Frank McCourt dies

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Author Frank McCourt published his first book in his sixties. The successful ?Angela's Ashes? portrayed the slums of Limerick, Ireland and became controversial in Ireland.

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The late Frank McCourt became a famous author late in life. He was in his mid-60's when ?Angela's Ashes? was published. It's a memoir about his childhood in the slums of Limerick, in Ireland. Frank McCourt was born in New York. His parents were Irish immigrants. They were so poor they returned to Ireland when he was just a small child. In fact McCourt wrote about his early days in ?Angela's Ashes?.

FRANK MCCOURT: When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it all. It was of course a miserable childhood. A 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.

MULLINS: And, we are going to be hearing more about that from that Angela's Ashes in just a few minutes. McCourt died yesterday in New York. He was 78 years old. Eileen Battersby is a literary critic for the Irish Times. She has written an obituary for the Times of Frank McCourt. Did you ever meet the man?

EILEEN BATTERSBY: Yes, I interviewed him in 1996 in Dublin a couple weeks after he was the toast of the Frankfort book fair when ?Angela's Ashes? had sold for huge money while in Europe.

MULLINS: And of course you knew that he was the toast of the town here in the United States as well. Was he the toast of Ireland?

BATTERSBY: Well, he wrote what was a very negative image of Limerick and it wasn't so much a case of the Irish objecting to him, it was the good citizens of Limerick who objected. Because Limerick was presented what was obviously to what it was to Frank McCourt growing up there. He arrived in Limerick with his 5 siblings when he was 4 years old and he had had experienced the poverty in New York, but the poverty that he encountered in Limerick was very different. It was a poverty that was seen as a shame. There was much more anger attached to it and he and his siblings were insulted. They were called ?Yanks?, and very quickly he experienced the no man's land of not being neither one thing or the other. I think the thing about Frank McCourt is really important for people to appreciate is that he really told the truth, and I think that's a great thing. I met him as a man of 66 who was really still kind of high from shock because of the success of the book. He taught in New York high schools for 27 years. He was very honest and even said to me then. He was very affable, but he had lived in a state of anger for most of his life. So, he was very opened eye about Ireland. He never romanticized Ireland. I think that is the key to this. It was never a sentimental, nostalgia, or romantic view of Ireland as presented by Frank McCourt. I think that is so important.

MULLINS: When we just heard a clip read my Frank McCourt, worse yet besides a miserable childhood, was a miserable Irish Catholic childhood, what did his religion have to do with it?

BATTERSBY: Well his mother was Catholic and his father was a Protestant. A Protestant from the North. They were so poor in New York because Frank McCourt's father was a chronic alcoholic and they were starving. That's why they came back to Ireland because they thought they could live with Frank McCourt's grandmother, his mother's mother, but she was really hostile to them and she played the whole Catholic thing. And again, as an old man sitting in Dublin at 66. I don't mean old, he just seemed like a little old man. He was really small and gentle and kind of sad. That was his way, his demeanor, and then when he got talking you could hear the New York one-liners coming through. Like you don't teach in a New York high school for 27 years and don't sharpen your humor you know? So, he had that, but the Catholicism he said was very oppressive. Again, as this man of 66 sitting in a smart Dublin hotel in 1996, he was able to say the worse thing to ever happen to Ireland wasn't the British it was the Catholic church and the power it acquired. He said that and that was long before the Rhine report that published quite recently, which you probably heard about a lot in the states.

MULLINS: This is the report that talked about pedophilia among priests in Ireland.

BATTERSBY: Oh yeah. Not only that but the shear bullying. He talked about the power that the Catholic Church had acquired. These institutions were run with steel rods. There was no humanity. There was no kindness. He said himself that it encouraged a kind of retarded sexuality. That's what he said. I mean again, this was like 1996. If you look, it is kind of interesting because if you look at Irish literature so much of it is dominated by sexual guilt and Catholicism. Frank McCourt seen it differently because it really is poverty. But if you look at a lot of Irish writers, if you look at John McCaffery and you can see it in Joyce. There is this incredible ambivalence about sexuality and that is because of the Catholicism. It is quite fascinating and you know he said about the warmth. He could notice the warmth of the New Yorkers. The warmth of the Jewish New Yorkers and the Italian New Yorkers. But the Irish were cold. The Irish were tough. The Irish were hard. He said it like it was. I think that we may not say he was the greatest stylist of all time, but his memoir did when the Pulitzer Prize. His honesty was the thing that I think should really be celebrated. The guy was a witness. Frank McCourt was a witness and a truth teller

MULLINS: But not everybody wants witnesses. Especially when it comes to family matters

BATTERSBY: Perhaps, but I mean tell me how many happy family memoirs you've read from any number of countries. I suppose if he said himself from opening line, I mean like the odds are stacked against him poor Irish Catholic. I mean wow, I suppose Tossler [PH] made the point of happy families particularly interesting.

MULLINS: Did Frank McCourt every come to terms with his anger at Irish Catholicism?

BATTERSBY: Oh yes, I really feel that. His anger was the motivation for the book. I feel he wrote it out. It's very interesting that yet the father who could have been a stealth monster is anything but. He is this pathetic unreliable drunk. But he is certainly not a monster. He really isn't a cliche. It is quite ironic and almost bizarrely affectionate the way this man is presented as somebody who was absolutely lethal when drunk, but when sober was this clumsy affectionate father. So the I think the family memoir thing didn't create the anger. It was the portrait of the city. The portrait of the city being seen as the 19th century slum in the mid 20th century. That is the pivotal point, and I think that is kind of interesting.

MULLINS: Eileen Battersby is a literary critic for the Irish Times she has written the obituary for Frank McCourt, it appears right now on the Irish Times website. Eileen, thank you.

BATTERSBY: Okay, thank you. Bye.

MULLINS: As we said the author, Frank McCourt, has died yesterday in New York City. He was 78 years old. Let's hear some more of his reading now from ?Angela's Ashes?.

MCCOURT: People everywhere brag or 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. The bullying school masters. 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 Years Eve. It created an ecophene of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turn noses into fountains. Lungs into bacterial sponges. From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried. In pubs steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke. The rain drove us into the church, our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. We huddled in great damp clumps dozing through priest drone while steam rose 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.

MULLINS: The late Frank McCourt reading from his memoir ?Angela's Ashes?. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, in Boston, I'm Lisa Mullins. Join us again tomorrow. Thank you for listening.