Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Frank McCourt | Biography


Frank McCourt was a high-school English teacher and an award-winning memoirist. Born on August 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, his family returned to Limerick, Ireland, where he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. He memorialized the years between 1934 and 1949 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela's Ashes and returned to the United States when he was 19. His second memoir, 'Tis, recalls his time as a U.S. soldier, his studies in New York, and his experiences as a high-school teacher.

Early Life

Born during the Great Depression (economic downturn between 1929 and 1939), Francis McCourt was the oldest of seven children born to Angela McCourt, née Sheehan, and Malachy McCourt—five in New York and two in Ireland. As poor, working-class Irish immigrants, the McCourts had difficulty making ends meet. Angela McCourt was a homemaker, and Malachy McCourt Sr. held odd jobs between long periods of unemployment. Devastated by the death of their seven-week-old daughter Margaret, the McCourts returned, via a one-day detour to Northern Ireland with Malachy's parents, to Angela's hometown of Limerick, Ireland, in 1934.

Their situation did not improve much in Ireland: work was hard to find, and Malachy Sr. was an alcoholic who had trouble holding on to his money and his jobs. The family lived in the slums of Limerick—"the lanes"—and their financial situation deteriorated steadily. As Frank McCourt describes vividly in the memoir, he and his family struggled with hunger and cold, and his younger twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, died, most likely because of the family's situation. In 1941 Malachy Sr. left the family for England to find work and eventually disappeared from their lives.

McCourt attended local school until age 13, when he began working at odd jobs to help support his family. He worked for the Limerick Post Office as a telegram boy and as a delivery boy for a local distributor of English newspapers and magazines. All the while he saved money so he could return to America.

Education and Teaching in New York

In 1949 McCourt booked passage to New York. A priest he met on the ship helped him find a job at the Biltmore Hotel there. From the beginning McCourt sent money back to his mother so she could care for his younger siblings. In 1951 McCourt was drafted into the United States Army and served in Bavaria, Germany, where he learned to type. After his discharge in 1954 he returned to New York, where, following a series of office jobs, he entered New York University to study education under the GI Bill. In 1958, true to his love for reading in general and literature in particular, he began his long high-school teaching career. Many of his students came from disadvantaged families, were not academically inclined, and showed little interest in learning, especially literature; consequently teaching was often a challenge.

By the late 1950s his brothers, one by one, had joined him in New York. Malachy opened a bar on the Upper East Side and launched a successful television and journalism career. Often the brothers hung out together, mixing and mingling with celebrities and journalists at Malachy's bar. During this time he met his first wife, Alberta Small, whom he married in 1961 and with whom he had a daughter, Margaret. In 1967 he received a master's degree in education from Brooklyn College. In 1970, after his divorce from Alberta, he returned to Dublin, where he studied for a doctorate at Trinity College but never finished.

Writing Career and Angela's Ashes

Returning to New York in 1975, he began teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant High School—a public high school with a national reputation for excellence—while also beginning to publish some of his own work in magazines. After his mother's death in 1981, he wrote and co-starred with his brother Malachy in a stage show called A Couple of Blaguards, drawing upon their experiences as Irish in New York. After a 30-year career in teaching, he retired in 1988 and began writing in earnest. During this period he met Ellen Frye, whom he married in 1994.

For years McCourt tried to write a novel based on his experiences but decided to change course and write a memoir instead. Angela's Ashes was published in 1996 and met with immediate critical and commercial success, winning the National Book Critics Circle award in 1996 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. The memoir has since been published in 27 countries and 17 languages, topping bestseller lists for months. In 1999 Angela's Ashes became a major motion picture, and McCourt's memoir 'Tis, was published that year, picking up where Angela's Ashes left off. Teacher Man, describing his life as a teacher in New York high schools, followed in 2005. Angela's Ashes started a series of successes that made an American dream come true: the destitute boy delivering papers in Limerick became a millionaire. In fact Angela's Ashes is credited with giving rise to a subgenre: the memoir of woe, flooding the in-boxes of New York agents and editors with other stories about coming of age in misery.

Death and Legacy

Frank McCourt died on July 19, 2009, in New York City. As the work of a master storyteller, McCourt's memoir continues to provide entertaining and deeply moving insights into the life of a child in a particular time and place.

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