Frank McCourt: A Responsibility To Write In a 1996 interview, the late memoirist shares richly detailed memories of his Limerick childhood and his adult life in the United States.

Frank McCourt: A Responsibility To Write

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to an interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Frank McCourt. He died yesterday of metastatic melanoma. He was 78.

McCourt spent most of his career teaching writing at Stuyvesant High School in New York, but in his 60s, he decided to write a memoir about his miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. That book, "Angela's Ashes," became a surprise bestseller in 1996. It remained on the bestseller list for two years and won both a Pulitzer Prize for Biography and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

McCourt wrote two more memoirs, "'Tis," about his early years in New York, and "Teacher Man," about his experiences teaching. "Angela's Ashes" was adapted into a film.

I spoke with McCourt in October, 1996. I asked him first to read a passage from "Angela's Ashes."

Mr. FRANK McCOURT (Author, "Angela's Ashes"): My father and mother should have stayed in New York, where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins, Oliver(ph) and Eugene(ph), barely one and my sister Margaret(ph) dead and gone. When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at 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 father, pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters, the English and the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years. Above all, we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settled forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacteria sponges. It provoked cures galore. To ease the catarrh, you boiled onions and milk blackened with pepper. For the congested passages, you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag and slapped it sizzling on the chest.

From October to April, the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried. Tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilt stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week's wages.

The rain drove us into the church: our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At mass, benediction, novenas, we huddled in great, damp clumps, dozing through priest drone while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles. Limerick gained the reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

GROSS: Frank McCourt, thanks for reading that excerpt. I want you to describe the house that you grew up in in Limerick.

Mr. McCOURT: There were a number of houses. When we first arrived in Limerick, it was a one-room affair with most of it taken up with a bed. It was about a half-acre of collapsing bed, and then the rest of it, there was a table. There were two chairs, which my mother and father sat on it. There was a fireplace, a small fireplace with two little hobs where you placed - on which you placed the kettle. And there was - in that particular house, there was a backyard and a lavatory, and we shared the bed with about a million fleas.

But then we had to move out of there. One of the twins got sick and died there. So we moved to another place, another room similar to the first one, where another twin died. Oliver and Eugene were their names.

Then we finally got out of there, and we went to a house in a place called Roden Lane up in Berryhill near the soldiers' barracks. It was a house at the end of a lane. It was called two up, two down, that kind of house: two rooms downstairs, and two rooms upstairs except these houses had no indoor plumbing and no backyard. So there was one lavatory for the whole lane, about 11 families sharing this one lavatory, and the lane sloped. So when it rained, when it rained, a lake formed down at the end of the lane, and of course, we were down at the end of the lane, and the lake of rain seeped under our door. We tried everything to keep it out. We used rags, everything, sods of grass, but the rain came in, and it was so damp downstairs that we moved upstairs. We called downstairs Ireland, and we moved up to Italy, which was warm, upstairs. My mother said this is like Italy up here, it's so warm and dry.

GROSS: Here's a sense-memory question. What do you remember the smells of your house as being?

Mr. McCOURT: Oh, there was a general smell of dampness, and I don't think we ever noticed that dreadful thing that's so feared in America called body odor because if we had, we'd all be dead by now. There was none of that.

The lavatory, when people emptied their buckets, some families were worse than others. Now I'm going to get very gross and vulgar, but some families were worse than others with those buckets, especially if we had any kind of a warm summer. Then that lavatory was foul. That was the overriding smell all through the house because we were unfortunate enough to have our front door at a right angle to that lavatory. That was the prevailing smell, and that eventually, I think, is where I got typhoid fever, from that lavatory.

GROSS: And you spent, what, about 14 weeks in the hospital with typhoid fever.

Mr. McCOURT: Oh yeah, yeah. That in a sense was - that was at the onset of my adolescence, and in a way, it was a gift because I discovered my first lines of Shakespeare, and I discovered there the poem "The High Women" and books in general. I was given access to books.

GROSS: In the hospital, you were expected to die. The priest came to give you extreme unction. Did you think you were going to die?

Mr. McCOURT: I didn't know at the time. I was so sick, I didn't give a damn whether I died or lived, or lived or died. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew somewhere - somehow I was aware of the priest over in the corner saying mass, and I knew that was - something told me this was significant, and then he came over, and they pulled the sheets down, and they anointed me with the extreme unction oils. So I think I knew enough. We were good little Catholics. We were well-trained. I knew enough. I think the nurse told me, anyway, that I was going to be anointed, and?

GROSS: Well, you were probably used to death. You had already had siblings who had died.

Mr. McCOURT: Well, we had people all over. Malachy and I used to - my brother - we used to go to funerals all the time. We belonged to the Death of the Month Club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: A funeral was a great form of entertainment. A wake was a great form of entertainment. I mean, if somebody - we'd wander around the streets. We had nothing else to do. We were street urchins, and we'd wander around the neighborhood looking to see if anybody had died. You could tell by a mourning wreath on the door, on which was pinned a purple-lined memorial, purple-bordered memorial card announcing the death and so on, and RIP at the end. And that was the signal for us to knock at the door and say we were very sorry for your troubles, ma'am, because there was a tradition around that if children prayed for the dead, the dead were assured, guaranteed, entrance to heaven. So we were guaranteed entrance to the house to kneel by the bed and say a prayer for the deceased. They were always kept in the house until they were taken to the church. There was no embalming, no funeral homes.

So we'd kneel by the side of the bed, and when we were finished with our little prayers, we could go out to the kitchen, and they'd give us lemonade and biscuits or lemonade and buns, and then we were sent home, unless it was a family we knew, and then we'd stay on for the wake, which went on all night, and then there was Guinness, and there was whiskey, and there was sherry for the women, and sometimes there was ham and bread. And we'd go around, even though we were only six or seven years old, we'd go around creeping under tables and chairs, emptying the glasses, the jam jars and the cups or whatever was in it, sherry or whiskey or Guinness.

GROSS: How did all the death that you were exposed to and the association between death and free food affect your feelings about death?

Mr. McCOURT: Well, we prospered. We didn't mind having somebody die in the neighborhood if it wasn't our own family, but we got excited. We'd go to people's houses and knock on the door.

Except one time, one of my friends, a kid named Clement O'Hanlon(ph), died of TB, which we called the consumption. He had been in and out of the sanitarium, and he was a big, fat kid who shrank away to nothing and then blew up again, and everybody said well, that's the end of Clement. You know, when they blow up like that, that's the end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The healthier you looked, the closer you were to the grave in our lore, our local lore. So when Clement died, he shrank again. And we went to his house, and we went in to pray for him, and Mrs. O'Hanlon, his mother, was weeping and carrying on. And she said - and there he was in the bed, and he looked all yellow, and he looked like a little monkey, and I was frightened because I didn't - that was not the Clement that I recognized, and she says to me: Kiss him, Frankie, kiss him. Kiss your poor little friend, Clement. I said oh no, Mrs. O'Hanlon. It's all right. Come on, kiss him. And I was very reluctant. So she grabbed me under my shoulders, under the armpits, and pushed me against him and forced me to kiss him. And I'll never, as long as I live, forget the smell of Clement O'Hanlon in the bed, that cold, awful smell, that smell of rot that you only get from the dead.

GROSS: When you discovered books and got deeper into them, I imagine you eventually read James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist."

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's a scene similar to that in there, where he has to kiss the body of his grandmother, is it?

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Did you really relate to that when you read that?

Mr. McCOURT: No, I didn't remember. I think I put everything out of my head when I was writing the book. Of course, when I read Joyce, I related to all kinds of things, especially the religious stuff, which we all suffer from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: There's nothing in the world like being an Irish Catholic, nothing. I can't - I have Jewish friends who go on about the guilt and all that. They haven't the foggiest notion of what guilt is and fear and the rest of it because the difference between Judaism and Catholicism is - in Catholicism, we have the grand institution called hell, and if you'll remember in "A Portrait of the Artist," hell is described very vividly. I have never come across anything like that in Jewish literature, the walls a million miles thick and the heat a million degrees and so on, and imagine being there a million, million, million years and so on, and devils chasing you with pitchforks, ready to ram them up your behind for eternity. Eternity, boys, eternity.

GROSS: So do you think of your Irish Catholic childhood as being a particularly bad one because your family was so poor, or do you think of yourself as being typical?

Mr. McCOURT: Oh, I don't think it was - well, we were poor, but there was a lot of poverty around, and ours was desperate. I think on the hierarchy of poverty, we were at the absolute bottom. There was the added ingredient of my father's alcoholism, which a lot of the families were poor, but they didn't have the problem, that problem, the alcohol disease that we suffer from because he was uncertain. He was a crazy man when he drank. He just drank everything. So we had the Catholicism to poverty and my father's alcoholism. We were unique?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: ?in the annals of poverty.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Frank McCourt. He died yesterday at the age of 78. He wrote the bestselling memoir, "Angela's Ashes." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frank McCourt. He died yesterday of metastatic melanoma at the age of 78. He was best known for his 1996 memoir, "Angela's Ashes," about his childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Here's more of the interview I recorded with McCourt after the publication of "Angela's Ashes."

Your mother used to beg for money, borrow money, get money from charity, and then your father would accuse her of not having pride because she'd beg for money. On the other hand, he'd drink all the money she could have had legitimately. He'd drink that away. What did marriage seem like to you watching your parents?

Mr. McCOURT: It didn't seem like much because I had - I think the marriages, the couples that I knew, the married couples I knew, were always remote from each other, the husband from the wife and so on, because one of the paradoxical things, the stereotype of the Irish that - here we are a merry, mercurial, drinking, singing race.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The fact is, we were a bunch of petty solemns. We didn't - we were not demonstrative like the Italians. That's one race that I always admired when I came to New York, the Italians, for their gusto and their lust for life and the way they demonstrated their affections.

Well, we didn't. You were not supposed to show any kind of love. I think it was a kind of weakness. You never saw men embracing each other. You never saw husbands kissing wives. You never - I saw my father kissing my mother when he was leaving to go to England, and I was appalled. I thought it was as if they were copulating right in front of me, although it was all right to go to the Limerick cinema.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: It was all right to go to the Limerick cinema and see Clark Gable kissing people and so on. That was all right, but that's only on the film. And I thought, when I was nine or 10, they weren't really kissing. What they do was got two films and put them together. They slice it and then put them together somehow in the projector so that they weren't really kissing because people wouldn't do that in public or for a camera.

GROSS: Gee, it must have been hard for you when you came of age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: You have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The things - my innocence when I came to New York was formidable, epic, that I had to flounder along because - when I became a teacher in New York, I looked at the kids in my class, high school kids at Stuyvesant High School, with an easy relationship back and forth, comparing myself with them when I was a teenager, and I was a pathetic character.

GROSS: Well, you got out at the age of 19?

Mr. McCOURT: 19.

GROSS: ?in 1949. Where'd you go?

Mr. McCOURT: I came to New York. That was the only place. This is where I was born. So I came back here, and I was on a ship, a freighter called the Irish Oak. They had a small fleet of freighters then, the Irish, and we were supposed to set sail for - our first destination was New York. Then they told us two days out we were going to Montreal. Then they changed that to New York again. Then they changed it again to Albany, and I was very peeved at that because I wanted to get off in New York City.

So we sailed right into New York Harbor on a gorgeous October morning, and there was Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the skyline beyond, and I was in heaven. I had seen the skyline so many times in the movies and in books. I thought I was walking on air. I thought all I had to do now was land in New York City and go dance down Fifth Avenue like Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers would be waiting for me in Washington Square. That's all I was going to do for the rest of my life. The music would play everywhere I went.

GROSS: Well, did you hop off the freighter in Manhattan, even though it was destined to go into Albany?

Mr. McCOURT: No, I didn't, went right up to Albany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: They wouldn't let us out.

GROSS: So the skyline just passed you by.

Mr. McCOURT: The skyline passed me by, and we were all angry. But the ship had to dock, because of the tide, in the middle of the Hudson up near Poughkeepsie, and this is in the book, so I'm not going to say any more about it. A man came out in a little boat, a putt-putt, and took some of us ashore. We went to a party in Poughkeepsie, and that's - my first night in America was heavenly. There was a party given by a group for women whose husbands were away hunting. So they had us, me and some of the ship's officers, and it was a wild night, thank God.

GROSS: An antidote to the repression.

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You made it to Manhattan finally.

Mr. McCOURT: Finally, I took a train down, and I met a priest on the ship, and he helped me find a room, and he helped me find a job. And I wound up working in a hotel that's famous in American literature, the Biltmore Hotel, where John Cheever often has his characters meet under the clock or Updike or J.D. Salinger. There was that large clock then.

All the Ivy League types would come in to Grand Central on Thursdays, I think mostly, or Fridays, to have the wild times in New York. You'd have those Harvard boys and Yale boys, and girls from Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr and so on, all the golden people, I thought, and I would go around.

My job was to clean up in the lobby with a dust pan and a broom and empty the ashtrays or so on, and I moved among them, feeling oh, humble - not humble, feeling humiliated because there were these absolutely beautiful girls whose legs went on forever and golden hair and so on, God's chosen, and I promised myself that someday, I'd have one of them, and I did?


Mr. McCOURT: ?unfortunately.

GROSS: Unfortunately, did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Why do you say??

Mr. McCOURT: The Chinese said be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

GROSS: Right.

We'll hear the final part of my interview with Frank McCourt in the second half of the show. He died yesterday of metastatic melanoma. He was 78. His Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, "Angela's Ashes," was published in 1996. It was adapted into a film in 1999. From the soundtrack album, here's Billie Holiday with narration by Andrew Bennett, who was the voice of the older Frank McCourt. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of film, "Angela's Ashes")

Mr. ANDREW BENNETT (Actor): (As Narrator) What I needed was a miracle, and it happened right there, outside the Our Lady of Liberty pub. I looked up at her. She smiled, but when I looked down, there was a penny.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each flower contains pennies from heaven? You'll find your fortune falling all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is upside down.

Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers. If you want the things you love, you must have showers. So when you hear it thunder, don't run under a tree. There'll be pennies from heaven for you and me.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're remembering the writer Frank McCourt. He died yesterday at the age of 78 of metastatic melanoma. McCourt spent most of his career teaching at Stuyvesant High School in New York.

But in his 60s he wrote a memoir about his miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. That book, "Angela's Ashes," became a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics' Circle Award.

I spoke with McCourt in 1996 after the publication of "Angela's Ashes." When we left off, he was describing arriving in New York City at the age of 19 and getting a job sweeping the floors at the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan.

Now how'd you get from doing, you know sweeping and cleaning jobs in Manhattan to teaching English at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan?

Mr. FRANK MCCOURT (Author): I owe it all Mao Tse-tung.

GROSS: To who?

Mr. MCCOURT: Mao Tse-tung.

GROSS: Oh, Mao Tse-tung?

Mr. MCCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh. What did he do for you?

Mr. MCCOURT: Well, and there I was in the Biltmore Hotel cleaning up and so on, and basically miserable because I knew I was better than that, that I could do other jobs. That I could sit at an office or something like that. But I couldn't get anything because I didn't have a high school diploma - the sacred high school diploma.

I left school when I was 13. Every time I went for a job, oh no you have to have the high school diploma. You have to have evidence that you're with - that you had a high school diploma. So I waited and waited and waited. And then I toiled away with my broom and my dustpan at the Biltmore Hotel till the Chinese attacked Korea in 1951, or 1950, I think, and America got nervous and turned to me and drafted me.

And even though there was a Korean War going on, they sent me to Germany and I spent two years in Germany training German Shepherds to be fierce. And then I -when I got out of the Army after two - I had a great time in Germany, in Bavaria. There was loads of beer and a surplus of women. So I had a great time. And when I got out of the Army I went to back to the - I worked at the docks for a while and I worked in warehouses, merchants refrigerating and port warehouses and so on, unloading trucks.

And after that? Then one day I was living in the Village, in Downing Street, and I used to go to the White Horse Bar and sit there in the afternoon before I went to work. I used to work the 4 to 12 shift. And I was having a knockwurst and a beer. And I said to myself, is this what you're going to do for the rest of your life? And I walked out of the White Horse. I didn't know where I was going. But you know the energy you get sometimes when you feel embattled?

So I walked out in the sidewalk. I didn't know where I was going. Walked across the Village, across Washington Square, and there was NYU. And this was pure serendipity. I walked in and I looked for the admissions office. I applied. They laughed at the idea of me not having a high school diploma. But I told them I was literate, that I read books and things like that.

So they let - they admitted me on a year's probation. Mainly because I was a veteran and I had the G.I. Bill and I got my B average for a year. And then I was matriculated, and then three more years I was ready to teach high school, in the high - in the schools of the city.

GROSS: And did you retire thinking that you were going to write? Was that the reason you did it?

Mr. MCCOURT: Oh, I always knew I was going to write. This is one of the things that turned me into a schizophrenic, practically. Teaching - teach - I liked the teaching. I loved it. I had some success some days. But I always wanted to write this book. For some reason I had a responsibility to my family and to the people who lived around me.

I felt that I had to convey the dignity of the people - the way that they dealt with adversity and poverty and their good humor.

GROSS: Now you eventually brought some of your family over to America, didn't you?

Mr. MCCOURT: They all came.

GROSS: They all came.

Mr. MCCOURT: Couldn't keep them away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: I sent - Malachy came after me. I was in the Army when he arrived. Then he joined the Air Force. This was the best time of my mother's life. We were up to send her allotments from the government so she was able to move to a new house in Limerick. She had clothes and food, two bedrooms, and sitting room, the kitchen, and a backyard. So she was doing very nicely.

Malachy came, then Mike came, then she came - my mother with Alfie. So by 1960 we were all here.

GROSS: How did your mother do in America?

Mr. MCCOURT: She didn't do very well. I don't think she did. I think she would've been better off staying in Limerick no matter how bad it is. I thought she was going to come over here and have one big happy family. But we were all getting married and she didn't particularly care for any of the women in - that we married because none of them, and she complained about this, not one of you married a nice Irish Catholic girl. There's nothing in this family but Jews and Protestants, Protestants and Jews.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: Every time I cross the floor I'm tripping over little Jews and Protestants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: And then kids would come to you, dad what was Nana doing to me in the middle of the night, pouring water all over my head?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: Baptizing everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: So she - I think she was looking for one of us to marry a nice Irish Catholic girl, somebody that she'd have something in common with, and we never did.

GROSS: So she was unhappy?

Mr. MCCOURT: She unhappy. Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever gone back to Ireland?

Mr. MCCOURT: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, I've gone back a number of times, but always with a chip on my shoulder - a feeling of anger. But I went back in May, and I was back there a few weeks ago with a German television crew. And I felt - I got a lot of the stuff out of my system by writing the book and I feel much more comfortable. As a matter of fact, I'm? Ireland, once you live there you're seduced by it, by the whole, by the climate and the weather, the hills, the streams and everything. I've always loved it.

In addition to that, you have a sense of history. You're, everywhere you look something happened there. Something significant happened in Iris history. And then I'm haunted by Limerick because I go back there and every street corner reminds me of something. Every street reminds me of something.

GROSS: Frank McCourt, recorded in 1996 after the publication of his memoir, "Angela's Ashes." He died yesterday at the age of 78.

Coming up, we remember Walter Cronkite with an appreciation from our TV critic, David Bianculli and an interview I recorded with Cronkite in 1993.

This is FRESH AIR.

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