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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Growing up in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, Frank McCourt had a father who was a drunk and eight siblings, four of whom died in childhood. His mother, the Angela of the title of his memoir Angela's Ashes, did everything she could to protect her family. McCourt's book, published in 1996, describes both the squalid poverty—characterized by rats and a lack of indoor plumbing—and the often hilarious events of his childhood to create a memoir that the New York Times called "stunning."

Angela's Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. The glowing reviews made McCourt into an instant celebrity. About his memoir and his life, McCourt said, "I think there's something about the Irish experience—that we had to have a sense of humor or die."

1. McCourt published Angela's Ashes, his first book, when he was 66.

McCourt's family moved from New York to Ireland after his sister died and his mother had a breakdown. He grew up in Limerick and moved back to the United States as an adult, working as a teacher. He had two failed marriages, spent time with writers Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, and after he retired—as his brother Malachy reported it—he met his third wife, Ellen Frey. She "opened his cage ... and she let him write."

2. Angela's Ashes may have been the first of a genre called misery lit.

Bookseller magazine dubbed memoirs of desperately unhappy childhoods misery lit or misery memoir, a subgenre of literature. The memoirs often deal with childhood abuse or addiction. Many critics believe that Angela's Ashes was the first of these misery memoirs. Publishers, on the other hand, call these books "inspirational memoirs" because they usually end with their authors overcoming their brutal childhoods.

3. McCourt discovered his love of books while in the hospital with typhoid fever.

As a child, McCourt spent 14 weeks in the hospital with typhoid fever, a dangerous disease caused by contaminated food or water. He was so close to death that a priest was called in to give him last rites. McCourt said, "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." He claimed his hospitalization "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."

4. McCourt's mother called his stories of his childhood "a pack of lies."

McCourt's mother was the "Angela" of the title of his memoir. In the book, she goes to great lengths to keep her family together and fed, at one point even sleeping with her cousin in an attempt to keep their lodging. Much later, when McCourt invited her to attend an oral presentation of his memoir, she stood up in the audience and shouted, "It didn't happen that way. It's all a pack of lies." However, McCourt stood by his version of events.

5. Many people in Limerick, where Angela's Ashes is set, found the memoir offensive.

The residents of Limerick were horrified by the depiction of their city in Angela's Ashes. Some claimed McCourt's version was exaggerated or untrue; others said he showed only one side of the city. When he returned to Limerick in 1997 as writer-in-residence at the University of Limerick, people threatened him, and a petition with 20,000 signatures demanded the university ban him. A local radio host, Gerard Hannan, published his own memoir of growing up in Limerick in poverty, noting that his childhood was nothing like McCourt's. He called McCourt a "perpetual moaner." And actor Richard Harris, who grew up there as well, wrote a vicious attack on McCourt, stating that the writer "ride[s] on everybody's back like an untalented, out-of-work jockey, and, if the circumstances arise, [he] will discharge [his] mount in a galaxy of spite." Harris may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease at the time of his writing.

6. Two of McCourt's three brothers wrote their own memoirs.

In 1998 McCourt's younger brother Malachy published his own memoir, A Monk Swimming. It details Malachy's experiences in the United States after he immigrated. The New York Times called it "funny, oddly winning." Then in 2009 the youngest McCourt brother, Alphie, wrote A Long Stone's Throw, his own take on the family's experiences in Limerick, Dublin, New York, and California. Publishers Weekly called it "a nomadic adventure worthy of Ulysses."

7. McCourt wrote two sequels to Angela's Ashes that continued his life story.

After the enormous success of Angela's Ashes, which ended with his arrival in New York at age 19, McCourt went on to write two more memoirs. 'Tis (1999) described the experiences of his next 20 years as an immigrant in New York, and Teacher Man (2005) detailed his experiences as a teacher in high schools and colleges in New York.

8. McCourt and his brother supposedly mislaid their mother's cremated remains during a pub crawl.

When their mother died, McCourt and his brothers had her cremated. Actor Richard Harris claimed that McCourt lost the ashes, and when a reporter asked McCourt if it was true, he shouted that he had found them. After Harris died, the reporter and McCourt met again, and McCourt admitted:

Yes, Harris was right. After our mother Angela died we did lose her ashes. Malachy and I had too much to drink in a Manhattan bar and we left the ashes behind. We had no idea where they were...But we did, eventually, retrieve them.

9. A Chicago playwright sued Frank and Malachy McCourt Jr., claiming that their memoirs were based on a play he wrote with them.

A playwright and producer from Chicago, Michael Houlihan, worked with Frank and Malachy McCourt Jr. to write and produce their 1984 two-man play, A Couple of Blaguards. His contract included a share of royalties from the play and "any subsidiary materials." The play included many of the stories from later memoirs written by both brothers, so Houlihan sued for 40 percent of the royalties. The suit was thrown out of court in 2002, when the judge ruled that "this court cannot endorse the idea that granting rights to one incarnation of part of a life story automatically grants away rights to all conceivable tellings of that life story."

10. McCourt's ashes were spread in his hometown of Limerick.

Frank McCourt died in 2009, at age 78. Eight years later, in an act that reflected the title of his best-selling memoir, his wife, daughter, and two granddaughters brought his ashes back to Limerick. They scattered them at two sites: Carrigogunnell Castle, which overlooks the Shannon River, and Mungret Abbey, which holds remains of other members of the McCourt family. Before his death, McCourt had said, "I don't want funeral services or memorials. Let them scatter my ashes over the Shannon and pollute the river," and his last wishes were lovingly obeyed.

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