AMY GOODMAN: You were wretchedly poor. You had Frank begging, your mom begging, on the streets.

MALACHY McCOURT: Yeah, sure. You see, there’s a difference between being poor, Amy, and being poverty-stricken. Poverty is a disease. And we had that. And there’s no hope in poverty. But the thing that kept us going was getting the gift of reading. And that was it.

Being poor is one thing. And people say, “Well, we were poor, too.” Well, poor is, sometimes you have — don’t have quite enough, but you have enough to eat, which we often — the gnawing of the hunger at night going to bed. You’re lying in bed with your brothers, and they’re incontinent when they’re little children, and you have, you know, the stink of urine and everything else. Then you have fleas, and you have lice, and you have rats, you have mice. And then we had my mother involved with this drunk bastard who would beat us up, as well, because she did it to keep a roof over our heads. And that was the horror of the whole damn thing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you come to the United States —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and Frank comes to the United States. He teaches for decades and decades. He didn’t write Angela’s Ashes, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, until he was what? It was published when he was sixty—

MALACHY McCOURT: He was sixty-six.

AMY GOODMAN: Sixty-six.

MALACHY McCOURT: Yeah. And I was sixty-six when I — and he started it all, you see? He began. He said, you can’t write when you’re teaching five classes a day of thirty-five kids in each class. So, for years — and then he was — he had not a very good marriage, the first one, and the second one was not so good. But finally, he met Ellen Frey, this beautiful woman from California, and she opened his cage and let him out, and the bird flew. And the eagle soared. And he got his pen, and she protected him. And he got food, and she let him write. And then, out it came. He used to hang out in the Lion’s Head with all of us, Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin and all the other writers. And he was just a teacher, and they were the great writers. But then Jimmy Breslin said, “You’re the best of the lot.” And Frank finally sat down. And like Bob Dylan says, “I don’t write songs, I write them down.” Frank said he wrote it down, finally.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is your brother Frank in an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 1999, asked to share his advice for young people.

    FRANK McCOURT: Everybody says, “Follow your dream.” Or Joseph Campbell would say, “Follow your bliss.” You have to. If it’s deep enough and authentic and profound and genuine, that’s where you have to go. If you want to put on the collar of a clergyman, go and put it on. If you want to be a barefooted monk in the Himalayas, that’s what you have to do. If you want to be a housewife, that’s what you have to do, because nature — I know. I found out eventually why I was put on this earth. I was put on this earth to write. And as Thomas Carlyle said, “Happy is the man who has found his work.” So I’m happy. And I hope everybody else finds that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Frank McCourt, his advice to young people. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote Angela’s Ashes when he was sixty-six years old. He died this weekend at the age of seventy-eight.

I want to thank you very much, Malachy. Look forward to the public memorial service in September —-

MALACHY McCOURT: Yeah, Symphony Space.

AMY GOODMAN: —- at Symphony Space.


AMY GOODMAN: Malachy McCourt, his younger brother, who also wrote A Monk Swimming, Danny Boy. Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis and Teacher Man.

MALACHY McCOURT: And never show your work to relatives in advance. And never judge it. You’ll find it guilty.

AMY GOODMAN: Malachy, thanks so much for being with us.

MALACHY McCOURT: Thank you, Amy. It’s grand to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: And you can go to our website to see the images and the video of Frank McCourt.

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